DISCLAIMER: Fully and reluctantly stated in Part 1
WARNINGS: Language, sexual suggestions and a little bit of physical violence!
NOTES/COMMENTS: Rescue Challenge 7 Series issued by Michelle!
Chris was amazed at Kate’s verbal attack. Nobody dared to talk to him that way, not really. And that included the six men who rode with him. Not if they wanted to be left standing with their heads still attached. If she’d been a man, he wouldn’t have hesitated to punch her lights out. But he’d never intentionally hit a woman before, at least not without provocation, he hastily amended. Chris almost growled out loud in his anger and frustration.
No, the gunfighter knew that he couldn’t strike her.....at least not physically. But that didn’t mean he had to stand there and take this kind of abuse from her either. No, a physical confrontation was out of the question but he could always use the verbal weapons at his disposal. Tightening his grip on her wrist, he gave her a cold and dark lethal smile as he hissed softly, "Ladies first!"
Kate gasped out loud, shocked and angered even further by the insult he returned. No one dared to speak to her that way! And especially not some "ungrateful hired TV gunslinger" who owed her his life seeing as how she’d just rescued him once again. And just how many times did that make now anyway? But who was counting after all? Certainly not her!
She reacted without thinking, didn’t stop to consider her actions, just let her usually tightly controlled emotions fly!
Using the grip Chris had on her left wrist as leverage, Kate pulled against him to rise quickly to her feet from where she had been sitting on the bale of hay. At the same time, she drew back with her right hand and then using her momentum, brought her arm forward as hard as she could. She threw her entire weight behind the open-handed slap she delivered across his lean face.
Chris’s head jerked back with the force of the blow that she delivered, the loud crack of her palm connecting with his face ringing in his ears. He stood there for a moment....completely shocked. He couldn’t believe she’d actually dared to strike him! Whatever had happened to the gentle, caring, compassionate woman whom he had "kissed" such a short time ago? She must have vanished like a puff of smoke on the wind and left this little termagant in her place!
Kate was trying to literally glare a hole right through him, and Chris could feel a white-hot rage erupting inside him as the stinging sensation from the hard slap that she had given him escalated. He knew she was no match for him in a physical fight but he wasn’t about to just take what she wanted to dish out either. After all, a man had to have some sort of defense.
"I wouldn’t ever try that again if I were you," he warned her darkly, his voice deadly and menacing like a snake as his cold green eyes shot daggers back at her, his tone daring her to defy him.
Kate’s spine stiffened at the command she heard behind his words. It was almost as if he was daring her to do it again, taunting her to disobey his dictate, ordering her around like she was some sort of child! And she wasn’t gonna sit still for it! Nobody gave Kate Taylor orders!
Reacting quickly once again before she could think things through, Kate drew back her right hand and slapped the gunslinger once more, hitting him just as hard as she could with all of her strength. She hit him hard enough to snap his head back and cause her hand to sting smartly from the impact that sent pain shooting up her arm and into her shoulder. But the satisfying sound of the solid "smack" was worth the temporary discomfort.
Chris’s head flew backwards once again from the blow, his eyes blinking from the sting of her slap. He hadn’t even tried to avoid her hand, hadn’t even moved at all when he’d seen it coming, not until she’d connected with his face once more. He had to admit that she’d managed to surprise him. He hadn’t expected her to try again. Usually all he had to do was warn someone and they’d back off........if they were smart. Her defiance made him question the girl’s sanity all over again but most of all.....it just made Chris Larabee madder than hell!
"Reckon you didn’t hear me," he snarled softly, his eyes deadly cold with rage and glittering darkly in the barn’s dim interior. His grip on her wrist tightened with bruising intensity, his fingers digging into the soft skin and cutting off the blood flow so that her hand and fingers began to tingle from it.
Kate was spitting mad and she just didn’t care anymore. She knew that the gunslinger was enraged and frankly, she just didn’t give a "tinkers damn." She’d had more than enough of this nonsense. She’d been chased, thrown, shot at, insulted, yelled at, grabbed, shaken and manhandled all in the same day! Her truck was scratched and dented, who knew how much it would cost to repair and she had no clue how they were going to ever get out of the mess they found themselves in! And just who the hell wanted to go to Las Vegas anyway? Oh yeah, she was pretty damned mad!
And Chris Larabee looked mad enough to spit right back at her.
The good doctor began to struggle against the gunman’s restraining hold, her free right hand coming up to strike his left arm and anyplace else she could make contact with. Out of self-defense, Chris tried to grab her free hand and still maintain his firm control on the other one. But the girl was making that hard to do with her determined efforts to break free. She was stronger than she looked. Quicker too!
And even as mad as he was, Chris knew deep down in his gut that he wouldn’t hit her back. Couldn’t strike back at her no matter how much he wanted to. Some things even he wouldn’t do.....within reason of course. He was just determined to keep her from hitting him anymore, was in fact trying desperately to control her fierce struggles. That was all.
Kate made absolutely no effort to control herself. The day had been too damned long and her emotions were just too raw. She struck out at Chris any way she could, trying desperately to avoid his seeking hands. But Chris, with his trained gunman’s reflexes, was faster and stronger than the doctor was, and she eventually came out on the losing end of the battle. She tried kicking him after he captured both of her wrists and succeeded only in unbalancing them both, sending them tumbling over the hay bale to land in the straw covering the barn floor.
Several long minutes passed as the pair struggled on the floor until finally, exhausted and realizing she couldn’t break free, Kate gave in and ceased to fight. She lay there in the straw panting for several long minutes while trying to get her breath back, with a furious Chris Larabee sitting on top of her. Her arms were raised over her head and pinned to the floor by the hard grip he had on both her wrists. He leaned over her and glared angrily down into her face.
It was humiliating.....and degrading......not to mention extremely embarrassing!
And she couldn’t work up enough gumption at that point to even look him in the eye. She turned her head slightly to the side and stared at a place somewhere beyond his shoulder. Embarrassment flooded her fair features. Just look at what she’d done!
Chris stared darkly down into the face of the girl beneath him, acutely aware of the fact that she wasn’t really a girl at all, not if the signals his body was sending him were to be believed. But to his way of thinking, her actions could only be classified as childish and immature at best. Because it certainly hadn’t been very smart of her to attack him that way. And he’d be damned if he could figure out what set her off in the first place!
