Mr. & Mrs. Walker

Missing Pieces of a Puzzle: Murder and Matrimony

By: Mary Briere

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

It had been five rapturous months since Cordell and Alex had said their poignant "I Do's" to each other. To put it mildly, May 20, 2000 had been a more than memorable day for the couple. The wedding ceremony went off without a hitch, but the aftermath was unplanned and unwelcome.

The hijacking of their plane to Paris, Cordell piloting a commercial aircraft for the first time, the couple barely escaping with their lives as well being responsible for the rescue of hundreds of other passengers: All of the unfavorable parts of their wedding day had already melted away by the irrepressible joy they were experiencing as husband and wife.

After surviving the pre and post wedding calamities which were accredited as just another typical daily dose of turbulence in their adventurous lives, things had settled down to a state of blissful tranquility. Both Alex and Cordell graciously welcomed this interlude from the constant ebb tide of their unusually eventful existences.

The newly married couple cherished the calming of the waters in their careers, allowing them the quality time they so needed and deserved to adjust to their new lives together as Mr. & Mrs. Walker. Secretly, both knew it would only be a matter of time before the white picket-fence, fairytale ended and the organized chaos returned to their lives. They would savor this time for as long as it could last and make as many sweet memories as possible before they were pulled back to their destined realities.

Walker and Alex were aware that their superiors had backed off on their caseloads, assigning them with high detail, low danger tasks; probably induced by a special request form Trivette. Each welcomed this slower pace, at least for a while. Walker knew it would not be long before he could no longer scratch his insatiable itch to be the ultimate Texas Ranger. He had always been an "all or nothing" kind of man. Alex too, was experiencing the yearning for a dynamic case,. T though they each both suspected their daily routines would be less spontaneous and more complicated then before as they slipped back into their

optimal careers.

Signs of danger would affect them differently now that they were married and acutely dependent on their life partner. Though they had always been dedicated and true to one another before they were married, both were feeling a distinctive change in their emotional bond felt for the other. Walker told himself he would be more careful when dragging Alex along on investigations that may lead to danger. Alex vowed to be more cautious then she had been in the past where she would unconsciously involve Walker in the more difficult and dangerous cases just because he was the best man for the job. Each had turned up their protective instincts for the other to an immeasurable level of forethought.

Their three-week honeymoon in Paris seemed to sweep over them in what felt like three short days. No emergency phone calls, no interrupted dinners, no Trivette, Sydney or Gage barging in to whisk Walker away or to plead to Alex for an urgent search warrant. Their days were their own and they adapted very quickly to this unfamiliar, yet refreshing way of life.

Returning to the ranch was bittersweet. It meant the end of their secret time alone, yet it also introduced the beginning of their new life together. Now their marital status would be shared with everyone in their world, not just between the two of them. It almost didn't seem real until then. The honeymoon mode couldn't go on forever. They had a home, jobs, and friends to return to. Both perceived their return to everyday living as Mr. and Mrs. Walker as yet another milestone in their relationship. Each step they had taken together thus far had induced the necessity of change for each of them, which they had prayed they could live up to. Acceptance of these changes from the significant people in their lives was also very important to them. On all fronts, they had overcome these life alterations and their allies had risen to the occasion of helping to transform them into the their present state as a married couple. Their friends had schemed to push them along when the two of them couldn't muster up the courage to make the transition from friends to lovers. They were warmly accepted as a betrothed couple after Walker popped the question. All of their friends and family offered nothing but sustenance and enthusiasm during the wedding. Now, as they returned home, they were sure of the unconditional support awaiting their need.

Trivette had taken care of moving Alex's things into the ranch while they were away. Her clothing and personal belongings were delivered to the house while her furnishings instantly filled the oversized barn to its capacity. Walker and Alex now had the challenge of transforming two radically different households into one of complete harmony; a. task they had gravely underestimated.

Though the happy couple had united their two hearts as one, their thickheaded opinions and personal preferences continued to function independently. Differences in their decorating tastes would kick off the first tiny little disagreement between the two since becoming the official Mr. and Mrs.. Alex couldn't live with the ceremonial artifacts hanging on the bathroom walls.

Walker cringed at the thought of a bouquet of silk flowers replacing his Native American - Cherokee tomahawk as the new centerpiece for their coffee table. Their initial Maiden attempts at combining Modern Contemporary and rustic Native American / Southwest created a theme that was as natural and as subtle as a raging bull in a crowded China shop.

After a long and laborious weekend spent redesigning their habitat, they had created a hybrid appearance in every room with their miss-matched possessions.

The uneven presentation of it all got the best of both of them. They were tired and frustrated. "How could two people who were perfect for one another find it so difficult to bring their houses together into one reconciled home?"

With both parties refusing to concede silence their feelings on this matter, drastic measures were necessary. The "C" word became the basis of their negotiations. They would compromise! This was something each had previously tried to avoid. Alex and Walker now accepted the fact that there would be no other way. Each was up against the others' iron will.

The larger living room would house Alex's more formal furnishings. This would be the room used to entertain and celebrate holidays or special occasions. The smaller den had a much warmer and cozier atmosphere and had always been Walker's preferred space to spend quite times alone or with Alex. This room would remain intact. The Indian artifacts were moved from the bathroom walls to the outer hallway. The kitchen remained nearly untouched with acceptation to the addition of three hearty plants, brighter curtains and a few colorful accessories. They agreed to redesign the bedroom together with new furnishings and a décor that they both could live with.

They fought, they compromised, and they conquered, wrapping up their proud efforts with a small house (re)- warming party to celebrate their accomplishments. Now they could finally begin their lives in true togetherness.

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

On the morning of October 20th Alex woke early to perform her already inaugurated ritual of preparing Walker's coffee and breakfast in celebration of another one-month anniversary. She would then deliver it to him in bed prior to the sounding of the usual 5:00AM alarm clock.

She turned off the alarm at 4:58AM and gently woke him with a warm and subtle kiss on the lips. He responded almost immediately by firmly circling her waist with his determined arms then pulling her into the bed beside him. She was glad that she had opted to set put down the hot cup of coffee before planting her wakeup kiss. "Breakfast in bed again? What is it now, two months? No it's three months, three right?" He said teasingly. "Five." She said with conviction, as she held her hand open wide in front of his still sleepy eyes. "Five - count them! One - two - three - four - five!" She deliberately lifted each finger on her hand in unison to her countdown.

Walker took her rigid, open hand in his and folded it down to a relaxed position inside his own. "I know." He said. " I know it's been five months since you chased me down the aisle. " His teasing continued. "Cordell Walker, you can make your own breakfast next month." Her retaliation was half hearted. She really wanted him to take her in his arms and tell her of his own feelings about this important day in their lives. He had every intention of doing so, but only after he teased tormented her spirit for just a brief moment. Even he couldn't stand it for very long. He had to come clean.

"Come here." He said, as he pulled her closer to him. "I know what today is and I've got something special for you." He kissed her neck with a warm, good morning kiss them obliged her with the same level of service upon her pouting lips. She relaxed in his embrace. "Why do you insist on teasing me?" She questioned. "Because I want to see how long I can get your goat before you catch on to me," Walker grimaced as he spoke to her. Her look softened as she responded to his confession. "Just be glad I'm hopelessly in love with you or you'd be sleeping in the barn with Amigo." They settled into a long, lingering kiss as Walker pulled Alex back under the covers with him. Breakfast could wait a while.

When Walker returned from work home that evening, Alex had already been home for an hour. She was waiting for him in the kitchen with two a chilled glasses of champagne and an overstuffed picnic basket. A soft quilt was folded neatly on the table. It would serve nicely as their dining room in the backfield where they would picnic at sunset. Alex was freshly showered and, armed for the evening sporting a blue gingham summer dress that fit her perfectly. It was sleeveless and hung just off her shoulders. The bodice was tailored nicely to the waist where it fell loose and comfortably to her knees. Walker loved this dress and Alex took that into consideration before choosing it. They toasted each other with their bubbly, then Alex kissed him quickly before Alex then sent him off on his way to the showers. She was anxious to begin their romantic evening in celebration of on their five-month wedding anniversary.

Walker cantered down the stairs in fifteen minutes flat, fitted out in his usual cotton Henley shirt and well-worn dungarees. He was freshly showered, clean-shaven, and smelling of the cologne Alex had given him on their four-month anniversary. Alex smiled as she pulled him closer to confirm her assumption. She buried her face in the nape of his neck. "You smell wonderful," she whispered. "Thanks, some great looking blonde I know gave it me. I'll tell her you approve." His teasing continued from their morning rendezvous. This time Alex decided to play along. "She's got great taste. Maybe she and I could hook up and go shopping for some new jeans for you. These are worn right down to your skin," she kidded, while grazing her hands along the back of his jeans. As she fondled his seat she could feel a small box in his pocket. With four past anniversary celebrations under her belt, she had a good idea of its contents. Alex smiled softly as she took his hand to lead him off to the great outdoors.

Refreshing medleys of wildflowers surrounded their favorite spot in the clearing behind the ranch. The vibrant colors were a spectacular backdrop to the setting horizon. Walker spread the blanket carefully and placed the picnic basket along its edge. The Texas air had transitioned nicely from the extreme summer heat to a very comfortable state of warmth for late October.

The couple talked while they enjoyed their banquet at a lingering pace. Each had no place to be except right beside the other. It was an appeasing feeling. After their feast, Walker reached into his back pocket for Alex's previously detected gift. He placed the tiny box in her hands and professed the same remarks he had offered her during their four preceding anniversary celebrations.

"This is for you and for me too. It's my little insurance policy that will keep you hanging around for a while." He confessed.

This ritual had become a calling card to his secret vulnerability, exposed solely to his wife. He needed and loved her as much as she needed and loved him.

This indisputable mountain of strength was unconsciously afraid of losing the love of his life. Alex knew this was a natural feeling, especially for a newly married couple. She'd felt it herself when she was alone or when Walker was off doing what he did best; stepping smack-dab, in the middle of the most dangerous situation he could sniff out. She would work herself to tears thinking about life without her husband. Walker was not the type of person who would often reveal any personal weaknesses to those around him. Alex knew that the exposed position of his words meant he loved her so much that he was willing to reveal the unseen parts of himself, which in the past, he had always fought so hard to camouflage.

Alex kissed him for a long moment before opening her gift. She felt sure of what it would be. She removed the ribbon and paper with extreme care, then unveiled a tiny blue stone, which would be the most recent addition to her lovely collection. Walker had initiated this tradition on their one-month wedding anniversary. It was on that day that he had given Alex her first stone and told her of his scheme to keep her close to him.

"I had this stone cut and polished on the reservation especially for you. On the 20th of each month I'll add another handpicked stone to your collection. When you have collected sixty stones, you'll be able to complete the necklace of The Essence of Life, an Indian symbol for long life and great happiness. The stones will not work until they are united with each other in an endless circle. There must be sixty stones: No more - no less," he avowed.

After his brief and romantic history for her present, he told her of his ulterior motive to this continuing gift.

"Now, I figure your gonna have to hang around until you can finish the necklace. To collect sixty stones at the rate of one stone per month equals five years of anniversaries. By then, I plan to be as comfortable to you as an old pair of boots, and nobody can get rid of their favorite boots, right?"

She had sat completely still after his monologue, mesmerized by the man she had married. He had reached a place deep within her heart that she had never known existed before that moment. Tears welled in her eyes and the lump in her throat had prohibited her from responding promptly. After she stabilized, her words had come without thought. "I don't ever want to get comfortable with you, Cordell Walker. I don't want to sit in our rocking chairs without saying a word to each other because we already think we know what the other is thinking. I want to keep you guessing forever! I want to chase you around the living room until I'm in a wheelchair. And..... I don't ever want you to imagine that I'll outgrow you or grow tired of you because I can't get nearly enough of you. Don't you get it, you stubborn, bull-headed man?" She preached. "I didn't invest my heart and soul into deciding to love you, deciding to perfect holding my breath while waiting to see if you'd surface after one of your death-defying adventures that you call your job, or, deciding to have you be the one who will tie my orthopedic shoes and hand me my dentures in forty years to simply settle for comfortable, Cowboy!"

The profound Mrs. Walker had rambled and preached from the top of her soapbox to her captivated audience of one. She concluded her sermon with a deep heave from her chest in an attempt to quickly replenish her spent air supply.

Walker secretly marveled at her ability to roll out five hundred words in one running sentence without taking a breath. When she was through, the only response he could deliver her was this; "So, do you like your present, Counselor?" They had burst into laughter, induced by her courtroom-style prosecution speech and his obvious nobility in knowing when he, as the lame defendant, had been beaten, found guilty, and sentenced to life with his fearless beloved.

As Alex stared at her husband's most recent offering, she was amazed at how distinctive each stone had been. This gem held more blue then white while the others had been almost equally blended in color. Number five had a cluster of white that closely resembled a tiny heart. Though she had received the same item four times before, each was unique and special to her.

This collection of stones was a symbol of her husbands' ever-strengthening love and commitment. His perpetual gift reminded her of building a house brick by brick, or raising a child day by day.