No man in his right mind would’ve hauled off and hit Chris Larabee without some sort of reason but then again.......remembering the anger on her face and the circumstances that had led to them hiding out in this barn....maybe she figured that somehow she did. But he wasn’t taking any chances and kept his grip on her arms while using the weight of his body to keep her pinned to the floor and flat on her back.
A very vulnerable position to be sure! And one he could definitely use to his advantage.
Chris heaved a deep sigh and tried to ease some of the anger that he was feeling, but it didn’t help to rid him of the irritation he felt at all. He still wanted some answers. Six other men were depending on him to ride to the rescue and he needed to know what he was up against before he could come up with a plan.
"You done yet?" his gravelly voice cut across Kate’s silent recriminations and she flinched at his tone before she could control the telling reaction.
Kate nodded her head without speaking, refusing to make eye contact with the gunslinger perched on top of her. The shock of what she’d been through....of what she’d done was starting to wear off and she was beginning to feel extremely embarrassed and ashamed by it all. She’d attacked the very man she was supposed to be rescuing! What had she been thinking?
Well, that much was obvious! She hadn’t been thinking at all. She’d just reacted and taken out her fear, anger and frustration on Chris.
Now she was going to have to apologize. There wasn’t anything else she could do. She knew she’d been wrong.
But Chris didn’t give her a chance.
"I want some answers........now!" he demanded roughly, his eyes burning with a dark intensity. He had the good doctor just where he wanted her and there was no way she could escape until he let her up. "What’s this all about?"
She wouldn’t look him in the eye so Chris ducked his head sideways attempting to capture her gaze. But she avoided him and looked all around the barn.....anywhere but at the gunslinger as her face flushed a bright red. It was a peculiarly childish thing to do. In irritation, he shifted his grip so that both her wrists were locked within the hold of his left hand, his long lean fingers wrapping around the delicate bones while freeing his right hand to grab her chin and force her to look at him. He turned her head so there was no way, short of closing her eyes, that she could avoid him.
"Answer me!" he ground out from between clenched teeth.
Kate knew there would be no last minute reprieve this time, no way to escape the retribution that she was sure would be forthcoming once Chris had his answers. No way to escape the punishing hold he had on her tender wrists or the long fingers that had a firm grip on her jaw. And no way to escape the probing intensity of his emerald gaze that was steadily boring into her until she felt like it would consume her very soul.
In other words, there was no way she could "lie" her way out of this one!
"You aren’t going to like it," she warned him, a worried glint in her blue eyes as she started chewing on her bottom lip once again.
"Lady, I already don’t like it." Chris answered with a grim half smile and a tilt of his blond head, refusing to be distracted by her small white teeth and lush lower lip.
Oh Lord! How was she going to get through this? What was that line about the "truth shall set you free?"
Kate heaved a huge sigh.....which was a slightly difficult thing to do with Chris Larabee sitting on top of her stomach....and blew her dark gold bangs out of her face as she exhaled. Saying a quick prayer for some divine inspiration and intervention on her behalf, Kate tried to answer the gunman's questions.
"Okay, your name’s not really Chris Larabee." She bit down again on her lower lip with worry and then told him, "You just play a gunslinger by that name. You work with six other actors on a television show called "The Magnificent Seven" which has been put on hiatus by a network called CBS. To keep you guys from getting out of line, they put you in suspended animation and stored you in that building I rescued you from. I’m supposed to get you back to your production company who’re waiting in Las Vegas where you’ll be safe!"
She finished the last sentence or two in an absolute rush since she could feel herself running out of air. After all, she couldn’t very well breathe properly with the gunfighter sitting on top of her.....or when he was even touching her for that matter! Kate tensed in anticipation of the impending explosion she just knew was coming, waited for the volcano called "Chris Larabee" to erupt and start spewing molten lava all over the place!
But the blond headed gunslinger just sat there on top of her, staring silently at her with a strange look on his handsome face. It made her distinctly uneasy and edgy....this blank almost vacant expression that he wore.....this look of uncomprehending puzzlement. He stared at her....long and hard....until Kate began to think that she must have some sort of "alien" growing out of the side of her head!
Finally, he blinked.....slowly......once.....and then yet again.....his gaze focusing as Kate watched him with a worried expression. She saw the blank vacant look behind his eyes slowly replaced by a simmering fire of anger, a spark of irritation that he’d only managed to just put out such a short time ago. Chris trained his glittering eyes on her face once more and nearly incinerated her with the heat of that gaze.
"Try again," he muttered in dark exasperation as he shook his head slowly at her, blond locks of hair falling forward over his brow with the movement.
Kate had the sudden urge to reach up and brush the hair out of his face until she heard his softly spoken words.
He didn’t believe her! She’d told him the absolute God’s truth and the man didn’t believe her! She was shocked to say the least......but not really surprised she supposed when she stopped to think about it. What was it she’d been taught about Post-Stasis Syndrome?
Oh yeah! Sometimes it caused memory loss and disorientation along with the physical side effects he’d obviously already overcome.
"I’m waiting," he growled again, a tight muscle in his jaw ticking as he ground his teeth together, his fingers increasing their pressure ever so fractionally on her wrists and her chin.
"Um....well.....okay." Kate sighed with resignation and a slight degree of fear though she hated to admit to it as her agile mind working frantically to come up with a story good enough that the gunslinger would believe. The truth hadn’t worked so.....she was going to have to lie!
"Well, your name really is Chris Larabee."
"I know that," he interrupted her harshly, his voice testy with impatience. "Keep talkin’!"
"Well, I don’t quite know how and it would take too long to explain everything right now but......all seven of you really were captured and placed in some sort of suspended animation in that facility back there. I was recruited to help get you out and get you cross-country to Las Vegas. From there, you can get back to Four Corners. And that’s all I know.....really! I promise!" She looked at him imploringly, willing him to believe the simpler story, praying that he’d believe her because in actuality, that was about the most truthful thing she could tell him.
And he hadn’t believed the absolute truth from her in the first place.
Chris must have somehow believed something she said....at least for the moment anyway because he gave a slow nod of his head before fractionally releasing his tight grip on her wrists and jaw. Truth was, the gunslinger was somewhat stunned and confused by what she’d just told him and it was going to take a little time to figure it all out. He needed to think over what she’d just said before deciding what other questions he should ask.....how much more he needed to know.....how much more he could handle finding out.
Except for a couple of very important items.
"Who sent you?"
Kate gave a small sigh of frustration as she answered, "I already told you that.....the Posse." And she’d have given anything at that particular moment to know just where her fellow partners in crime were located. She could sure use some help here.....not to mention a little breathing room as well. Having Chris Larabee sitting on her stomach and hold her down was one thing......but to be this close to him and spend so much time in "intimate contact" was getting to be just a little bit uncomfortable.....at least for her it was!
"Where’s Judge Travis?" He released his hold on her chin since Kate seemed to be cooperating for the moment, but he kept his fingers wrapped around her wrists. He didn’t want to risk getting hit again.
"I don’t know. They didn’t tell me that," she shrugged. An easy answer for a simple question because Kate didn’t know that one.
"Who took Vin and the others?" This was a tricky one for sure. She’d have to answer this one carefully.
"Umm, well.....that’s just it, you see! We aren’t certain just who the mastermind behind this whole scheme is but the general idea was to railroad you guys out of town."
"Why?" Boy, Chris’s questions weren’t getting any easier on her.
"It has to do with money, mostly, but we kinda got the general impression that they just didn’t like you fellas!" She gave him a small apologetic smile, trying to soften the blow about the Seven’s perceived lack of popularity. But Chris Larabee wasn’t trying to win a Mr. Congeniality Award and didn’t give a damn about who liked him and who didn’t. Never had and never would.
"Did these bad guys try to steal the payroll or rob the bank or something?" Leave it to Chris to think in terms of what would be going on back in town where the seven were supposed to be on duty. Money was important to keep Four Corners growing and making progress but Kate had bigger financial considerations in mind.
"Not yet...........but they might." She answered softly because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Chris grunted slightly at that particular piece of information that she gave him, already formulating a plan to protect the town and the bank and the payroll that was obviously in jeopardy. But he couldn’t do it single-handedly. He was gonna need some help......as in backup........as in the other six who rode with him. But they were in jail back there in that strange place he’d woken up in. He was faced with only one possible choice.
He was gonna have to go back and get them out. There just weren’t any other options. The only question now was just how was he gonna do be able to do that? Who could he get to help him and what kind of odds was he facing? Where precisely were the other six men being held and how was he going to get to them? And if they’d been drugged like he had been, then he’d definitely need the girl to doctor them. Nathan wouldn’t be able to do it.....so he was stuck with the little wildcat whether he liked it or not!
Damn! Chris cursed silently. He didn’t like this situation at all. Nope, not one bit! Too damned many questions and no answers to any of ‘em! Too many things that could go wrong! Bad odds! And where the hell was his gun?
Kate watched the gunslinger closely as he analyzed the information she’d cautiously fed to him, noticed the calculating look that entered his fascinating and changeable green eyes, saw the determination that lined the length of his jaw as he ground his teeth together. Chris Larabee was definitely pondering on something and she wasn’t entirely sure she wanted to know precisely what.
But she did know that whatever he was planning, she didn’t want to be any part of it. Nope, she’d taken this "rescue thing" as far as she could go. Better to just "cut and run" while she had the chance.....minimize her "losses" and just get the "hell out of Dodge!" She was gonna be out of there faster than a bat out of H**L and it didn’t matter what a certain sexy blond gunslinger said or did.....she was "history!"
But she had to get Chris Larabee off of her first. How......was the primary question?
She wasn’t any good at playing the "helpless submissive female" part but hey, it worked for her sisters! And Kate decided she was willing to give it a shot. Whatever it took to get her out of her current predicament.
"Do you think you could let me up now?" she asked with a small conciliatory grin. She pretended that she was done fighting with him. She wasn’t going to try and hit him anymore. Smiling, Kate gave him a slightly hopeful look and waited for his acceptance of the supposed olive branch that she was offering. Butter wouldn’t have melted in her mouth at that moment.
But Chris Larabee was a smart man. He knew deception when he saw it, recognized the calculating gleam in her blue eyes.....and quickly decided he didn’t trust that look on her face. Reminded him too much of a coiled rattler threatening to strike....and he wasn’t about to get snake bit!
But he wasn’t just about to let her go either! Nope, he had need of the lady doctor’s services and he wasn’t about to turn her loose. Rising swiftly to his feet, Chris pulled the girl up after him using the tight hold that he still had on her locked wrists. She stumbled slightly once she was standing and the gunslinger released her wrists to grab hold of both of her elbows to steady her. He stared hard down into her flushed face, taking note of the bits and pieces of straw that clung to her hair and clothes, the wild uncombed state of the dark gold strands surrounding her face reminding him of a wild mustang in need of a curry comb.
"You ain’t thinking ‘bout runnin’ out on me, are ya?" he drawled softly, his voice carrying a menacing quality.
The scowl on Chris’s face would’ve sent lesser men running for cover at the dark and deadly visage, but Kate was just too damned irritated that he’d seen straight through her pathetic attempt to manipulate him. She should have known it wouldn’t work. She never was very good at lying anyway......had always been known to tell the truth, had been raised that way and it was part of her nature. She couldn’t change spots any more than a leopard could.
"You’re damn right I am! I’ve had it, Cowboy! I am so out of here that I am gone....I am history. You hear me?"
she snapped at him, drawing back against his iron hard grip on her elbows, ignoring the thunderclouds that were darkening his face......a sure sign of his displeasure and rising temper.
"I don’t think so!" Chris said as he half cocked his head and gave her a cold lethal smile. It sent chills down Kate’s spine. He was trying to intimidate her and for once in her life, it was definitely working!
"You ain’t quitting....I won’t let you." he threatened, his voice dark and deadly. "I need you to help me rescue Vin and the others so you ain’t goin’ nowhere, Doc."