She theorized.... "If there is patience, devotion, and genuine love behind the forces that motivate our actions, with time, a fortress can be built, with devotion, children become exceptional adults, and with genuine love, sweethearts evolve into eternal partners. In their early stages, all of these endeavors would be hard pressed to survive without constant nurturing and attention. Yet, as time passes and care is bestowed on each fragile, purposeful act and effort, the finished products will mature with a vast and immeasurable realm of strength in the eyes of any witness."

Alex's body tingled from head to toe. She knew that her physical response was induced by the overwhelming state of completeness she felt at this very moment. "I love you so much," she promised, as she climbed into his makeshift lap on their quilt before circling her arms firmly about his neck. "Can I give you your gift now?" She asked.

"I've been wondering when you were going to get around to that." Walker jested.

Alex removed a small silk pouch from the picnic basket and settled it into Walker's strong hands. He opened it with caution, while his wife lingered purposely in his lap. As he slid his fragile gift into his hand, its coolness and allure amazed him. He unveiled a brightly polished heart, made out of a perfect Mother of Pearl stone. The heart was flat and smooth to the touch. Its front was adorned with a miniature sun while the reverse side hosted yet another etching of a full moon.

"The sun and moon will light your way home to me, no matter where you may be, and the heart is a symbol of my endless love for you. I want you to take it with you wherever you go," she explained.

"Its perfect!" Walker said, with complete sincerity. "Where did you find it?" He asked. "Actually, I got the idea from you," she confessed. "Your stones are so special to me, and I wanted to give you something equally special and personal, so I employed the talents of your old friend White Eagle. He was more then happy to help." Walker eagerly thanked his Mrs. with an enthusiastic kiss. Each had received the tiniest gift from the other, yet both would hold them close, knowing they were worthy of the utmost value.

They lay curled up close to one another while gazing at the canopy of stars above them. "When do you think we'll get pregnant?" Alex asked.

"When God and the Great Spirits feel the time is right," Walker responded honestly.

While in Paris, they had had several discussions about starting a family. Both had agreed to start right away. Neither of them was getting any younger and they wanted to watch their children grow, then still be young and healthy enough to enjoy their time alone together after the kids had left the nest.

"Well, I hope it happens soon. I can't wait to hold that tiny little creation in my arms, our creation," Alex pleaded.

"No, not ours Alex. Our child will be God's creation. He or she will be His gift to us and we have no way of knowing when He'll offer that gift," Walker insightfully responded. "But..." He paused, then gently turned her on her back and tightened his embrace. "That doesn't mean we can't help Him along by increasing our odds." He kissed her beautiful lips while his hands relocated to the tiny buttons on the front of her dress. Though it was becoming difficult for Alex to focus on anything except her husbands' capable efforts, she pulled Walker's face close to her own and whispered suggestively into is ear.

"Happy anniversary darling. You'll always be my favorite gift. Oh, and by the way," she teased, " I prefer my presents unwrapped." Alex searched beneath the hem of his shirt to make contact with his exceptionally fit anatomy. It would be a perfect night to spend beneath their private, breathtaking, blanket of stars.

 

CHAPTER THREE

 

It had been three weeks since Walker and Alex's five-month anniversary celebration. Everything had remained sedate on their job-fronts until the morning of November 10th. The happy couple had arrived at work to find duplicate messages for an urgent meeting with District Attorney Moody at 10:00 o'clock sharp. Trivette, Sydney and Gage were also summoned to this emergency gathering. A covert drug ring had infiltrated multiple cities in Texas and was moving east to Dallas. The DA's office needed Ranger immunity to bridge the continuity between police jurisdictions. Each local district had already been stonewalled

to a dormant trail on leads for likely suspects. The meeting adjourned at 10:01 AM with a commanding introduction from DA Moody. "We have a new one out there troops; A fatal drug that is robbing the lives of young college and high school students. They're just stupid kids, dammit," he reeled out of frustration, while deliberating the tragic unjustness of the subject matter. "We lost two more in Fort Worth yesterday." He stared at the floor while he wrenched his unoccupied hands.

"One was a nineteen year-old girl who had taken the drug. She was dead within three hours. The other victim was an undercover youth cop planted at the southeast campus of Tarrant County College; took three bullets in his head. Obviously, he must have been on to them," Moody anguished. "I've had enough of this everyone!" He proclaimed. "They're on their way here, and it stops here. You got that?" It wasn't a question to the group but a notification. The DA's message was loud and clear. He didn't want this new drug infiltrating, then destroying the youth of Dallas. Moody's expectation was that his exemplary company would exterminate this deadly enigma before it breathed its poisonous life into his safeguarded city.

Dallas's finest: The informal team of Walker, Alex, Trivette, Sydney and Gage left the meeting with more motivation and insight then the rest of the herd.

Their eternal perceptiveness was hoped for, and certainly counted upon by Tarrant County DA Moody. The dynamic, close-knit crew already had the appropriate wheels in motion prior to walking out of the DA's honorable door.

They had received the same details as the other lawyers and Rangers in the forum. The street name for the drug was X-DREAM. Its composition had been crudely analyzed in its victims as a toxic cocktail of cocaine, heroin and a potent amphetamine, which had not yet been identified. Combining two or three controlled substances together in one injection was referred to on the streets as a speedball concoction: A popular - yet lethal method of drug use. X-DREAM had taken the lives of eight young people from Amarillo to Fort Worth.

Instructions were rolling out of Walker's mouth before they reached the end of the corridor. Trivette would tap his computer for any leads on local drug dealers recently released from prison. He would also research any established drug cartels looking to expand their locales. Sydney and Gage would pound the pavement for leads from local snitches. Alex would check out any recent rentals or leases of warehouses or mills in the Metroplex area that would be suitable for drug manufacturing. Walker would jump into his Dodge Ram and do what he always did best; put his Cherokee intuition to the test.

Before scattering to commence their assignments, Alex reached for Walker's arm as he marched with visible intent towards the exit of the building. "Walker, will you call me later and let me know when you'll be home?" She asked quietly.

"Alex, what you really wanted to ask me was, will you check in with me later so I know that you're not in any danger, Walker?" His under-cautious nature challenged her over-cautious instincts. "Well, that too," she confessed. Walker glanced around to make sure no one was watching before he quickly kissed her uncertain lips.

"Don't worry sweetheart. I'll behave, and I'll be home in time for dinner. Oh, and I'm hoping for some dessert too," he added playfully, with his trademark wink as he hurried out the front entrance to dive into his new topic of concentration.

Alex smiled confidentially as she thought about her husband's nonchalant attitude towards danger. "If he thinks he'll be just fine, then he will be," she convinced herself. He'd managed to prevail so many times before, though his wife couldn't help but wonder if his luck would run dry during one of his stalwart investigations. She pushed the negative thoughts from her mind and set off to initiate her own investigative work towards solving this untapped case.

As Alex's office clock signaled 7:00pm she was still manning the phones, straining for the break she'd hoped to receive from all of her inquiries dispatched earlier in the day. When the phone finally sounded, she'd hoped it would be a response to one of her pleas for advancement on her newly contracted case. Even more so, she prayed it would be Walker calling to announce his safe return home for the evening.

She lifted the phone to her ear and blurted out her statuesque introduction; "Assistant District Attorney Alex Cahill-Walker..." There was a trivial pause before her caller began his conversation. "Don't you know you have a husband waiting patiently at home for you, lady?" She listened to the more then familiar voice as her spirit rose up and her tension level eased downward. "Hey you..."

She cheerfully acknowledged, welcoming his incorrigible preamble. "What have you been up to? I've been waiting to hear your sexy voice all evening," she added.

"I'm sitting in my recliner wearing nothing but my smile, wondering when my wife is going to come home to make me dinner," he attested. "You are, are you? I wish I had one of those new-fangled video phones so I could see if you were telling the truth or just trying to drive me crazy." Alex's energy level was rising to an unexpected high as she chatted naughtily with her husband. "So I take it you didn't get into any mischief today? You're still intact? All of your vital body parts are where they were when I last saw you?" She friskily questioned in a suggestive tone, only revealed when talking to her significant other. "They look okay to me," he responded with a hint of confidence. "I'll let you be the judge of that when you get home. Oh, and I was only kidding about making me dinner. Your bountiful harvest is prepared and awaiting your arrival madam," he announced. "You cooked dinner for me?" She gushed. "I did!" Walker boasted. "And if you don't get here soon, I'm going to have to feed it to the horses." "I'm outta' here sweetheart!" She exited their conversation abruptly, turned off the computer, snatched her purse and bolted from her office with newfound motivation.

Walker greeted her as promised. Clad in nothing but his irresistible grin.

Romantic dinners had definitely taken on new meaning since the consummation of their marriage. After an intimate "dessert", then a satisfying dinner, Alex and Walker lay on the floor of the den in front of a temperate fire. Together, they shared the efforts of their day. Walker had visited nearly every university and high school within a thirty-mile radius of downtown Dallas. He'd questioned students, teachers, staff employees; anyone he could pin down.

Assemblies were scheduled to alert and educate the students and teachers of the likely arrival of this new and deadly drug. Alex had placed numerous calls to every contact she could reach: Hunting for inside information on leases, rentals, and even unauthorized move-ins to abandoned properties throughout the Metroplex. As of 7:00pm, she'd come up empty.

The weary couple would rest together tonight, rejuvenate their minds and bodies, and then resume their spirited attacks in the morning. Alex nestled close to Walker's warm frame before involuntarily drifting off into a peaceable sleep. Tomorrow would prove to be an enterprising day.

 

CHAPTER FOUR

 

As Walker and Alex arrived at work the next morning, they took notice to the unusually high number of cars in the parking lot. Saturdays were typically staffed with an obligatory skeleton crew to man the phones and tie up loose ends before the predictable Monday busyness. The supplementary personnel were an unmistakable response to DA Moody's crystal clear message handed down at yesterday's gathering of the troops.

Inside Ranger Headquarters, Trivette, Gage and Sydney were already discussing yesterday's findings to one another. Alex and Walker poured a fast cup of coffee from the half-empty pot then joined their pre-assembled cadre, spread out informally around Trivette's desk. Alex pulled up a chair while Walker elected to stand behind her in his every-ready stance.

"What did we dig up guys?" Walker asked immediately, as he swallowed a generous share of his coffee and unconsciously placed a gentle hand upon his wife shoulder. Trivette kicked off the updates with his research results from the previous day.

"I came up empty-handed on established drug rings looking to move into the Metroplex area. After we took down the Cruz brothers in Mexico, the big leaguers are playing it safe and smart. The word on the streets is, they won't come within a two hundred-mile radius of Dallas with new operations until the dust settles." Trivette paused for a moment to review his notes before delivering phase two of his report.

"I did come up with some interesting info on the local drug-scum recently sent home from the cage. There were four known drug traffickers released around the time X-Dream hit the streets. Three were minor-leaguers, dealing out a few kilos of marijuana, a key or two of coke: But the fourth joker had a prime-time establishment right here in Dallas and could very easily resurface quickly and quietly by supplying his old clientele. You're not gonna believe who he is, Walker." He paused for a moment and starred down aimlessly at his desk before delivery his next climacteric fact. "Kurt Nipo was granted parole after serving only six lousy years of his life sentence." Jimmy fixed his eyes on Walker's expression, awaiting his anticipated reaction to his report.

"Nipo is back on the streets?" Walker found himself asking the question aloud to justify his disbelief. "What idiot would free a lunatic, cold-blooded snake like Nipo after only six years?"

"Judge Reinhold." Trivette chimed in. "Released him due to exemplary behavior." He quoted verbatim from his computer printout.

Alex spoke up, offering her insight to Jimmy's disturbing data. "The prisons are filled to capacity again and the judge's are weeding out whomever they can to make room for the newcomers jamming up the cellblocks. Their judgement isn't the best right now. Constraints on the system are forcing some risky decisions."

"Risky decisions?" Walker repeated in astonishment. "This one's just plain stupid! It's difficult enough trying to keep the streets safe from the existing derelicts out there, never mind unleashing the old ones for a second time around," Walker rebuked, protesting his wife's remarks out of complete frustration. "Nipo isn't well behaved or reformed. He's smart and he's focused.

Nipo is out because he can fool the people who can't even see their own damned noses on the front of their ignorant faces."

"Walker," Alex attempted to administer a reassuring tone as she placed her hand on his rigid arm. "We can't change the fact that he's out of prison. We had no control over that. Lets focus on how we can make sure he's not hurting anyone now that he's out. Nipo may not even be our X-DREAM creator, but that doesn't mean we can't keep an eye on him to see what he's up to."

Walker turned his back to his wife and his team out of respect to his never-failing intuition. He was sure that Nipo was the unmerciful administrator behind this newfound eruption of chaos in Dallas.

 "What does this flunky's' prior record look like?" Gage questioned cautiously.

It was obvious that Walker had characterized this criminal from personal experience.

Trivette jumped in with a brief, yet accurate dossier on Mr. Kurt Nipo. "Nipo fronted a cocaine establishment with an Oriental Tapestry business: Strictly high-margin stuff. His expensive cover kept the auditors away from his books, which kept his drug business thriving. He was the quintessential coward. Beat his girlfriend; forced her kid into delivering drugs for him, then beat him too, when the kid complained about delivering or having to watch his mother gets slammed."

"How did we nail him the first time?" Sydney asked with great interest. Alex answered her question, offering some additional history for the Company "B" newcomers.