Quitting? Oh Lord! Now there was a word that she’d always thought was foreign to her vocabulary. She should be ashamed of herself. She’d never "quit" anything in her life, took a certain amount of pride in always finishing what she started. And yet here she was thinking about doing just that......right when Chris and The Posse needed her most. And there were still the six other men to be rescued and cared for. And none of this was their fault. She couldn’t just desert them. She couldn’t quit! No matter how irritated or angry she was with Chris Larabee.
Kate hung her head in shame, her shoulders sagging with defeat. Chris took it as a sign of surrender and released his grip on her arms. Taking one step back, he let his hands drop cautiously to his sides but continued to watch her closely, not entirely satisfied with her acquiescence to his demands. But was also somewhat relieved when she made no effort to run. He was still very angry with her but didn’t want to get into another fight either. She’d gotten in some pretty good kicks during that last one and he didn’t think his shins could stand another round let alone the couple of times she gotten pretty damned close to certain "vital" areas of his anatomy.
Raising a hand to her face, Kate sighed raggedly as she ran her fingers through the strands of hair that had fallen over her forehead. She couldn’t quit and Chris still wanted to go back and rescue the others. Well, just fine! They hadn’t made much progress at all, had they? And the fact remained that neither one of them could get back into the underground facility without significant risk to themselves or the others. So where did that leave them now? What were their options? How had The Posse’s plan gone all wrong?
Some plan this had turned out to be she decided sarcastically. The problem now was.....they needed a new plan. She started thinking out loud.
"We can’t go back for Vin and the others..." she began only to pause briefly at the look on Chris’s face before hastening to explain. "Look, neither one of us can safely get back in there. They know us. It’s too risky. Somebody will end up getting hurt or killed. We can’t do it....not with just the two of us. We have to get some help." She finished the sentence on a little note of desperation.
Well for once, he and the girl were thinking alike, Chris decided grimly, but he sure didn’t like the line of thought that had them leaving the other six men behind while they went for help. And at least she’d obviously decided to stay and help him since she’d included herself in the plans.
"So where do we go to find some men?" Chris asked her.
Good question! Kate almost laughed. Where do you find a few good men? Shoot! The only ones she knew of were stored in suspended animation back in an underground facility up the road and were the very ones needing help. Besides which, Chris was showing a certain amount of prejudice here if you stopped to think about it. The Posse was mostly woman anyways and some of them were pretty darned competent.
"Who said anything about finding some men?" she questioned him sharply. "I think a few ‘ladies’ I know would be better at getting the other guys out."
Chris frowned with irritation at her verbal challenge, not entirely sure that he agreed with her assessment but not willing to rule it out either. At this point, with everything he’d seen and learned so far, he’d be willing to get help from the Devil himself if it meant getting Buck and Vin and the others out safely.
"I just wanna get my men back without any of ‘em getting hurt. I don’t care who we get or what we have to do but I want ‘em outta there." Chris drawled as he continued to frown at her, small lines of worry creasing his forehead as he stood there facing her in the barn, determination clearly written across the set expression on his face.
"All right then, the best way to do that is to let the Posse help us." Kate informed him with a small sigh. At least, now they seemed to be making some sort of progress. The hardheaded gunslinger was at least willing to concede that they needed help and was at least asking her for her opinion on the matter. Maybe she could get him out of there now without his putting up much more of a fight about it because she wasn’t entirely sure she’d be able to handle him if he decided not to go with her. Not after the way he’d taken her down in the fight they’d just had!
And she didn’t have her medical kit with her anymore to be able to "make" him cooperate either!
"So where do we find this ‘posse’ of yours?" Chris questioned impatiently. He wanted to get moving. The other men were in danger and they needed to get going if this posse she’d mentioned was going to ride to the rescue.
"They’re in Las Vegas."
He’d never heard of the place. "Where?"
Kate mentally scolded herself for the slip up. She’d forgotten that a gunslinger from the late 1860’s wouldn’t have heard of Las Vegas. She could have kicked herself!
"The Nevada territory......west of New Mexico as you head towards California." There....that ought to give him a better picture of where she was talking about that they needed to go. It should provide some names that he would recognize so that he wouldn’t ask too many more detailed questions.
Chris nodded his head at the familiar words, his eyes becoming distant and thoughtful as he pondered her words. West of New Mexico....he was somewhat familiar with that part of the country...had traveled a good portion of it, in fact. But the problem was that where they were now didn't look a whole lot like that part of the territory. Just how far away were they anyway and how long would it take to get there? He asked her just that question.
"How long’s the ride?"
Kate did a little mental calculating while basing her answer on a lot more knowledge of the countryside than the gunslinger obviously had at that moment not to mention the differences in the mode of transportation since they weren’t going to be traveling by horseback or stagecoach.
"It ought to take us at least a couple of days to get there if we travel straight through."
Chris did a little mental calculating of his own. Two days out, raise a posse and two days back. That was just four days. But would it be four days too long? He just didn’t know. All he could do at this point was get there as fast as they could, hire some guns and then hightail it back to bust out Vin and the others....all the while hoping and praying that nothing happened to them.
Drawing himself up to stand at his full height, Chris looked Kate right in the eye and nodded his head in agreement.
"All right," he drawled softly. "Let’s ride!"
Kate shivered a little at the dark determined look in his eyes. From somewhere in the back of her mind came a long forgotten line about a "pale horseman" and something about "death" riding with him. She now knew precisely what they meant by that particular quote. It made the hair on the back of her neck stand up with a sudden foreboding!
Motioning to her SUV with one hand, Kate indicated to Chris that she was ready to go and that they should get back in the truck. Turning around, the gunfighter froze when he looked at the vehicle this time, his eyes running over the strange looking conveyance, remembering the speed with which they had traveled without knowing precisely how this had been accomplished. Whatever it was looked like some strange futuristic type of machine and the thought struck him that he’d never seen anything quite like this before.
It made him think of some more questions to ask.
"What is this thing?" His voice sounded just slightly strangled to Kate, as if he was just now processing all the other important pieces of information that his brain had registered but not analyzed as of yet.
"It’s called an automobile.....or more specifically, a sport utility vehicle."
The words meant nothing to him. He didn’t understand them at all. They sounded like something out of one of those fancy books he’d once read....the ones that talked about the future and traveling to far off distant lands. He frowned heavily once again as another thought struck him.....one that at that point shouldn’t have really surprised him considering all the strange and unexplained things that had happened to him since he’d woken up just a short time earlier.
"What year is this?"
Kate watched, intrigued, as the gunslinger’s thoughts practically flashed in neon across his handsome face, knew that he was pondering on everything he had seen and heard, watched as he worked things through in his mind and came up with the question that she’d subconsciously been waiting for him to ask.
Damn, but the man was fast! And extremely intelligent too, she decided.
Sighing, she gave him the answer that she knew he would have a difficult time understanding but would eventually accept. He had no choice.
"1999." She stated without further prevarication, knowing full well that the gunslinger stilled believed himself to be back in the 1860’s where he thought he was supposed to be.
Chris’s face paled instantly and he turned a disbelieving expression towards her, his eyes wide with shock and perhaps just a tiny edge of panic and disorientation. Dead silence reigned inside the dusty interior of the barn as Kate waited for the gunman to either accept or reject her words. Either way, it didn’t really matter since the end result of all of this was to return him to the very day and time and place that he had come from...and to the six other men who rode with him and the town he’d been hired to protect. Yep, destiny was calling Chris Larabee’s name!
But she’d be damned if she knew how the Posse was going to do that. That was best left to those with more knowledge and computer experience than her. After all, Tirya was the one who specialized in tech support! Surely once they got to Las Vegas, someone would know what to do with her traveling companion. And as much as both of them would have liked to go back and rescue the other six men, Kate knew the best thing to do at the time was to get Chris Larabee out of there. But standing around inside a dusty dirty barn was not going to get that accomplished either.
Taking the stunned gunslinger gently by the arm, Kate led him toward her truck and after getting him into the passenger side seat, reached across and this time, secured the seat belt around him. She glanced at him worriedly at his continued pain-filled silence, suddenly finding that her tender heart really wished that she knew a way to help him understand all of this.
But there was nothing she could do right then. Sadly, she realized that there might not be any way to help him at all.
Moving around to the driver side, Kate got into her truck, sliding the gun that she’d let Chris use out of her way and into the back seat. She fastened her seatbelt as well, started the engine and shifted into gear. Chris never said a word to her....made no sound at all. In fact, he looked.......frozen.......again.
Stepping on the accelerator, Kate eased her truck out of the barn and headed back for the open road, all the while keeping a careful eye out for any signs of pursuit. This was going to be a very long road trip, she decided grimly. A very long road trip indeed!
Whoever coined the phrase that "silence was golden" had obviously never been stuck riding in a car with Chris Larabee!
After just thirty minutes of the "silent treatment," Kate was ready to scream her head off. She didn’t dare play the radio for fear that she’d then have to explain that little item as well too and considering how badly he was handling the latest revelations, she didn’t want to risk upsetting him any more than was absolutely necessary.
She wasn’t really a chatterbox but she tried making small talk on several occasions only to be greeted by sullen looks and grunted one-syllable answers from the stone-faced man sitting opposite from her. She even thought about trying to explain some of the things that she knew he was seeing as they traveled but the effort to draw him out was just too great. Besides, she didn’t know if she really wanted to explain what half of that stuff was anyway.
For the most part, Chris Larabee sat in pensive silence inside the truck unwilling or unable to engage in any sort of intelligent conversation. Leastaways, not anything that he’d consider halfway intelligent. He felt a little like one of those small squirrel-looking animals that he’d seen once in a medicine show that had been stuck in a cage and kept running around in circles inside this little contraption that kept spinning around and around. The more he tried to make sense of things, the more his thoughts just flew around and around with no seeming end to the torrent of questions that were assaulting him. At some point, he reckoned he’d have better luck trying to figure out why the sun always came up in the east and set in the west than he would trying to figure out just how he’d gotten to this place and at this time.
But the fact remained that he was very much here....in this place and in this time.....and so were the six men who rode with him. And their lives were apparently in danger from a group of desperadoes who had wanted them out of the way bad enough to go to this elaborate plan just to get the seven of them out of the way so that they could rob the bank in town. A very dangerous situation to be sure....people could get hurt....innocent people.....people who Judge Travis had hired him and the others to protect.
So what are you gonna do about it? he asked himself silently, knowing that even as he formulated a new plan, he was gonna have to do something about the lady doctor sitting next to him. And whatever it was he decided to do, she was going to have to be the one to help him and that thought brought a little niggling of unease to the back of his mind. He wasn’t used to having to depend on a woman, wasn’t sure they could be trusted in a life or death situation and it made him distinctly uneasy to have to do so now.
So what are you gonna do about it? he asked himself once again. And the answer, in his mind at least, was a relatively simple one. He was gonna have to go back for Vin and the others and do so at the earliest opportunity.....whether he had a posse riding with him or not. He couldn’t risk leaving the others there any longer than absolutely necessary and the town was in desperate danger from the bank robbers. All of them needed to get back there just as fast as they could.
He’d have to rescue his men by himself.....with the girl’s help of course.
He risked a sideways glance at the lady doctor seated opposite from him, noting once again the seeming skill and ease with which she handled this thing that she had called an auto something or other. He knew she was not gonna like his decision but there was no help for it. He didn’t want to wait any longer to rescue his men and she was gonna have to help him....and she would whether she wanted to or not, he decided grimly.
Chris turned slightly towards her, intending to tell her of his decision when she suddenly spoke to him.
"We’re getting low on gas. I think I’m gonna stop at this convenience store up here and fill up." She gave a quick glance in the gunslinger’s direction, not surprised to find that he was frowning fiercely at her. She’d noticed that he’d been getting pretty restless in his seat for the last thirty miles or so and figured that he could use a break from the traveling. Not to mention that she needed a break too! From the silence, that is!
"I haven’t seen anyone following us so I think it’s okay to stop. I’ll go in and get some supplies and.......stuff." She offered helpfully, not sure if Chris understood anything that she was telling him since he had that blank expressionless look on his face again. He gave her a dark empty stare that she could only interpret as acknowledgment of her words since he said precisely what she’d anticipated that he would say.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
Chris swallowed the words he’d been about to speak as Kate pulled into the store that she had mentioned. She obviously had other things on her mind and what he had to say could wait just a few minutes longer. He wanted her undivided attention when he told her of his plan. And he didn’t want to start the fight that he knew was coming out in public and attract attention to them.