"Trivette and Walker took him down in the spring on 1994. He'd managed to walk away from a previous murder charge for killing a former companion: An allegation San Antonio couldn't make stick. He'd had other priors as long as my arm. Walker befriended the son of his then current fiancée through his Kick Drugs Out Of America program. When he noticed that things were a little unstable with the boy, Walker started following him. That's when he found out that Nipo had the kid delivering drugs for him. Things got out of hand. His mother was badly beaten and the boy was pretty scared. He went after Nipo alone and Walker barely made it there before he was killed. Once we finally took Nipo down, we never expected to see him street-side again."

Alex starred at her husbands' back as she concluded her recall for Sydney and Gage's benefit. She could sense his apprehension and wished she could somehow calm his fury.

Walker turned to his allies, making a concerted effort to curb is anger and move forward with his investigation. "What did you and Sydney find out from the local snitches?" He asked Gage, with measured control.

"The preliminaries were lean but after literally twisting a few arms, the birds began to sing. Two of our snitches gave the same general description of a goon who's been pounding the pavement outside of a few of the high schools in South Dallas. He's a big asphalt-hound in his mid-thirties, 6.3" or so, 240lbs., goes by the name of Rah." Gage concluded his portion of their findings, then handed off the balance of their update to Sydney.

"This Rah character has been pedaling free samples of X-DREAM to every kid he can lure in. He's passing it out like candy. First, he gets them hooked, then he puts them to work dealing the stuff as a trade-off to support their newfound habits. A real upstanding citizen," Sydney offered.

Walker paused for a moment while he processed the up-to-date information. What needed to be done next came as naturally to him as breathing. He stood in front of his team as he announced his strategy.

"Trivette, check in with Nipo's parole officer and find out what he's up to. I want to know where he lives, what he's doing for work, where he gets his teeth cleaned, anything you can find out. Sydney and Gage - get back on the streets and find out who this Rah character is. See if you can get a last name or any kind of lead on who he's working for. Alex and I are going to check her voice messages to see if the county clerks turned up anything on warehouse rentals in the area. Call me if anything breaks. Otherwise, we'll regroup first thing Monday morning. Nipo's our man, everyone. I can feel it, and I want him stopped before he kills another kid." Walker drove his point home with the entire group.

Each of them knew what needed to be done and they had no intention of disappointing their invincible leader. As Alex and Walker entered her office, both sets of eyes migrated towards the message-light flashing brightly on her phone. Walker sat on the edge of her desk while Alex quickly fell into her chair, positioning herself in front of her workstation as she began the ingrained process of retrieving her voice mail. After a few methodical steps, Alex had cracked the code on her phone as she and Walker sat anxiously awaiting the delayed information turned out through its speaker.

The news was less then optimistic. One county clerk reported no new rentals of warehouses or larger storefronts in the past three months. The second offered one new rental on a small portion of an empty warehouse, which had been leased to an established electronics firm. The last of the Tarrant County clerks announced a recent purchase of an old soap factory to a well known cosmetic & personal care manufacturing giant, obviously expanding their business. Alex looked up to verify the anticipated disappointment and frustration in her

husband's face.

"Sweetheart, you'll find him. Whether it's Nipo or somebody else, I know you'll find him. It's only been twenty-four hours since we started the investigation. Give it some time." Alex offered her assessment with a faint resonance of strained certainty.

"Alex," Walker began, as he rose up to pace involuntarily around her office.

"We're already out of time. Kids have died needlessly because of this drug. Creeps like this make me crazy and the fact that this could be someone we've fought to put away once already makes me even crazier." Walker stopped in front of the office window and gazed out at his exposed city.

"If Nipo is behind this, then he's one of the greatest cowards known to man. Making a living off the vulnerability of young kids ranks him in the lowest division of hell, which is where I'm going to put him for good this time," Walker pledged.

As Walker concluded his covenant, Alex joined him at the window. She circled her consoling arms around his muscular waist then rested her face upon his right shoulder.

"Walker, you've got to focus. Don't let the fact that Nipo may be the man behind all of this cloud your judgement. You work best when you're objective about your job. I don't want you getting hurt because you're hell-bent on nailing this guy single-handed. Let's put our heads together and stop this maniac: Whoever he is. You're the right man for this job but you don't have to be the only man. Don't make this a personal vendetta between you and someone who's crossed your path before. It's not your fault that Nipo's out of jail. Just because you put him away the first time, doesn't mean you're responsible for his actions now that he's been released. We're a team: You, Trivette, Gage, Sydney and me. Let us help you with this. You don't have to be a one-man arsenal every time someone strikes one of those Cherokee nerves of yours."

Alex peered over his shoulder, hoping to witness any change in his trance-like expression. She could feel a slight release in his arms as he gave in to his wife's rational observation of his immediate state of mind. After a brief moment, Walker relaxed beneath her touch.

"Okay Dr Cahill," Walker confessed, as he turned to face Alex while taking her in his arms. "You've talked me down, once again. What do I owe you for your dead-on, psychiatric observations?" The tense lines around his eyes began to relax while a subtle smile formed upon his face, contrived exclusively by his wife's insight.

"It's Dr. Cahill-Walker to you, Cowboy." Alex eagerly responded to his light-hearted tone, which signaled the release of at least some of the tension he was feeling just now. "And as for my payment for services rendered, I think I'll just take it out in trade, if that's okay with you." She tightened her grip around his neck as she nestled her body closer to her husband's chiseled frame. She was amazed by the fact that she could feel his heartbeat within her own

chest when they held each other this close.

"I don't know if I have anything good enough to trade you right now." Walker fed his eager morsel of fuel to her already ignited fire. "Don't worry honey," she quickly responded. "You've got a few things I'd love to get my hands on. We'll work something out."

The well-matched couple smiled in unison before coming together in a gentle kiss. Alex eased away after a moment to look into her husband's passionate eyes. Walker was passionate in everything he did in life, not just with her. This was one of the things she loved most about him. She silently thanked God for this glorious gift of a man He had given her. At that very moment, she realized Walker would never be hers, exclusively. She was destined to share God's gift with all of the other people who would benefit from Walker's admirable existence.

Alex placed her hands gently around her husband's handsome face before drawing him in for a kiss that would prove worthy of her overwhelming gratitude. As they lingered in each other's embrace, a much-needed shower of rain began to fall on the parched city outside of their window. Deafening cracks of thunder clamored through the sky. Both were oblivious to everything except... the kiss.

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Six days had lapsed since the installation of Walker's quest to find the person or persons behind X-DREAM. Little progress had been made and Walker was getting restless. As each day passed, his predator was manufacturing more and more of his poison. His young clientele would surely be increasing in numbers. This deadly combination of time, abundant supply and an expanding customer base, could only increase the odds for other senseless deaths. Trivette's meeting with Nipo's parole officer had brought his promising leadoff to a screeching halt. Nipo was acting like a model parolee. He showed up for his by-weekly check-ins and made his living by working for a moving company in West Dallas. His employer had no complaints. Nipo was showing up for work each day and was said to be doing a good job during his ten-hour shifts. He was placed in a halfway house on Elm in South Dallas. The house-guards verified that Nipo returned each night, well before his curfew. Trivette alerted the parole officer of Walker's gut instincts about Kurt Nipo. "Keep an eye on him," Trivette advised. "It'll only a matter of time before he steps out of line. Nipo's Mr. Clean behavior reeks to the high heavens. He's smoke-screening us to keep us away from what he's really up to."

Gage and Sydney had also reached a mysterious impasse with their street investigation. They had lost the scent on their X-DREAM peddler. The suspect, simply known as Rah, had backed off from his post outside of the local high schools and colleges. Another pusher had taken his place and was proving to be as slick as a snake lathered in oil. No one saw him come or go. Neither the enlightened students nor the reliable snitches could offer a name. The reigns had obviously been tightened on the X-DREAM operation. They knew the rangers were tracking them, and had no intention of leaving a visible trail.

Alex directed her paralegal's to continue their daily, pessimistic efforts of researching suspicious rental spaces throughout the Metroplex. She and Walker busied themselves by conducting awareness assemblies at the surrounding schools. They also talked with several students on an individual basis and offered tips that would help the Rangers catch the dealers in action, should these students be approached by anyone trying to sell them X-DREAM. Random students were given pagers with direct lines to Ranger Headquarters, which were to be used to signal their sighting of the latest Mr. X-DREAM. East

pager was given a specific address, identifying the student making contact, as well as the campus he or she attended. This would allow an instant response to the scene from Walker and his team without any necessary phone contact. Time was critical. If students were seen going to a pay phone or reentering the school for help after an encounter with the assailant, the suspect would surely become suspicious and vanish long before the Rangers could arrive.

Everyone was alert and armed with the proper tools and instructions on how to react. Now, it had become a waiting game. Walker felt a surge of uneasiness building in his stomach. The stalemate on this case was going to surrender soon and Walker was sure that its resurrection wasn't going to be in favor of the good guys.

On the morning of November 15th, Walker's unfailing premonition became a tragic

reality.

The alarm had sounded predictably at 5:00 o'clock sharp. Alex and Walker had lingered in bed to relax and talk together for a few precious moments before confronting, yet another indecisive day. Though the case had stalled from any new developments, the sense of urgency to crack it wide-open had allowed little time for quiet moments alone.

Evenings were spent on their computer at home. Alex would conduct intricate searches while Walker prescribed the search criteria. Alex marveled at the irony of the evidence at hand. Walker's mind operated in an unwavering, regimented process, just like a computer would; yet the man just couldn't bring himself to learn how to use one. She obliged his relentless requests, while their findings turned out no helpful information. Their fruitless labor could only be justified by Walker's insidious need to feel like he was making a contribution to his case, no matter how long it took to secure an edge.

"I didn't want to tell you about this, but I can't keep it a secret anymore," Alex confessed. " I tried one of those home pregnancy tests last week. I was sure it would be positive. Well of course, it wasn't! I'm wondering if something's wrong, Walker. What if...." She paused, afraid to utter her next thought. "What if we can't have children?"

"Alex," Walker consoled, "it's only been a few months. Remember what I said? When the time is right, it'll happen, I promise."

"I know," she responded weakly, as she nestled herself inside his safeguarded embrace. "But what happens if it never happens? What do we do then?" She questioned aimlessly. "We'll adopt a dozen kids; all shapes and sizes. We'll be so busy that we won't even have a moment alone to make love. What do you think of that?" Walker bestowed his positive appeal to her worries with a lighthearted ambience, guaranteed to overthrow his wife's inhibitions. Alex sat up abruptly in bed as she visualized her husband's suggestion.

"I don't want to experience motherhood to that extent! Are you out of your mind? Twelve kids! We'd both have to stop working. We'd have to move into a bigger house and we'd definitely need a nanny: Maybe two. And if being a mother means leading a life of celibacy, then maybe we need to rethink this baby thing." She stopped bantering long enough to look down at her husband's sheepish grin. His job was done! He had turned her insecure thoughts towards conceiving one child into a virtual nightmare of having too many. The latter of the two had definitely painted a more devastating picture in her vivid imagination. "Cordell Walker, you do this to me all the time." She declared.

"You just need to relax Alex. We've waited this long. Let's not give up just yet, okay?" His tone had become softer and more serious as he reached up to brush his wife's hair away from her beautiful face.

She paused for a moment, gazing appreciatively into her husband's hopeful eyes. "How much time do we have?" She questioned playfully.

"None. Why? What did you have in mind?" Walker heeded suggestively.

"Oh, I just thought we could take your relaxation theory out for a little spin," she responded, as she lifted her nightshirt over her head before snuggling in against Walker's already bared chest.

"We're gonna be late." He uttered unconvincingly, as her qualified lips traveled from his neck to his chest, planting warm kisses along the way. "Maybe we're right on time," she mumbled quickly, before continuing her exploration of her husband's rugged torso. Walker reached over to take the phone off the hook then yielded willingly to his wife's determined efforts to seduce him.

They had frolicked in bed until 5:50AM. Now, the couple scurried frantically in their morning rituals to try and meet their usual 6:15 deadline for leaving the ranch. Alex had showered and dressed, then began to apply her makeup while Walker took his turn in the bathroom. As she sat down at her dressing table, Alex noticed the phone, still off the hook in the reflection of her mirror. She smiled reminiscently for a moment then rose up to put it back on its cradle.

Before she could return to her seat, the phone rang abruptly. She scurried back to it and picked it up quickly. "Good morning," she said politely, wondering who could be calling - and had they been trying to call while she and Walker were doing what they were doing? She could feel herself blushing, though she wasn't sure why.

"Hi Jimmy." She acknowledged her caller with the shyness of a young schoolgirl. "Yah, I know...we must have left it off the hook last night when we went to bed. Those telemarketers...you know how it is?" Though he had politely responded in a sympathetic manner, Alex knew she had put her size 7-1/2 foot right into her gaping mouth. Ranger phone lines were private and well secured. Telemarketers couldn't get through them unless they had dialed the exact number in error. Jimmy knew this as well.

Alex's mind was immediately diverted from her complete embarrassment as Trivette conveyed the purpose of his call. "Oh my God, where?" She asked in a genuine tone of commiseration. "Okay. I'll tell him and we'll be right there. Thanks Jimmy." Alex hung up the phone and took a deep breath before knocking on the bathroom door to inform her unprepared husband of the latest X-DREAM news.

Walker opened the door, dressed and ready to confront another day. His face still hosted the enlivening smile she had put there earlier that morning. It disappeared quickly as he looked into his wife's troubled expression.

"What is it sweetheart? What's wrong?" Walker asked, with some reservation. He knew from the look on her face that her response could only be one of bad news.

"Jimmy just called. He's down at the morgue with Sydney and Gage. A young couple was found dead in a dorm-room at El Centro College this morning. The cause of death was an overdose of X-DREAM. He wants us to meet him there, right away. I'm sorry Walker."

Alex watched his expression change from a look of concern to one of complete anger. "Let's go," Walker announced as he moved past his wife and headed for the stairs with a determined stride. "The party's over for Nipo. We've got to find his manufacturing operation and his thugs who are turning these kids on to this stuff." He concluded his comments to her announcement while she quickly followed him down the stairs and out the front door. Alex knew today would be the first of as many sleepless nights as it would take until this evil man and his lethal drug were stopped.

Walker couldn't live with himself if he didn't do everything within his power to end this nightmare. She tried to prepare herself for what lay ahead of them. She had seen that determined look in Walker's eyes too many times before. There would be no turning back. His relentless approach would be full-steam ahead. She found herself praying for quick closure on this case. She prayed for the unknowing young people who might die before they could stop this lunatic. She prayed for Walker's safety. She prayed...

 

CHAPTER SIX

 

As Alex and Walker neared the holding chamber of the city morgue they could hear the harrowing sounds of uncontrollable sobbing, echoing ominously through the hollow corridors. In a sitting area outside the doors of the observation room, two sets of parents and the respective siblings of the victims were huddled together in an agonizing mass. Alex tightened her grip on Walker's hand as they walked past the distraught families. Now was not the right time to offer their condolences. They needed to console each other and confront their tragic reality first.

Trivette, Sydney and Gage were already inside the examination room talking with the medical examiner when Walker and Alex entered through the doorway. The bodies of the students were set off to one side on metal gurneys. Their lifeless forms were respectfully shrouded with plain white sheets. Alex looked away as Walker approached the victims and turned back the covers to witness the catastrophic results of X-DREAM'S latest handiwork. As he stared into the young faces, he couldn't help but imagine a collection of pleasant family portraits hanging on their living room walls. Now, those pictures would bring painful memories of a past life, stolen from them without warning. In dramatic contrast to the present, those photographs would serve as evidence of happier times, which included these modeled faces, as well as those grieving for them in the outer hallway. This young man and woman would be absent in any new pictures hung on those walls from now on. For their families, their absence would surely act as an incessant reminder of this malignant, life-altering day.

Walker gently replaced the covers over the bodies then joined Trivette and the others, gathered around the medical examiners desk.

"Give me an update," Walker asked in an unsettled tone. Trivette conveyed the preliminary information, bringing Walker and Alex up to speed on the incident. "The victim's names are Holly Merricks, age nineteen and Isaiah Landry, also nineteen. Both were sophomores at El Centro. Landry's roommate, David Waters, got lost for a while last night so the couple could be alone. He got back to his dorm-room around 2:00AM: Tripped over the bodies when he tried to sneak in without turning the lights on. He said he didn't want to wake them. The poor kid's pretty rattled. The paramedics had to give him a sedative just to calm him down enough for the police to question him."

"Did he have any idea that his roommate was taking drugs?" Walker questioned.

"Waters told the police that Landry had been acting strange for a couple of weeks. They had a few classes together and he was dodging them on a regular basis. When Waters asked Landry what was up - he would just say he had things to take care of. Landry was going out almost every night and he wouldn't get home until Waters was asleep. Last night, he told Waters he wanted to stay in and spend some time with his girl. David thought it would be a good idea because it would keep his buddy away from whatever he'd been doing at night, so he took off to a friend's house to watch the hockey game. He had a few beers with his pals after the game, took the bus home and stepped into a real-life horror flick.

That's all he could give us. Three grams of X-DREAM were found on the scene. It's been sent to DEA's (Drug Enforcement Agency) toxicology department." Trivette concluded.

"What did you find in the toxicology report, Mary?" Walker redirected his next question to the Tarrant County M.E., Mary McPherson. "There are two fresh injection sites on each of the victims arms. The level of narcotics in their bloodstreams was high enough to take out a three hundred-pound man. The first injection was toxic enough; the second trip clearly sent them into cardiac arrest. They were dead within a few seconds of the overdose," Mary offered in a sober tone of voice.

Before Walker could utter another question, Trivette's cell phone chimed in with a steep ring, breaking his concentration.

"Yeah, Trivette." He acknowledged. After a brief pause, Jimmy's eyes rose in hopeful expectation. "What's her location? Okay... We're on it." Jimmy folded up his phone and turned to inform Walker and his troops of the latest report."

That was dispatch. They just received a page from one of our students. Aubrey Miller, a student at El Centro College. Our boy must be revisiting for some additional business. He couldn't have heard about the deaths or he'd taken his business elsewhere today."

"I remember Aubrey." Alex said. "She was one of the kids Walker and I were able to spend quite a lot of time with. She's a bright girl. I hope she's okay."

"Lets go." Walker commanded. "Sydney and Gage, you take the south entrance. Trivette and I will cover the north side. Alex?" Walker pleaded, "Can you talk to the families?" before you leave to see what you can find out?"

"Sure," She responded with weak confidence.

"Walker..." Alex delayed his urgent departure with an intense grip on his arm ... "Please be careful. Stay focused, okay?"

Cordell looked into her concerned eyes and responded with the utmost compassion for his loving wife. "I've got something special to come home to. I'll focus on that, okay?"

"You'd better," she whispered. Walker kissed her cheek as she reluctantly released her grip.

Walker and Co. promptly marched out the door to pursue their latest lead. Alex stayed behind to gather the courage for her necessary encounter with the heavyhearted families. Neither job could be envied by anyone.

Walker and Trivette kept a safe distance from the roads surrounding the outer-campus. They parked the Dodge Ram in the faculty lot and set out on foot to search for their menacing opponent. They covered themselves by traveling through the brush surrounding the courtyard of the campus grounds. After ten minutes of hiking through the dense greenery, Walker spotted Aubrey sitting with some friends on the lawn near the main entrance. Walker was proud of her. She had removed herself to safety, yet remained in clear site for the Rangers to use as a beacon. Walker looked around vigilantly. If the dealer was still at El Centro, he felt confident that he would be close by.

After scanning the courtyard, Walker noticed a large man in his mid-thirties reading a magazine beneath a tree. He looked out of place dressed in expensive clothing, accented by several ounces of gold hanging around his bulging neck. College students didn't dress like that, not even the older ones. "That's our boy, Trivette," Walker announced with indisputable confidence.

Before Trivette could comment, Walker made eye contact with Aubrey. She had left her friends behind and was walking towards the man sitting beneath the tree. She quickly glanced towards Walker and Trivette to be sure they had noticed her advancement towards the suspect. "She's leading us right to him Trivette. She's using herself as a decoy so we can catch him in the act. Get on your phone and tell Gage and Sydney to get over here and back us up. Tell them to stay out of sight until I give the word to move in." Walker was still talking as he forged ahead through the dense brush to get closer to where Aubrey was headed. He didn't want anything to go wrong. Aubrey couldn't be hurt by any of this. She was only trying to help the Rangers and protect her fellow classmates from the perilous afflictions of this deadly new drug.

Walker watched Aubrey as she walked towards the man with composed determination. He was sure she had heard of the deaths of her classmates earlier that morning. Once he was within earshot of their anticipated conversation, Walker stilled himself amidst the shrubs to avoid being discovered by the offender. As Aubrey neared his resting post, Walker placed his hand securely on his firearm.

"Hey Mister?" Walker could hear Aubrey loud and clear... "I changed my mind. My friends want to party later on tonight and I told them I would bring some really stellar material. That is, if you still have any available?"

"Well, that's more like it," the conniving X-DREAM dealer responded, as he rose from his comfortable spot beneath the shady tree. "How much do yah need?" Aubrey became a bit nervous as she contemplated the correct answer to his question.

"Oh, I don't know... enough for five or six people, I guess. What'll that run me?" She shifted her eyes to the ground, nervously as she spoke to him. Aubrey prayed silently, hoping that the Rangers would be able to end this nightmare quickly and safely.

"Well darlin', I've got a special today. I'll supply you with enough dust to make your party a complete success for a mere two hundred dollars. That's 40 percent off the usual street price. I'll even give you a complimentary sample.

All you gotta do is tell your friends about my product. If they buy.... I'll supply! You get your snow for free. Pretty good deal, don't you think?"

"Sounds too good to be true," Aubrey responded cautiously, as she glanced to her left to be sure her protectors were ready, willing and available to assist her.

Aubrey drew some money from the pocket of her jeans then discretely offered it to her acquaintance. He eagerly palmed her payment, then discreetly slipped a small supply of his poisonous X-DREAM in a tiny zip-lock bag back into Aubrey's open hand. She accepted with visible discomfort. This was all the Company B Team needed to take him down. It was time to react.

"Texas Rangers! You're under arrest!" Walker declared, as he and Trivette revealed themselves to their assailant. The drug dealer responded with a reflexive reaction, taking Aubrey into his grasp to shield himself and use her as an insulating hostage.

"Stay back. I'll shoot her." He shouted, as he drew his weapon from his tailored slacks. Walker and Trivette froze at his command. They didn't want Aubrey injured during their crusade to capture this bit player who might be able to lead them to the designer of X-DREAM.

As they held steadfast in their positions, they could see Sydney and Gage approaching from the underbrush behind the perpetrator. Sydney surprised him from the rear with an agonizing kick to his lower back while Gage circled to his front to finish the job.

The offender began free falling to the ground with Aubrey in tow. As Gage approached the squirming, interlocked mass, the suspect's gun went off in a deafening blast. Gage took an un-aimed bullet in his upper thigh. Walker and Trivette reacted instantly. Before the assailant could recover from his fall, Trivette was pulling him up to his feet, while Walker dislodged Aubrey and rushed her to a safe distance from the action. Trivette delivered two forceful blows: One to the head and one to the abdomen. His opponent foolishly came back

for more.

"Are you alright?" Walker asked Aubrey with sincere concern.

"I'm okay. Does he need some help?" She questioned, as she observed Trivette in vigorous battle with a man nearly twice his size. "No, he'll be okay. He's tougher then he looks." Walker was smiling in relief of Aubrey's safe escape.

Sydney was tending to the wounded Gage while Trivette received a crushing bear hug from his enormous antagonist. As soon as he broke free, he watched this ox of a man charge towards him with his head held downward. It looked like he planned on burying his skull deep within Trivette's abdomen. Jimmy stepped out of the way and wrapped both arms around the goon's neck. He followed along with the momentum of speed created by the criminal's attempt to stampede him, then deliberately rammed his opponent's bulging head right into the trunk of a tree. The assailant fell quickly to the ground where he finally lay motionless.

Trivette looked over at Aubrey and Walker. He was breathing heavily and sweating profusely. "Thanks for the help partner." He panted, with obvious sarcasm. "You didn't need my help," Walker chided. "You had him from the get-go."

Walker checked on Gage's condition. The bullet was lodged in his upper right thigh and the bleeding was pretty heavy. Sydney was applying pressure to his wound while she scolded him for being so accident-prone. "Gage, you are the only man I know who can fly in mid air and manage to get in the way of a bullet from a falling gun."

"Well, you could have kicked the gun out of his hand before you took him down, yah' know?" Gage countered her bullying with a weak comeback for his own defense. Sydney responded to his comment with a slight increase in the amount of pressure applied to his wound. "Ouch!" Gage yelped. "Come on Syd, that hurts."

"Trivette, call dispatch and get a rescue out here for Gage. Tell them to send a couple of uniforms to pick up sleeping beauty, over there. I want to question him as soon as he regains whatever senses he possesses," Walker concluded.

Back at Ranger Headquarters, Alex was entering the doorway of the dispatch office to check on any updates from the hard-charging team, led by her over-zealous husband. Though her mind was still preoccupied from her emotional encounter with the victim's families, she couldn't wait any longer to find out if Walker and his colleagues were out of harms way. Della, the lead operator, was on the phone with the Dallas Police Department as Alex approached her desk. Before Della could hang up the phone, Alex piped in with her impatient question. "Della, have you heard from Walker or Trivette? They're out at El Centro College with Sydney and Gage in pursuit of a possible suspect in the X-DREAM case."

"I just dispatched a police car and a rescue to El Centro. Trivette called it in about twenty minutes ago," she responded hesitantly. "A rescue?" Alex repeated, with noticeable alarm in her voice. "For who?" "Trivette reported one officer down. He didn't say who it was." Della hated having to tell Alex the limited information given to her. Being the wife of police officer herself, she knew too well, what kinds of nightmares would be racing through Alex's mind right now.

Alex dolefully thanked Della for her limited information then quickly headed out he door and down the hallway towards her office. As she hurried her stride, she found it very difficult to control the surge of panic that was rising in her stomach with every step she took. Alex entered her office and scrambled to her desk. She would call Jimmy on his cell-phone. She hesitated for a second as she reached for the receiver. If Jimmy picked up, she knew he would have the answer to her question, yet Alex was mortally afraid of what his answer might be. An alarming wave of guilt rose in her heart. She was praying that the wounded officer wasn't her husband. If it wasn't Walker, it could only be Sydney or Gage. Trivette had made the call so she was sure it wasn't him, yet she knew they had gone there without backup.