Kate eased her truck up to the pump and shut off the engine as she reached a practiced hand into the compartment under her elbow and retrieved a small plastic object that Chris had never seen before. Wordlessly, she released her seatbelt and climbed from the truck. She went through the automatic motions of starting the pump and filling up her car. While the tank was filling, she walked towards the small store after risking one last glance at Chris Larabee who had remained sitting motionless in the front seat.
He had that look on his face again...the one she didn’t trust....the one that said something was up.....that she wasn’t gonna like what he had to say. Funny how she knew that look so well! She sighed with resignation as she approached the door and then passed quickly through the framed glass panel, wishing that she had stopped to remind Chris to stay put inside her car. At least until she got back that is.
If the gunslinger decided to get out and somebody just happened to see him.....possibly recognize him.....oh heavens! She hadn’t thought of that possibility before. Hadn’t thought about having to contend with that particular problem. And wasn’t that just what she needed? Another problem to contend with? That just made her day seem a whole lot longer.
And this was definitely going to be a long drive As such, they were going to need some supplies to see them through. Oh sure, she had her usual travel bag in the back but there was nothing in there that Chris Larabee could use. And it just might be a smart idea to get him out of those black clothes that he had on so that he didn’t possibly attract so much attention. Of course, just the thought of getting him out of those black clothes would attract her particular attention, and Kate flushed a little uncomfortably at the thought.
What was needed here was a disguise! Yes, of course! Why hadn’t she thought of that before? A disguise for him was the perfect solution.
Moving quickly off to her right, Kate walked down the short aisles of products that were displayed in the convenience store, her eyes searching and finding scattered items that might be of potential use to her and Chris. Absently, she grabbed up a small plastic basket to place her collection of articles in. She grabbed a few food items but mostly looked for the usual overnight travel things that were necessary for personal comfort. Things like a toothbrush and toothpaste, a small comb, shampoo and soap, deodorant....anything that she thought the gunslinger could use.
Too bad there weren’t any hair color products, she decided with grim amusement. She could just see herself trying to talk Chris Larabee into dying his hair a different color to avoid detection by the powers that be.
Still....she wondered idly......surely there was something she could do to disguise those lovely blond locks of his that were like raising a red flag in front of a charging bull. Those and the black clothes he wore were a dead giveaway. A disguise was the perfect solution! What a great idea, she congratulated herself.
Kate shuddered suddenly at her previous poor choice of words! Dead! Now there was an image that she could have done without. Just the thought of it made her feel slightly nauseous. Those guys back there had been deadly serious and she was struck once again by the realization that both she and her gunslinger could wind up deader than a beaver hat! Just thinking about it made the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
It was all she could do to contain the frightened gasp that threatened to leap from her throat as Kate glanced around the small store warily, her eyes just now seeking out the other occupants and scanning the area for potential threats. Why hadn’t she thought to do this before she came in? Why had she just blindly rushed in here without scouting out the area first? How could she have been so stupid?
Because you’re not usually on the run for your life! answered an extremely sarcastic voice from somewhere in the back of her mind. A sudden urge to flee nearly overwhelmed her and Kate hurriedly grabbed the last few things she came across and stuffed them into her basket, momentarily satisfied that she’d found as many items that might help them as the store contained. She started towards the front of the store with her selection where a foreign-looking young man sat on a stool staring attentively up at a small TV hanging from the corner of the room.
Gathering the remnants of her courage and praying for a calm appearance, she approached the checkout counter where the young man moved silently forward and began to scan the items she had brought for purchase. Kate listened with only half an ear to the monotone of the announcer’s voice on the small screen above her head. Her thoughts were busily running back and forth over the last few hours and the impending long and apparently silent drive that she had committed herself to.
These small items that she was purchasing to help disguise her traveling companion would definitely come in handy. She only prayed that he wouldn’t put up too much of an argument about it because she really wasn’t in the mood to get into it with him again. It was very draining and exhausting to have to worry about being pursued and captured or possibly killed, but to have to deal with a recalcitrant and extremely cranky gunslinger who had his own ideas about how this little rescue mission ought to be run was a whole ‘nother ballgame!
And she needed a seventh inning stretch!
She sighed softly with fatigue and no small amount of exasperation as she slowly reached for the credit card that she had slipped into the front pocket of her scrubs, handing it absently to the clerk. Suddenly, a few careful choice words reached her ears and pricked her senses with sudden awareness.
Kate glanced up and nearly gasped out loud in horrified shock at the images on the television screen!
Her startled eyes told her that she was looking at an outside picture of the building that she and Chris had just escaped from. There were vehicles with flashing lights all around and a very worried looking reporter was standing in front of the camera delivering his monologue while all sorts of activity went on behind him. The man was struggling to hear himself over the loud background noise emanating from the scene displayed on the screen and had one finger stuck in his right ear as he struggled to hear and be heard over the noise.
True and deadly fear coursed through Kate as she heard his words!
"Officials here at the Brandenton facility report that a break-in occurred earlier today that frankly has left them a little bit stunned. According to sources inside the nuclear research facility, a man and a woman broke into the center sometime this morning without alerting security to their presence and somehow managed to elude detection for several hours."
Shots of the interior of the facility were displayed in full color photography and Kate shivered nervously as she recognized the guard station and the interior of the physical therapy room where she had revived Chris. The room was in pretty much the same shambles as it had been when she left there with the gunslinger and she could see the contents of her medical kit strewn about the floor.
Oh heavens! Her medical kit! How could she have so carelessly left that behind? Talk about incriminating evidence!
"The couple managed to penetrate into a secured area of the building before hired security specialists somehow were able to confront them. Officials report that a fight apparently ensued and during the process, one security guard was killed and another critically injured by the pair. Exact details are still sketchy at this point as officials wait to question the surviving guard who has been taken to a local hospital for treatment."
Kate watched horrified as the film cut to a scene of a black body bag being loaded onto a stretcher and from there into the back of an ambulance. Another stretcher rolled into view with a rather large human shape strapped to it but she couldn’t tell from the camera shot just which of the beefy security guards it was.
Oh Lord! she breathed silently. Had they really managed to kill one of those two huge morons? How was that possible? No, wait! It couldn’t be, she decided just as quickly. She had checked them both! They were alive and breathing when she’d escaped with Chris. What was going on here? A sudden thought occurred to her.
Somebody was trying to frame them for murder! Just like Vin!
"Security tapes from inside the facility as well as evidence left behind at the scene of the crime are helping law enforcement officials to identify the man and the woman. As soon as a positive identification is made, officials assure us that warrants will be issued for their arrest. In the meantime, they have released the following videotape in the hopes that the viewing public might be able to help in apprehending these two dangerous suspects."
Kate nearly fainted when a black and white videotape that clearly showed her and Chris moving down the halls of the building began to play. The picture was grainy and slightly fuzzy but the distinct walk and mannerisms of the black-clad gunslinger were clearly identifiable as were his trademark locks of blond hair that had been left uncovered for lack of a hat.
But then so was the hospital scrub suit that Kate wore! That as a matter of fact, she still had on!
"Bradenton officials will not say if anything was stolen from the facility but they are offering a ten thousand dollar reward to anyone with information leading to the arrest and conviction of these two suspects. This is Martin Blake reporting live......."
Oh my God! Kate breathed in quickly, trying desperately to gather her scattered wits. It was a lie! All lies! How could they say that about her and Chris? They hadn’t killed anybody......hurt them a little, yes! But kill someone?
She didn’t understand. What could the network hope to gain by telling these lies....by framing them for murder?
Kate lowered her gaze to find the checkout clerk staring at her in a somewhat surprised manner with just a little touch of suspicion thrown in. He’d finished the sales slip for her purchases and she grabbed the pen from him with a trembling hand. Wordlessly, she signed the receipt, shaken more than she realized by this sudden turn of events. Handing the paper and pen back to him, she gave him a small smile, picked up her purchases and exited the store on legs that felt like rubber.
It was all she could do not to break into a dead run and head for her car as fast as her weakened legs could carry her. She had to force herself to concentrate on keeping it down to an apparently casual walk. Anything to try and keep from attracting attention and arousing suspicion from anyone who might have just happened to see that broadcast.
Removing the gas nozzle from the tank, she shut off the pump and then quickly climbed into the front seat of her truck. Swiftly closing the door, she began rummaging through the sack of groceries that she had purchased, her frantic hands quickly finding the items that she had been searching for. She thrust the baseball cap and sunglasses at the surprised gunman sitting opposite her and curtly ordered him to put them on while carelessly tossing the rest of their supplies into the backseat.
"Here.....put these on!" Her voice was higher pitched than normal as the words came out in a near squeak.
Chris stared at her with a slight bit of confusion and a great deal of suspicion. Something was wrong here. Something was very wrong! He could sense it.....read it in her haunted eyes......hear it in her clipped words.
Something had happened inside that store to upset her a great deal and he could tell just by looking at her pale face that is wasn’t going to be good news either. He stared in consternation at the items she had practically thrown at him and frowned in response to her short command.
"What happened in there and what’re these for?"
"Just put them on..........please!" She added the courtesy as almost a quick afterthought.
"Why?" he asked before carelessly tossing both items into the back and dismissing them as being of no importance.
Kate couldn’t risk looking at him just then for fear that she would completely loose it and just fall apart. She needed to be strong and in control in this crisis situation and having to explain what had just happened was not on the forefront of her list of priorities at the moment.
"We have to go.....now!" was all she’d say as she shook her head negatively back and forth.
Chris heard the edge of fear and panic in her voice and found that he didn’t like them...not one damned bit! He also didn’t like not knowing what was going on either and he wasn’t gonna let her go back to those half-explained answers again. They’d already had this particular fight once before and he wasn’t in the mood to go through it again...not when Vin and the others were counting on him to come rescue them.
"I wanna know what’s going on......now!" His eyes flared slightly at his command as he looked at her.
He didn’t bother to raise his voice which just made it all that much more intimidating when he spoke to her so intently in such a calm controlled tone. Slivers of fear went shivering up her spine once again as she recognized the dark promise of retribution in his voice if she didn’t tell him what he wanted to know.
"They’ve set the law after us and said we murdered one of those guards back there. We’ve got to get out of here now."
Kate quickly started the engine and swung her damaged truck around, intent on making a quick run for the open road once more. She glanced up in her rearview mirror and spied the store clerk watching them from the door, his beady little eyes squinting in the late afternoon sun as he wrote something down on the palm of his hand.
My license plates! Kate quickly realized. The little b*****d had recognized her after all. They were in for some deep trouble now for sure. One phone call and the law would be all over them like fleas on a hound!
"I thought you said the law was already after us. What’re you talking ‘bout?" Chris questioned her smoothly as he rolled with the motion of the SUV. "And how come they’re saying we murdered someone?"
Kate swung out onto the highway and hit the accelerator. The truck sped swiftly away from the convenience store but she knew the clerk was probably already on his way inside to make a phone call.
"No, I said there were ‘bad guys’ after us and I have no clue why they think we killed someone but they’re gonna be coming after us pretty damned fast and we need to make a run for it!"
"No, you just said the ‘law’ was after us and that ‘bad guys’ were planning on robbing the bank. Now which is it?"
Chris was getting all worked up again just trying to follow her train of thought and get things straightened out in his own mind.
Kate didn’t have time for this.....really she didn’t! She could almost hear the police sirens wailing in the distance as she set them on a general course that would take them in a southwesterly direction. But Chris was like a dog with a bone and wouldn’t let go of it until she explained.
"Who is it, dammit! The law or the guys robbing the bank?" he snapped at her, irritation giving his voice a hard and dangerous edge.
"What?" Chris Larabee was getting ready to explode, his anger quickly rising to simmer just beneath the surface of the dark cold visage that he presented.
Kate could’ve screamed in frustration. How was she supposed to explain this when all she really wanted to do was find a little hole to hide in and not come out until next year sometime? She was trying to drive for goodness sakes! Why couldn’t he just take her words at face value and leave well enough alone? The man was becoming a damned nuisance and a royal pain in the a** to boot!