Alex struggled with her frantic need to hear that her husband was safe. She then had to admit her guilt in feeling that way. She would rather hear that it was one of her friends who were wounded, instead of her husband. The unjust realities of this business brought such cruel tradeoffs for the loved ones of those who put themselves on the frontline each and every day. Alex took a deep breath as she reluctantly began dialing Jimmy's private number. As the connection went through, Alex could hear the first ring through her

receiver. "Trivette." Jimmy acknowledged quickly.

"Jimmy, it's Alex. "Yah Alex, I'm right outside your office. I'll be right there." The line went dead. Alex's feeling of total panic climaxed to an unbearable high as she turned her eyes in dreaded anticipation towards her office door. The knob appeared to be turning in slow motion. She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer. When she opened them, Trivette and Walker were walking towards her. Alex was close to tears, induced by her immediate relief as she threw her arms around Walker's neck.

"Hey," Walker said gently, "you're trembling. What's the matter?" Alex held on tight for a long moment before she backed away to face her husband. "Della told me that there was an officer down. I was afraid..." Her words trailed off as her voice broke with emotion.

"I'm okay, Alex." Walker said, as he placed his hands firmly on her shoulders.

"What happened out there?" She questioned. "Who was hit?"

"Gage took a shot in the leg. It's just a flesh wound. Sydney's with him over at County Hospital. I'm sure she's causing him more pain then the bullet is. We're all okay Alex. We caught the X-DREAM dealer. They're treating him at County for a concussion. DPD is going to bring him over for an interrogation as soon as he's released. We need you there. Are you up to it?" Walker asked with noticeable tenderness. He felt guilty for not calling her after the bust. Because of her job as Assistant DA, the likelihood of her catching wind of their activities was always high. He knew she must have been beside herself with worry.

"Yah, I'm up to it," she responded weakly. Walker brought her into his arms for quick, reassuring embrace before they headed out the door towards the debriefing room. Alex's heart was still pounding. She feared days like this would be occurring more often as this case unfolded.

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

The ill-tempered suspect was delivered to Ranger Headquarters later that afternoon for questioning. In spite of his moderate head injury, he still managed to give the DPD a significant amount of grief. His aggravated resistance had forced them to shackle his ankles. The customary handcuffs had merely acted as mild deterrent for their prisoner. He had kicked two police officers while they were attempting to escort him from the hospital to the police car. Four officers banded together to drag his defiant carcass into the interrogation room where Walker and Alex were preparing their strategy for his questioning.

Preliminary information had identified their suspect as Marcos Ahmed, an ex-con released from Huntsville six months ago. He served five years for aggravated assault and attempted murder. Though he'd had no history of drug trafficking, Ahmed had camped out in the same cellblock as Kurt Nipo for the majority of his tenancy at Huntsville. Trivette continued to search for information on Ahmed while Walker and Alex finally made their initial visit with suspect #1 in this nightmare-inducing X-DREAM case.

Ahmed was handcuffed securely to his chair. Two police officers stood behind him, each at one side like everyday soldiers, while Walker and Alex began their questioning.

"Who are you working for, Ahmed?" Walker broke the silence with his direct inquiry.

"I don't have to say a word until my lawyer gets here." Ahmed responded with an arrogant tone of oppressive overconfidence.

"I'll get a court-appointed public defender over here right away," Alex responded, as she headed for the door.

"I don't need any court-appointed halfwit representing me," Ahmed interrupted.

"My attorney, Gordon Powers is on his way over here right now to spring me from this dump." Ahmed stopped Alex in her tracks with his smug remark. Alex made eye contact with Walker. Each knew exactly what the other was thinking. Powers was a high profile, disgustingly overpaid, attorney whose clientele was usually limited to the wealthiest and shadiest businessmen in Dallas. Even if Ahmed had enough ready-cash to secure Powers, a common ex-con off the streets could never have penetrated Powers' discreet screening process for new clientele without a recommendation from an existing client or a very powerful ally. A knock on the interrogation room door broke the brief silence that had arisen from Ahmed's unexpected announcement.

Gordon Powers swaggered into the room with a paralegal tagging close behind him. "I need to speak with my client in private, everyone. Please leave," he announced without making eye contact with anyone. Powers placed his thousand-dollar briefcase on the table and began rummaging through his papers. Gordon looked up at Walker before he and Alex could reach the door. "You didn't try to persuade my client to talk without his attorney present, did you Ranger Walker?" Powers spoke in his precise and intimidating tone. The comment, itself, was a calculated insult. "He didn't say a thing, Powers. But I'm awfully curious to hear what his statement's going to be now that you're on the case."

Walker knew that Powers was smart enough to read between the lines of his sarcastic comment. Powers was going to play Ahmed like a ventriloquist's doll. He'd tell him exactly what to say and how to say it. He'd coach him on his manners and the necessity for Ahmed to appear sincere and cooperative. Walker and Alex would be lucky if they received even one piece of information out of Marcos Ahmed that was remotely close to the truth after Powers was through tutoring him.

"Walker," Powers demanded the Ranger's undivided attention one last time before he could exit the room. "Take your officers with you, please. I thought it was clear that I needed to speak with my client in private." Powers was referring to the two uniformed policemen standing at attention on either side of Ahmed. "He's been a hostile prisoner, Powers. Those officers are there for your protection," Walker argued. "I don't need protection from my client, Ranger. My client needs protection from all of you. Place your officers outside the door so I can get to work on exonerating my client from these false charges. I have another appointment in an hour so I would appreciate it if you would start processing the paperwork for his release." Powers ended his insolent speech by deliberately turning his back to Walker, Alex and the parting police officers.

He sat across from Ahmed in silence, waiting to begin their discussion once they were left alone. Walker happily exited the suddenly overpopulated pigeonhole and closed the door behind them.

"What a perfectly pompous idiot!" Alex blurted out the comment she'd been painfully suppressing from the very second Powers had entered the room.

"And how in the world did Ahmed get Powers to represent him?" Walker asked in total astonishment. "What contacts does he have that would give him a direct connection to Gordon Powers?"

"I don't know," Alex responded with a commensurate level of disbelief. "But the name Ahmed kept coming back to me the entire time we were in that room," Alex stated. "I feel like I've heard that name recently. I just can't remember where."

"Let's check in with Trivette and see if he's turned up anything else on Ahmed," Walker suggested, lightly grasping her arm to guide her down the hallway.

"I want to check something out first," Alex said, visibly preoccupied. "I'll meet you there, okay?"

"Sure," Walker replied. They each went their separate ways in pursuit of anything concrete to stick on Marcos Ahmed before it was time to face him and his mendacious attorney. Thirty minutes had passed when Alex entered The Ranger's office. Walker and Trivette were discussing Jimmy's latest findings on Marcos Ahmed. "Hi guys." Alex greeted her team members with an acute level of excitement in her voice, which was emphasized by her tight-lipped look of a self-satisfied cat that had just eaten the proverbial canary. "What did you find out," she asked, in a barely concealed "I know more than you do" tone of voice. She would listen to what they had to say before she dropped her lucrative "diamond" in their unexpecting laps.

"No way, Alex," Walker demanded. "You first. You've obviously got something to tell us. Your eyes are bigger then a hoot owl's and your ears are turning red. So, what is it Alex? What did you find out?" Walker pressed, with transparent anticipation.

"Okay, okay..." Alex heeded, before delivering her news. "Ahmed has a brother."

"Yeah, we know," Jimmy chimed in with his findings. "Sadhir Ahmed. We figure he's looking out for his baby brother by offering up his prime-time attorney, Gordon Powers."

"Exactly, but do you know why his brother's acquittal is so important to him?"

Alex asked. "Come on, cut to the chase, Alex." Walker pleaded. "What do you have?" The timbre of his ultimatum disclosed his desperate impatience to his wife.

"Alright..." Alex yielded to her anxious husband. "Walker, do you remember the warehouse rental reported by district #2? The one rented to an established electronics firm?" Walker nodded affirmatively to her query. "Well, I thought I remembered the name Ahmed so I went back and reviewed the reports. That rental in district #2 was granted to Tel-Tron Electronics. Sadhir Ahmed owns that company. Marcos' brother rented the space as an overflow warehouse shortly after Nipo's release from prison. It looks like Sadhir might have set his brother up with a neat little cover so he could partner with Nipo." Alex ended her news-laden announcement and then awaited Walker and Trivette's responses.

"Good work Alex." Walker took visible pride in his wife's resourcefulness.

"We'll need a search warrant for Tel-Tron. Can you get it for us?" Walker asked.

"Judge McNally is preparing it as we speak. You can pick it up on your way out," Alex affirmed.

"We'll need a warrant for Sadhir's..." Before Walker could finish his sentence, Alex offered her rehearsed answer. "An arrest warrant for the questioning of Sadhir Ahmed will be waiting for you when you pick up the search warrant for Tel-Tron," she assured her senior Ranger.

"Thanks honey," Walker said, as he snatched up his hat, kissed Alex's cheek, then headed for the doorway with understandable speed and exhilaration. "Yeah, thanks honey," Trivette added, teasingly, as he kissed her other unclaimed cheek before he hastily followed his brother-in-arms out of the door.

Alex shook her head and smiled tenderly, as she watched them race off like two young boys excused from their homework to play touch football with their buddies.

Witnessing Walker and Trivette's ceaseless enthusiasm for the work that often put them in great, personal jeopardy induced a moment of reflection over this precarious life that had somehow become her destiny. "This business is harsh," she thought. "But would I ever trade it for something less dangerous, less frenzied?" The answer to her self-directed question came straight from her heart without hesitation. "Not if it meant giving up this extraordinary family I have found along the way. Walker is the love of my life and my very best friend. I could never live without him. Trivette has become the brother I never had, and

Sydney and Gage are quickly weaving their way into their own special places within our close-knit, extended family. If this is the life I was foreordained to lead, then I could never find a stronger, more remarkable, group of souls to sustain me."

She wiped a tiny teardrop from the corner of her eye while she realigned her wedding rings in perfect presentation on her finger. Alex turned her eyes upward towards the heavens and uttered a single, private word to her Creator. "Thanks," she whispered quietly, before heading back to her office to resume her tireless work on the X-DREAM case. She was determined to help Walker and their friends in any way she could.

 

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Walker and Trivette were traveling on foot as they approached the warehouse on Jackson Street which harbored the, presumably, disguised Tel-Tron Electronics annex. Trivette's car was left outside the gates where a qualified back-up team awaited the Ranger's signal to respond.

The structure and its surroundings were hackneyed and unkempt. It was obvious that Ahmed was not concerned with the appearance of its exterior. No apparent efforts had been made to draw attention to the fact that the building was no longer vacant, as it had been for several months prior to Tel-Tron's occupancy. Walker and Trivette circled around to the rear entrance where they discovered a decrepit fire escape leading to an open third floor window. Walker mounted the shaky contraption while Trivette steadied it from below. When Walker reached the window, he peered inside. He then swept his observing perch with his trusty sidearm. Computer paraphernalia was strewn haphazardly around the room. Dusty boxes of stereo equipment were stacked to the ceiling without classification.

Its appearance was that of an abandoned storage closet verses a secondary distribution center, as reported in the rental agreement with the town clerks office.

Walker signaled safe clearance to his partner, still holding steadfast below him. Jimmy climbed the rungs with extreme care while Walker secured the dilapidated ladder from up above. Once they were inside, both could hear the sounds of a muffled conversation off in the distance. The seasoned team moved in cautiously with their weapons drawn.

As they approached the end of the corridor, the dialogue became quite distinguishable. It was coming from the other side of a large metal door at the end of the hall. The Rangers detected three different male voices. One man had a distinct accent, Egyptian, or possibly Islamic. Another man spoke with a deep, baritone resonance in his voice. The third delivered his verbal interchange through a thick Texas drawl. Walker and Trivette moved in to eavesdrop on their exchange.

"Ahmed's been picked off by the cops," they heard from the native Texan. "We can't send Rah out again. They'd make him in a minute. You've got to hit the streets, Jake. Stick with our regular customers for a few days until I can find out what Nipo wants us to do," the southerner concluded.

Walker made eye contact with Trivette. His gut instincts were finally validated. Nipo was at last, officially, linked to X-DREAM. Walker approached the door then signaled his partner to cover his entry.

"Texas Rangers! Freeze!" Walker shouted as he turned the knob on the unlocked door. Repeating gunshots hurled alongside his head as he attempted to enter the room. Walker pulled back on the heavy metal door to shield himself from the unfriendly fire, then discharged his weapon through the small opening with expert accuracy. His adversary abruptly fell to the floor. Approaching footsteps were heard from behind the door. Walker quickly flung it open with tremendous force. The clamorous thud of a toppling body confirmed his hit on the second of the three expected opponents. Walker entered cautiously with Trivette close behind. The third man, unscathed, was frantically making his way through the cluttered room in a desperate attempt to exit through a side door. Trivette immediately followed his lead while Walker introduced himself to the stunned low-life that was recovering from his confrontation with the heavy door.