"Okay, look! The bad guys are holding the other fellas hostage. They’ve framed us for murder and set the real law after us. We need to find a place to hide out until we can figure out what to do next, okay?" Please Lord, let him understand that, she prayed silently.
"How’d you find all that out?" Chris was nothing if not persistent. And he wanted answers, dammit!
The first word that started to come out of Kate’s mouth was "television" but she quickly realized that Chris wouldn’t understand what that was, would have no concept of the idea so how was she supposed to explain it to him? Why couldn’t he just trust her and what she told him? Why couldn’t he trust her like he trusted Vin and Buck?
But suddenly she realized that loyalty has to be earned. Has to be fought for in life and death situations and fought for as brother beside brother, has to be proven in the heat of combat and given freely from one person to another. Chris obviously didn’t trust anyone easily. She was gonna have to earn his trust and not just blindly demand it. He was gonna have to learn that he could trust her to watch his back.
"Came across on the telegraph wire while I was in the store." Close enough to the truth that she reckoned he wouldn’t get too suspicious.
Shit! he cursed silently.
That answer made perfect sense to Chris Larabee. Perfectly explained the girl’s panicked expression as she’d practically run back towards him, the heightened sense of urgency and general air of distress that had returned with her. Explained perfectly why she was slinging this thing they were riding in around like it was an out of control stagecoach. He’d gotten beat up less in some saloon brawls that he’d been in!
"We need a new plan," Chris muttered darkly, resigning himself to giving up on his recent decision to return and rescue the other men. "Sun’s goin’ down an’ we need to find a place to make camp for the night. We can think up somethin’ then."
"We can keep on going after it gets dark," Kate offered helpfully. "This thing’s got........."
Oops! How was she going to explain headlights? And besides, Chris was shaking his head at her, obviously not wanting to put up with any more of her arguments.
"Ain’t safe to travel after dark. We’ll make camp somewhere." Chris Larabee had spoken.
Irritated beyond belief, she started to try and reason with him once more, but all of a sudden Kate realized just how tired she actually was. The idea of finding a place to stop for the night was suddenly very appealing. Even as she kept them headed rapidly down the highway and hopefully away from danger, she couldn’t help but wish for a warm bath and a soft bed to sleep in. Maybe they could find a place somewhere.....get a couple of rooms......have room service for dinner......a nice long soak in the tub.....but wait!
A couple of rooms? What was she thinking? One room would do just fine! Oh my! What was she thinking?
But then again, no, they couldn’t do that! She’d have to use her credit card....again. And credit cards left paper trails for the law to follow. Dammit! They’d find them easy enough if she did that. She’d have to come up with something else. But her first priority was getting far enough away from the store where she’d just stopped and been foolish enough to actually use the card. Foolish enough to walk in wearing her scrub suit and risk being recognized.
And here she’d been worried about someone recognizing Chris.....Hell, she had her own little identity crisis going here as it was!
"All right," she agreed. "I’ll find us a place. Should be something just up the road a piece."
If Chris was surprised by her calm agreement, he didn’t let it show. In fact, he didn’t comment on it at all as his mind was already occupied with coming up with a new plan to rescue the six other men. Clearly, he expected her to obey his orders and at this point, Kate was just too tired and frazzled from trying to run the show herself. Chris was the one with experience when it came to being chased by people, not her. And it obviously didn’t matter to him who was after them, the law or these supposed bad guys he thought were going to rob the bank.
The gunslinger watched the road with an eagle eye as he pondered on the situation they were facing. Bad enough, he supposed, to have the bad guys coming after them but for the law to be chasing them as well? Didn’t leave him a whole lot of options when it came to getting help to rescue the other fellas. And he couldn’t very well ask for help from the local law anyway, now that he and the girl had apparently been framed for murder.
Chris smiled grimly as he realized that he now had something else in common with Vin Tanner. They were both wanted for a murder they didn’t commit. He wondered idly just how much the bounty on his head was, knowing in his gut that these had to be some powerful people they were fighting against.
Kate was happy for once not to have to answer any more questions from the taciturn gunfighter to her right. Chris was obviously off somewhere in his own mind making plans and thinking things through and trying to come up with a way out of this situation. And she, for one, was happy to let him work on it. Maybe he’d come up with something that she’d apparently missed...some way to get them out of the jam they were in.
Glancing down the road, she winced slightly as she recognized the sign proclaiming that they were crossing the state line. She never once hesitated but Kate couldn’t help but wonder just how this would now affect the charges against her. She’d clearly crossed a state line while harboring a known fugitive, as well as being one herself, and from her little knowledge of the law, that now made her "crimes" a felony offense.
Where was Jo when she needed her? In fact, where were the whole damned Posse when she needed them? If she’d been the crying type, then Kate supposed at that moment, she would’ve broken down in tears. As it was, she merely shrugged her shoulders and sighed expressively while continuing to scan the road ahead.
Long moments passed and for a bit, Kate actually lost track of time and just how far they’d traveled. The sun was sinking lower and Chris hadn’t said another word to her about stopping. But Kate knew from the tense posture of his body, that she’d better be looking for a place soon or else there’d be hell to pay!
Finally, after a long exhausting day, she saw something that she thought might do. A place that had definite possibilities and might not cost all that much, wouldn’t ask too many questions or demand identification. A place that as she got closer, she realized was empty and uninhabited. A place that was in fact, closed down and completely deserted.
Chris approved of her choice as she slowed the vehicle for the turn in leading to the campground.
"This oughtta do," He said softly, his voice sounding suddenly loud to her after the near deafening silence that she had endured since their last exchange.
"But it’s closed," Kate protested.
"Don’t matter. This’ll do."
And with that the decision was taken out of Kate’s hands. She pulled her truck to a stop and sat there staring morosely straight ahead. What a dump! she thought to herself. Who in their right mind would want to stay in a place like this? And then she realized with sudden clarity that this was precisely what Chris had counted on. This very fact was what made this place so perfect to stay in. No one would think to look for them there. No one would think to look for anyone there.
Who would have ever thought that one day Kate Taylor, MD would find herself spending the night at a deserted KOA campground in the company of a man such as Chris Larabee? Certainly not Kate herself! Definitely not in her wildest dreams....but here she was........and there they were......spending the night....together!
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