Walker's startled opponent rose up from the floor with his arms swinging. Once vertical, Walker inspected his enormous framework. He stood nearly six inches above Walker's head and weighed in at better than three hundred pounds. Walker groaned, wishing this goon had been the first attacker who was taken down by the decisive authority of his bullet. Now he would be forced to combat this ape with his bare hands.

Still unsteady from his jolt, the clumsy gargantuan swung aimlessly over Walker's head. The Ranger's beloved Stetson was knocked to the floor. "You shouldn't have done that," Walker said with a definite note of annoyance in his voice. "Nobody touches my hat," he declared before charging his towering rival. Walker delivered successive kicks to the head of his offender. Due to the man's enormous height, he was having difficulty reaching his target. The criminal barely flinched as his skull came in contact with Walker's usually effective foot. Walker knew that he would tire quickly if he continued to attack with this approach. He lowered his aim to a realistic target. The groin area was unquestionably, a less sportsmanlike point of assault, yet in this case, Walker felt he had no choice. He couldn't think of any other way to take control of his overgrown antagonist.

Walker launched his next kick, aiming for the man's unprotected private parts. Before any contact was made, his sparring partner grabbed his ascending foot. The strapping giant lifted Walker upside-down by one leg, then hoisted him as high as he could reach before dropping him to the floor like a flimsy rag doll. Both men could hear a crunching sound as Walker's face met the unmerciful concrete.

Walker shook his head repeatedly in an attempt to clear it from his abrupt collision with the hardened mortar. He instantly became aware of the fact that his left eye was quickly closing from the swelling, though it remained opened enough for his fresh blood to trickle into the small slit, causing him additional pain from its sting.

Walker looked up with his single, operative eye, just in time to witness the awkward brut coming towards him in mid air. He was going to land, full bore, on Walker and shatter his bones into tiny twigs. Walker reflexively rebutted in self-defense by repeating his previous attempt of a powerful kick between the culprit's legs. This time, Walker made contact, a direct hit. His now half-paralyzed foe belted out a deep-throated wail just before collapsing to the floor where he wrapped himself tightly into a protective fetal position.

Walker pulled himself up and moved in quickly to finish off his hostile combatant before he regained his limited composure. The now gentled giant lay on the floor, rocking back and forth in excruciating pain. Walker grabbed him from behind and delivered his infamous sleeper headlock to the perp's massive neck. As Walker tightened his grip, he noticed the pathetic remains of his trusty hat, sandwiched between the weighty criminal and the solid concrete. "Dang it," he grumbled as he released his unconscious victim from his clutches, "He landed on my hat."

Trivette returned through the side door. His runaway criminal was no where in sight.

"What happened? Where's your guy?" Walker questioned impatiently.

"He's in the parking lot, down below. He took a swan dive out a window during our struggle. It was him or me, man. We can pick him up on our way out," Trivette stated, as he wiped the altercation-induced beads of sweat from his brow.

"Oh that's just great, Trivette. I guess bringing him in for an interrogation is out of the question then, huh?" Walker groaned. "I got both of my guys and this one should really count for at least two," Walker complained, as he pointed to the anesthetized, mass of a man lying motionless on the floor.

"Hey," Trivette objected. "I got him! He's just dead, that's all! I can't help that. He didn't want to cooperate, Walker. Besides, you shot that other guy. He's probably dead too. Look at all that blood!" Trivette pointed to the man lying stock-still, in a puddle of his own vital fluids. "I don't think he'll be telling his story to anyone except his maker, or maybe the guy in the tight, red suit with the pitchfork, downstairs." Trivette's verbal retaliation was underlined with a hint of self-preservation. "He's not dead," Walker resolved, with total certainty. "I shot him in the belly, Trivette. He's lost a lot of blood, but he's not dead. If you don't believe me, go and check him," Walker insisted.

"All right, I will," Trivette said, as he meandered towards the dormant body to check it for a carotid pulse. Jimmy glanced up at Walker with his familiar look of total defeat. "He's alive," Trivette acknowledged with a beaten tone in his voice. When he finally made eye contact with Walker, Jimmy became aware of the discolored, protruding nugget on his partners' face.

"Walker, buddy.... What the heck happened to you? You look terrible," Trivette said. "I took a swan dive of my own, Trivette; courtesy of hefty-boy, over there." Walker singled towards the large, crumpled form, previously silenced by his unmerciful vise-grip.

"Are you okay? Shouldn't we get you to the hospital?" Trivette spoke with genuine concern for his partner.

"No, I'm okay. I don't need to go to the hospital. I'm sure it looks a lot worse then it really is," Walker responded, as he lifted his hand to carefully inspect the size of the lump on the left side of his face.

"Man, that sure looks bad, pal," Trivette said bluntly. "Alex is gonna be really mad at you..."

"Alex isn't going to be mad, Trivette. I didn't smash my face on the cement just for the fun of it. I had a little help, remember?" Walker protested, as he reached up to reevaluate the status of his injury. He was becoming painfully aware of the colossal headache developing behind his eyes.

"She is too going to be mad," Trivette challenged. "You guys are suppose to have that special date in a few days for your six-month wedding anniversary, right? She's got that real nice dinner planned at a fancy restaurant, then that charity concert by the Dallas Philharmonic Orchestra afterwards. Oh, and as I recall, that's strictly a black-tie event. I can see it now. She'll walk in on your arm, dressed to the nines and everyone will be wondering how this beautiful lady got stuck with this guy who looks like he just stepped out of a WWF wring." Jimmy wrapped up his unmerciful supposition with a mischievous little chuckle. He was speaking out loud, yet it was obviously that most of his monologue had been vividly manufactured for his own insatiable indulgence.

Trivette took a certain amount of warped pleasure in the thought of Walker receiving a less-then-perfect outcome to anything he did in his personal and professional life. Jimmy was saddled by his own gnawing jealousy towards Walker's natural ability to consistently get the girl, the criminal, and the fanfare. What really got his goat was that Walker was always humble about it. He didn't look for the kudos or the attention. They just fell into his lap when he wasn't looking. If Trivette couldn't bask in that same kind of glory, he would have to settle for the minimal amount of pleasure he could muster when his partner was uncharacteristically made mortal by trivial little predicaments that impeded the installation of yet another notch in his belt.

"Knock it off, Trivette," Walker shouted. "Make yourself useful and get on the phone with our backup. Tell them to get up here and clean up this mess, and I'm going to need some help getting this bozo off my hat," Walker concluded, as he nudged his prisoner with his boot.

"He fell on your hat?" Trivette howled as he doubled over in an impromptu fit of laughter.

"It's not funny, Trivette. That was my favorite hat. Now shut up and call for the darned backup." Walker swallowed his desire to drop his partner on his own thick skull by channeling his energies towards his search of the cluttered room.

As he sifted through small packets of narcotics stamped with the familiar logo of X-DREAM, he could hear Trivette talking on his cell-phone with one of the officers waiting down below.

"Yah, we're ready for you guys. Come on up... Oh, and bring the car-jack from the trunk of the cruiser. We've gotta perform an emergency rescue on Walker's hat..." Trivette's voice trailed off as he burst into another fit of uncontrollable laughter.

 

CHAPTER NINE

 

Night had fallen on the city of Dallas by the time Walker and Trivette arrived at Ranger Headquarters. Both were feeling the physical and emotional effects of their overly active day.

Headway had finally been made through their opportune bust of Marcos Ahmed, which was quickly followed by the crackdown on Nipo's satellite operation. They had conducted a preliminary search of the warehouse before leaving to pick up Sadhir Ahmed for questioning. The rented space was unquestionably set up to manufacture X-DREAM, but only in insignificant quantities. Walker's supposition was that the warehouse was used as a small pilot lab for preparing the samples that were being handed out to young students to get them hooked on the drug. He was sure that there was a large scale manufacturing operation somewhere close by. Nipo couldn't be turning out the huge quantities of X-DREAM that were hitting the streets from the tiny, makeshift lab. Walker and Trivette handed off the balance of their search to the DPD. They needed to bring Sadhir Ahmed into

custody before he caught wind of their recent activities.

While on route to Ahmed's office, Trivette contacted Precinct #4 of the Dallas police Department. He spoke to the sergeant in charge, requesting that a unit be sent to pick up Nipo, now that he was finally named as a suspect in the laborious X-DREAM case. He instructed them to pick up the warrant on their way, then deliver him to Ranger Headquarters for questioning. A DPD cruiser was dispatched to secure Kurt Nipo. One of the officers on the scene radioed Walker and Trivette from his patrol car to report the bleak particulars. When the police arrived at the halfway house, they were told that Kurt Nipo hadn't returned in almost a week. The house-guardian had notified his parole officer and a warrant was issued for his arrest for breaking the restrictive terms of his release. Nipo had vanished right after Trivette's visit with his parole officer, yet no one had bothered to notify Ranger Headquarters.

Walker slammed the microphone back into its clip on the dash of his truck. He wasn't surprised by the report that Nipo had slipped through everyone's fingers. He was however, painfully discouraged by the fact that the parole officer had swiftly filed the obligatory warrants and cumbersome paperwork on Kurt Nipo's disappearance, then simply forgot about him like he wasn't anyone's problem until he was found. "Out of sight - out of mind, Trivette. Nipo's been AWOL for a week and everyone was too busy to mention it to us."

Ahmed's arrest was a non-event. The Rangers had taken him by surprise. The electronics entrepreneur had been in a meeting for the better part of the day with a handful of potential customers from oversees. The mandate to his secretary was that, under no circumstances was he to be disturbed. Ahmed wasn't even aware that his brother's questioning had been postponed and a court order had been issued to hold him without bail. The Rangers barged into Ahmed's private meeting with complete disregard to his secretary's programmed instructions. Ahmed refused to comment without his lawyer present.

"That seems to run in your family," Walker had sarcastically commented.

"Don't worry," Trivette added. "You can fight your brother for equal time with Powers once we get you downtown."

As the tired Rangers finally entered their headquarters, Trivette was still harping on, what he believed would be Alex's negative reaction towards Walker's ill-looking injury. "I'm telling you Walker, she will definitely say something about the way your gonna look on Monday night. I guarantee it! I'll even bet you lunch tomorrow. The loser buys lunch at the restaurant of the winner's choice. Deal?" Trivette negotiated.

"All right! It's a deal." Walker surrendered. "Now shut up about it already, will you?" His acceptance of Trivette's proposal was strictly done to silence him. The senior Ranger was tired and sore and he really didn't give a hoot if he had to buy lunch tomorrow. He just wanted to get some sleep.

As the team approached District Attorney Alex Cahill-Walker's door, Trivette raced ahead, wanting desperately to enter first. Alex and Sydney were sitting across from one another at Alex's desk, discussing the day's monumental turn of events.

Trivette entered the office with Walker in tow. His secretive grin was pasted resolutely upon his face. The odds of it being easily removed were as likely as the final collapse of the Leaning Tower of Pizza.

"Hi guys, Sydney hailed a warm welcome to the returnees. "Hey boys, it's about time you came back. You've been gone for hours," Alex added.

As Walker and Trivette approached her desk, Alex noticed the extensive swelling that encompassed a deep laceration on her husband's face. "Walker, what happened to you?" She asked, as she quickly rose up from her chair to gain a closer look of his damages.

"I got dropped on my head by one of Nipo's goons. It looks worse then it is Alex. I'm sure it'll look a lot better in the morning, " Walker offered, with flimsy optimism. Alex's questions were unknowingly, laying the groundwork for Trivette's predicted reaction.

Jimmy quickly offered up his fuel for Alex's response. "Walker was telling me how bad he felt about looking like a prize fighter for your big date, Alex. He's really torn up about it." Trivette's self-gratifying grin broadened as he deliberately set up his sober-minded partner for his anticipated demise. "Oh, I don't care about that," Alex said, dismissing Trivette's comment as if it didn't even warrant her response. Jimmy's grimace was abruptly downgraded by Alex's casual reply.

"This cut is deep, Walker. You should have gotten stitches. Does it hurt, honey?" She questioned, with tender compassion for her wounded husband.

"Just a little bit, but I do have a real bear of a headache. I guess I hit the cement a little harder then I thought," Walker responded in a subdued manner.

"He dropped you on the cement?" Alex repeated, in instant anger directed towards his attacker. "Yeah, and he ruined my hat too," Walker glowered, adding the dramatic, finishing touches on his unfortunate saga.

He wasn't one to look for sympathy, but under the circumstances, Walker was happy to play the part of the poor, wounded husband if it meant he could teach Trivette a lesson- after all of the abuse he'd taken from him earlier in the day.

"You poor baby," Alex consoled. "Come sit over here and I'll go and get you some aspirin for your headache and some ice for that eye," she coddled, while she attentively guided her injured husband to her empty chair. Before leaving to gather her first-aide supplies, Alex kissed her husband tenderly on his lips. She followed up with a healing kiss, delicately placed above his fresh battle scar. "I'll be right back. You wait right here, okay? Alex insisted in a maternal tone of voice. Walker obediently acknowledged her with a modest nod. She scurried out the door to gather the necessary remedies to patch her husband's noticeable ailments.

"As the door closed behind her, Trivette launched his arms upward in complete disbelief to the unforeseen turn of events that had just unfolded in front of him.

"Poor baby? POOR baby? You've got to be kidding me?" Trivette objected. His overactive ego was instantly deflated.

"How the heck do you do it, Walker?" Jimmy delivered his question with an agitated tone of voice, which was accompanied by his familiar dumbfounded expression. "No matter what happens to you, you always manage to come out of it smelling like a rose! If I greeted any of the women I've dated with that shiner on my eye, they'd instantly come down with a case of the Asian flu or something. I'd get dumped in a minute! What's with you, man? What do you have that I don't have? And don't tell me it's that Cherokee thing, either," Trivette threatened.

"The difference between you and me, Trivette, is that Alex isn't just another date. She's my wife and she loves me just the way I am." Walker delivered his animated cliché as a smug message of victory over his befuddled partner.

"Oh ple-ase! Trivette sniveled. You played Alex like a fiddle, just to beat me out. "Just a little honey, but I do have a BEAR of a headache... " You broke the rules Walker! You took advantage of your wife's inbred, feminine, protective nature, pal."

"I didn't take advantage of Alex, Trivette. I just stated the facts. Oh, and Trivette...About lunch tomorrow, I'd really like to go to Café Benellie's. You know the place I mean. It's that really expensive Italian Deli over on Main Street. Is one o'clock good for you?"

Sydney chuckled silently, as she watched her professional elder's battle for their guarded posts. Even though she had not been privy to the mishaps of their day, she knew them both well enough to read between the lines. She fed a few mending tidbits to the unmistakably defeated Trivette.

"Trivette, you shouldn't be so hard on yourself. You can't help it if woman perceive you as just another pretty face. Because of your charming appearance, they forget that there is a kind, sensitive guy under all that appeal. It's really unfortunate that you just don't get taken seriously. Women are users, Trivette. They'll pick you up then drop you like a hot potato," Sydney concluded, while maintaining as straight a face as she could, for the benefit of her downtrodden colleague.

"Yeah, Sydney. Maybe you're right," Trivette resolved. "I'm cursed by my good looks. Now, let's take Walker here, he's just a plain old, regular looking guy. The expectations from the opposite sex are lower for guys like him. But guys like me? I think we're doomed by our own God-given gifts. Women are actually intimidated by my breed! They think we're all playboys out for a good time. Yeah, I think you're right, Sydney. Maybe I'll get myself roughed up and go out on the town and see if I get a different kind of a response, impersonating the "plain Joe" kinda guy. Play on their sympathy. That's brilliant Sydney, thanks," Trivette concluded, with a surreptitiously revitalized impression of hope. He exited the room with a false sense of security, manufactured partly by Sydney's prankish words and his own unquenchable ego.

"That was downright immoral," Walker told Sydney, laughingly, as he fought to conceal his urge to indulge in his partner's distress.

"You started it, Walker. Besides ...Trivette's such an easy mark. I couldn't help myself," Sydney confessed. "Don't tell me that you weren't enjoying his roasting as much as I was?" She challenged.

"He deserves everything he dishes out to himself, Sydney." Walker admitted, as he watched his wife return to the room with her plentiful medical supplies.

"Okay, sweetheart," Alex advised upon her re-entry. "I'm just going to clean your cut and put a butterfly Band-Aid on it to help it heal."

She mended his wound with the utmost care. Walker tried his best to control the involuntary flinching of his body beneath her decisive, gentle touch. Though he had successfully downplayed his injuries to Trivette, Walker was becoming soberly aware of the knifelike pain piercing through the side of his face. "Ouch! That hurts, Alex."

"I'm so sorry honey," Alex said, with absolute heartache in her voice. "You'd better let me drive home. I just want to get you in bed so you can rest."

"Alex, you've never driven my truck. I don't think that's such a good idea," Walker responded with unmistakable hesitance.

"You let Trivette drive your truck," Alex argued. "You've even let Gage drive it. I'm your wife. Don't you trust me to take good care of your truck, Walker?"

"Well?" .... Walker deliberated on the possible outcomes to his wife manning the wheel of his precious automobile.

Sydney leaned over to Walker and whispered privately into his ear. "Don't ruin a good thing Walker. Let her drive the truck."

"I guess you're right, Alex. I really shouldn't be driving in my condition. Would you feel comfortable driving old Bessy home?" He conceded, trying, manfully, to conceal his reservations.

"Of course I do, silly. I'll transport you and your truck home safe and sound. I promise." Alex assured him. "Now come on. Take your aspirin and put this icepack on that cut so we can get you in bed where you belong."

Alex pressed her warm body against Walker's back as she circled her arms around him, carefully applying the icepack to his wound. She held steadfast in her position to prevent any sudden moves that would disturb her husband's therapy.

After a few brief moments, Walker responded positively to her careful treatment.

"I'm ready to go home now, honey. I think you're right. I'd rather be in the comfort of my own bed. You can tend to me there, okay?" He responded, with an apparent, ulterior motive behind his surrender. All of this attention wasn't such a bad thing. Not if a beautiful blonde lady who happened to be his wife, was administering it.

 "Of course, sweetheart. Let's go." Alex willingly obliged him. "Sydney, we'll see you in the morning, okay? I've gotta get this worn out guy into bed," she resolved.

"I can see that," Sydney replied with a well-timed smile on her face. "Good night, Walker. Sleep well. I'm sure you'll be feeling much better very soon."

"Yeah, I'm sure I will be too, Sydney. Thanks." Walker allowed his wife to lead him out the door, guiding him by his muscular arm. He had never imagined himself being openly vulnerable with anyone. Yet with Alex, he could somehow, easily melt into her tender, protective embrace.

 

 

 

CHAPTER TEN

 

When Alex and Walker arrived at Ranger Headquarters the next morning, their competent team had already begun the interrogations with the assorted prisoners they'd rounded up the day before.

Alex had dragged Cordell to the emergency room for X-rays before she would allow him to go to work. The X-rays had come back clean; still, the doctor was amazed at the minor degree of his injuries. He had told Walker and Alex that he'd found it hard to believe that anyone who'd been dropped on his head on a concrete floor from that close a range could escape without a serious concussion or fracture. "You must have one thick skull, Ranger Walker," the doctor had commented. "Oh he most certainly does," Alex confirmed. Once his medical clearance had been granted, Alex led her physically AND mentally headstrong husband out of the hospital.

When the couple entered the busy Company B office, they found Gage sitting at Trivette's computer with his wounded leg propped up on a second chair. Sydney and Trivette were busy questioning the suspects that had been put on ice overnight in the county jail. The interrogation rooms were filled to capacity.

"How are you feeling Gage?" Alex asked, as they approached the lamed Ranger.

"I'm a little sore. These darned crutches are worse then the gunshot wound, though. The doc says I've gotta use them for a couple of days to keep the pressure off my leg. Hopefully, I won't kill myself trying to maneuver these things until then," Gage complained.

"It's not you I'm worried about," Sydney muttered, as she entered the office just in time to hear the tail end of Gage's portrayed hardship. She faced Alex and Walker as she irritably recounted the events of their morning together.

"I picked him up at the hospital and he whacked me in the head with his crutches when he was getting into the car. He tripped the security guard downstairs when he tried to hold the door for him. Then, he almost took out a couple of women who were coming out of the ladies room. I should have gotten him a wheelchair. It would have been a lot safer for everyone," she avowed, with unrestrained agitation.

"Hey, that's not fair, Syd. I don't have a license to drive these things. I've never even been on crutches before. Give me a little time to get use to them, will ya?"

"An innocent person could be maimed by the time you get use to them, Gage, and I'm just a little concerned, that person might be me! I have never seen anyone so completely uncoordinated in my entire life."

Walker and Alex laughed openly at the offbeat chemistry between the partners.

"All right you two, that's enough. Sydney, back to your corner, and Gage, put those weapons in a safe place where they can't hurt anyone," Walker negotiated.

"Sydney, do you think you've calmed down enough to give us an update?" Walker asked, still amused by the competitive, verbal combat between the unconventional duo.

Sydney took a deep, composing breath as she shot one last irritated glare towards her high-maintenance partner. She redirected her quickly collected focus

to her accomplished leader's request.

"We've got positive ID's on your three stooges from the warehouse. The jumper was our original X-DREAM boy, Rah... Remember him? His full name is Raheem Saah. Here's the best part; Raheem was Nipo's cellmate at Huntsville for four years. He was a bench chemist for a pharmaceutical lab in San Antonio when he got caught mixing his own private little concoctions of narcotics. Saah was, most likely, the one who came up with the formulation for X-DREAM. It's too bad that we lost this one. We might have hit the jackpot if we'd had the opportunity to question him."

"Yah, don't I know it," Walker protested. "You can thank Trivette for that."

"The guy who took your bullet has been identified as Jake Caruso, an ex-mafioso from Chicago. We're not sure how he got mixed up with Nipo, but the doctors say we can question him this afternoon."

"Last but not least, we have your favorite, hat wrecking bruiser over in interrogation room three. I thought you might like to know that he's still walking a little funny." "Good," Walker blurted out, with a satisfied look on his face.

"His name is Broady James. Trivette pulled up an FBI file on him that was a mile long. Up until about two years ago, he was the head of security for a well-known drug cartel in the Florida Keys. When the Feds moved in with their sting operation to bust it up, Broady slipped through their fingers and they lost their trail on him after that. Trivette's in with him now."

"Did you get a chance to question the Ahmed brothers yet?" Walker asked. "Not yet. Their council just got here about 30 minutes ago. Gordon Powers is in with Sadhir right now. They should be ready for us soon," Sydney concluded.

"Okay, lets go get some answers. Gage; see if you can dig up anything else on Jake Caruso and Broady James. I want to know who brought them to Dallas. I've got a feeling there's another major player working with Nipo, who most likely, has some pretty powerful connections. These guys sound like they're a couple of notches out of Nipo's league," Walker advised, before leading Alex and Sydney out of the office.

"You got it Boss." Gage turned his chair around towards the computer to carry out Walker's instructions. As he completed his minimal shift in position, his crutches, which he had rested recklessly against the desk, were sent clamoring to the floor. Sydney could hear the commotion from the opposite side of the office door. She just shook her head in complete exasperation.

Several hours later, the foursome returned to the office to regroup and debrief the results of their busy morning with their immobile teammate.

"How'd it go guys?" Gage asked, still in the same spot they had left him in five hours earlier. They gathered around him as Walker began summarizing the interrogations.

"Well, Sadhir Ahmed swears up and down that he had no idea of his brother's activities. He claims he set him up with the warehouse to give him a steady income, which would keep him out of his hair. He leased the warehouse space for him, gave him some inventory to manage, then left him alone. I think he's telling the truth. There's definitely no love lost between Sadhir and Marcos Ahmed. Sadhir wasn't very happy about being brought in for questioning, so he pulled Powers off of his brother's case this morning. He's been bailing his brother out of trouble for years. I'm not saying that Sadhir doesn't have a few shady deals of his own going on, but I don't think he has any connection to Kurt Nipo, " Walker concluded.

Alex spoke next, offering the results of Marcos Ahmed's questioning. "Once baby brother Marcos found out that Sadhir was pulling his council and he was going to have to settle for a public defender, he definitely had a change in attitude from the arrogant, tough-guy act he'd given us yesterday. All we had to do was mention murder charges for all the students that have died and he suddenly became quite talkative. He admitted to planning the X-DREAM business with Nipo and Raheem Saah while they were still in prison, but he swears he didn't know how out of control Nipo was going to become with its distribution. He described it as a private, cozy little enterprise, just between the three of them. It sounds like that's how it started at first. They used the warehouse as a manufacturing site, servicing a select clientele, and everyone had plenty of spending money in their pockets. All of the profits were a three-way split. They were equal partners."

Trivette picked up where Alex left off. "After the first month, Ahmed and Saah started seeing less and less of Nipo. They figured he'd hooked up with a new partner: Some big leaguer from out of town. Nipo dropped out of sight and began contacting them through a new yes-man named Rock that he'd brought in to do his dirty work. Rock started delivering massive quantities of X-DREAM to them with Nipo's detailed instructions to set up business at the local high schools and colleges. When Marcos and Raheem got ticked off and tried to back out of the whole deal, Nipo sent in a bunch of overgrown linebackers to rough them up and keep them in line. Next thing they know, Caruso and James arrive on their doorstep and introduced themselves as their new "teammates", courtesy of Mr. Kurt Nipo. Ahmed swears he has no idea where we can find Nipo or his upscale operation."

"Broady James's story matched up with Ahmed's," Sydney began. He says this Rock character showed up out of the blue and offered him an employment opportunity that he'd better not refuse. He swears he's never even met Kurt Nipo and he has no idea where he is or how to reach him. Nipo was always the one to make contact with them."

Walker stepped in to wrap up their recap for Gage's benefit. "Alex and I took a ride over to County hospital and spent a few minutes with Jake Caruso. He was still pretty groggy from the medication so we couldn't get a whole lot out of him. He did say that he was also hired by Nipo's man Rock and swears he's never met Kurt Nipo. We'll go back tomorrow when he's more alert. Were you able to find out anything else on James or Caruso?" Walker asked Gage.

"Yeah, actually I did. I dug up some interesting info on a mutual employer of theirs, a guy by the name of Arthur Banks. Banks was the king pin for an upscale drug ring in New Mexico for several years. The DEA infiltrated his operation back in 97' and he was supposedly locked up from life. Last year, the prison warden reported him as deceased. His death certificate lists the cause of death as a heart attack. No next of kin came forward to claim the body so he was buried by the state in the prison cemetery." Gage handed Walker a copy of the report for his scrutiny.

"Do you think Banks could have staged his own death to escape from prison?" Alex asked her husband.

"If he did, that means the warden was in on it, or, maybe one of his right-hand men is picking up where he left off. Either way, Nipo's gotta be feeling the heat, now that we've taken down his warehouse operation and four of his men. Sydney, I want you to pair up with Ranger Watson for the next few days until Gage's leg heals. Get back out the streets and put the word out that I'm coming after Nipo, full force. We're going to be on every street corner and school campus until we track him down. Gage; keep digging into Bank's history. I want to know who his top men were while his business was in operation. Trivette and I will be taking a little trip out to the prison cemetery to extricate the presumed body of Arthur Banks. We need to get a positive I.D. on whomever is buried out there."

"I know you're raring to go on this one, Walker, but do you think we could take a tiny little break and get some lunch before we get started?" Alex pleaded. "It's already after two and I'm starving."

"Oh, sorry Hon. I forgot to tell you, I've already got a lunch date," Walker said, flashing a triumphant grin, as he glanced over at his beaten partner.

"You do, do you? With who?" Alex questioned, with a glaring look of surprise. Walker had stood her up for their luncheons more times then she could count because of his relentless work, but never had he pushed her aside for a lunch date with someone else.

"Trivette!" Walker announced, with a gloatful smirk, as he wrapped his arm around his partners stiffening shoulders. "He offered to take me out for lunch after the rough day I had yesterday. That's just the kind of guy he is. He's always thinking of everyone else. But you know, I'm sure he wouldn't mind if you came along, Alex. You don't mind, do you Trivette?" Walker tightened his arm around Jimmy's neck, encouraging him deliver to the right answer to his imposing question.

"Yah, su-re. That would be great. We'd love to have you join us, Alex." Jimmy gave himself a mental kick in the pants as a reminder to keep his big mouth shut the next time he felt the urge to challenge his ever-prevailing partner.

"You know, it would be nice if we all took a well-deserved break and went to lunch together for once. Sydney and Gage, why don't you come with us? Trivette told me that he insists on picking up the tab, didn't you Trivette?" Walker administered one more telling squeeze to his partner's throat before he released him from his grip.

"Sure, why not? The more the merrier, right?" Jimmy threw his hands up in final defeat. "Lets pick up the switchboard operator and the janitor on our way out. We can turn this little meal into one heck of a party. (At my expense, of course,)" Jimmy mumbled his closing comment under his breath through his tensely gritted teeth.

Walker helped Gage up from his chair before handing him his previously chastised crutches. Everyone snatched their coats as they prepared for their departure from the Company B suite.

"Hey Walker," Gage interrupted, as they were exiting the office. "I heard that you got banged up pretty good yesterday too. I was expecting you to look pretty rough today. Your eye looks a heck of a lot better then Trivette made it out to be."

"Well, he did look much worse yesterday, Gage." Alex confirmed. "The ice brought the swelling down considerably, and the butterfly bandage closed up the cut quite nicely." Alex lifted her hand up to her husband's face, inspecting the current status of her handiwork. "His bruising isn't even as extensive as we though it would be."

"It just figures that he heals faster then any normal human being, too." Trivette mumbled.

"What is going on between the two of you?" Alex questioned curiously. She knew both men too well to have missed any of the underlying innuendoes that were flying back and forth between them.

"Oh, nothing sweetheart. Trivette's just glad that I'm okay, aren't you Trivette?" Walker guided his wife ahead of the others, hurrying her through the office door, leaving his crow-eating partner to bring up the rear.

 

CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

On the morning of November 20th, Walker woke very early. He wanted to make sure that he would be the one delivering his beloved wife breakfast in bed for their six-month wedding anniversary. He also had a special gift planned for her that required several trips to the barn before it would be ready. Once everything was in place, he returned to their bedroom to wait for Alex to wake up.

Walker set the breakfast tray down on the dresser. He sat on the floor beside the bed, resting his face on his arms alongside Alex's pillow. He was close enough to hear her breathing. As he watched her sleep, he became consciously aware of just how dependent his heart had become on the unconditional love that she gave him so freely.

After a few silent moments, Alex began to stir under his affectionate gaze. She was awakened partly by the pleasant aromas that filled her room. She could smell fresh coffee and an overwhelmingly sweet scent that she couldn't identify. But what finally woke her from her peaceful slumber was an uneasy feeling that she was being watched.

She slowly opened her eyes to find her husband's handsome, gentle face only inches from her own. "What are you looking at?" She mumbled, curiously, still half asleep. "You," he said tenderly. "I was just wondering why a bright, beautiful girl like you would allow herself to get stuck with a cranky old cowboy of a husband like me."

"Oh." Alex said casually, in a half-asleep voice. She circled her arms around his neck and drew him in, closing the tiny gap that had existed between them. Now, nose-to-nose, Alex continued her soothing response. "You've just got the words mixed up. I'm not stuck with you, Cowboy. I'm stuck ON you." She administered a soft, promising kiss to his lips while he reached beneath the covers to wrap his arms around her warm body.

After a long, satisfying moment, Alex sealed her kiss, then leaned back, still slumber-filled, into the comfort of her pillow.

"Hey, what are you doing up so early?" She questioned. "This is my ritual. I'm the one whose suppose to serve you breakfast in bed on our anniversaries, remember?"

"I know. I just thought you could use a little pampering once in a while. You deserve it. Besides, I have a special surprise for you and I needed some time to get it ready before you woke up," Walker announced, with a slightly anxious smile. He was wondering how long it was going to take before his wife noticed the clever display of his gift for her.

From the second she opened her eyes; her husband's desirable face was the only thing she had allowed in her sight-path. She hadn't yet taken her eyes off of him. The lamp on their nightstand dimly lighted their bedroom. Walker had only turned it on to the first notch while he was waiting for his wife to stir. Eventually, she would surely glance around the room and discover his offering.

"A surprise? For me?" Alex repeated, with a twinkle in her eye. "Is it my stone...? You did get me another stone, didn't you?" Her last inquiry transformed the excitement in her voice into a slight tone of worried panic. Special presents were nice and all, but she wasn't willing to forfeit the sixth stone to her necklace for something else.

"Yes Alex, I got you your stone. Relax. I just wanted to get you something extra to say thank you for six wonderful months together as man and wife. It's been six months already, one half of a year. It seems hard to believe."

"You are so sweet! So when do I get to see this secret gift... and what's that overpowering, sweet smell in here?" She asked, as her sensitive nose encountered a second wave of the potent fragrance that had helped to rouse her.

"Just look around Alex," Walker said, mischievously, as he reached for the lamp on the nightstand. He turned it up one notch to better the light in the room. Alex blinked her eyes, straining to refocus in the enhanced light. She threw him a cautious little smile, wondering what her husband had done.

Once her eyes adjusted, Alex lifted her head up off the pillow to conduct a visual search of their familiar bedroom. She instantly let out a brief, startled shriek as she protectively pulled her covers up around her neck. "What is that?" She exclaimed, in a somewhat shaken voice.

As she began her exploration of the room, Alex had abruptly met what she perceived as a vivid shroud of red, covering her usually pale-blue quilt. It took several seconds to bring this startling sight into focus. After realizing what lay before her, Alex turned to her husband while involuntary tears moistened her eyes.

"They're roses! Absolutely beautiful red roses. There must be a hundred of them!" She reached out and took one from her lap and drew it to her face. The exotic aroma filled her senses as she softly trailed the silken petals against her cheek. The perfect, long-stemmed flowers blanketed her from her waist to the foot of their bed.

"No, not quite, sweetheart. There are seventy-two, to be exact: Six dozen: One dozen for each month of our marriage."

"Walker, how did you do this? Where did you hide them? They could never have survived all night without water," Alex asked, overwhelmed with bewilderment and emotion by his romantic display.

"They were delivered yesterday while you were out shopping. I hid them in the barn in one of the horses' watering troths. It worked like a charm."

"Cordell Walker, you never cease to amaze me. They're absolutely beautiful and I love them, but roses are so expensive. You didn't have to do this. One dozen would have melted my heart."

"Alex, don't worry about the cost. I've made enough connections in Dallas over the years to get a good deal on a truckload of roses. Besides..."

Walker paused for a moment, contemplating the right words to say to his wife. He had always been insecure about expressing himself openly and effectively, much less affectionately. Today, especially today, he wanted it to come out right.

"Besides, WHAT honey?" Alex prompted. She could tell by the serious look on his face that he was struggling with what he wanted to say. Walker rose up from the floor, positioning himself on one knee before taking her hand in his.

"Alex, you've always been so open about your feelings for me. I've never had to wonder what was in your heart or where I fit into it. But me? I know I don't always do a good job of telling you how much you mean to me. Sometimes I just don't think there are words that are good enough, so I don't say anything. I'm sorry about that. The truth is, I love you so much more then I could have ever imagined. I never thought I could feel this way about anyone. I didn't even know that this kind of love existed until I felt it first hand, and that feeling just keeps strengthening, everyday. I know I'm not very romantic, Alex, and I usually trip over my own words, so I just thought that --- maybe the roses might help me get my message across.

"Oh, I got your message honey. I definitely got your message." Alex's words were filled with mounting emotion. Unrestrained tears coursed down her cheeks as she turned back the covers of her blanket to invite her adored husband to come closer.

"Come here," she said, in a barely audible half-whisper. Her voice broke as she tugged on his hand to pull him in beside her. Walker sat on the edge of the bed before easing her into his obliging arms. Alex nestled her face into his bare chest where she wept freely, out of total gratitude for the matchless love that

she was fortunate enough to be granted. Their perilous life and their challenged relationship were far from perfect. Yet, at this very instant, both knew that they were, beyond any doubt, perfect for each other.

After a long, savored moment, Walker gently eased her away from his embrace.

"Hey, flowers are suppose to make a woman happy. They're not suppose to make you cry," he teased, laughingly. He carefully wiped her tears away before he delivered a delicate kiss to her trembling lips.

"Oh come on, Walker," Alex challenged, half-crying and half-laughing. "You had to know that this lavish presentation of flowers and your rare testimonial were going to trigger a waterfall of tears. You're definitely better at this romance stuff then you let on."

"Well, seeing you think I'm so sure of myself, how about letting me climb under the covers with you so I can take a crack at putting my money where my mouth is?" Walker offered, with a deliberately suggestive wink.

"I'd let you climb in with me but I'm afraid if I make a move, these killer thorns might attack me. Maybe we should go into the guest room," She suggested, not wanting to discourage his inviting proposition.

"They've all been dethroned, Alex. They're harmless," he assured her, as he pounced carelessly onto the opposite side of the bed beside his unexpecting wife. Landing flat on his back, he quickly reached over to Alex and lifted her slender body with one swift, yet gentle whirl, before resting her full upon his chest.

"See Hon, all of that rolling around and not one single thorn-bite. Now, do I get a thank you kiss for the roses?" He questioned playfully, while looking up into his wife's striking, sapphire-blue eyes.

"Yes, you definitely deserve a thank you kiss," she agreed, flaunting her captivating smile for her incorrigible husband as she leaned in to oblige his request. Just before their lips met, Walker spontaneously blurted out another quick-witted plea for his wife's further attentions. "Can I have one for each flower?" He asked, with a fabricated look of shyness.

"You can have as many as you want, Cowboy." Alex enthusiastically delivered her first installment towards her self-appointed debt to his eager lips. For what seemed like an eternity, the blissful couple lovingly lingered in an arousing kiss under their sheltering blanket of roses. Inevitably, they came together as one heart and spirit, offering themselves to each other with mutual purpose; to surrender to the other completely and, in return, each would reap the passionate, heart-filling rewards of their exquisite, unfailing union.

They, of course, held true to the tradition established during their five previous anniversary frolics. Their celebratory breakfast would eventually be eaten - stone cold.

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Trivette and Gage were arched over Jimmy's computer, engrossed in whatever the screen was displaying, when Walker entered the office, full of vim and high spirits, on the unseasonably mild morning of November 21st. He was sporting a burnished new Stetson, an exact replica of his demolished original. The once gruesome shiner, which previously bedecked his left eye, was nearly undetectable.

"Nice hat, man. How was your little soiree last night?" Trivette mumbled, scarcely looking up from his monitor.

"Thanks", Walker bragged, as he grazed his hand along the brim of his shiny, unblemished hood, acknowledging his partner's observation with a proud tilt. "Alex replaced it for me. Wasn't that nice? It was my anniversary present."

Trivette nodded his head as a lame response to his partner's sappy blurb, still denying any eye contact with Walker while he continued his futile hammering on his computer keys.

"The Philharmonic concert was great. The benefit netted close to $200,000 in donations for The Dallas Community Center's Youth Programs. They even awarded me a special commendation from the city for my work with Kick Drugs Out Of America. It ended up being a really nice night, even if I did have to wear one of those straight-jacketed penguin suits."

"You mean they didn't make you honorary mayor or give you the keys to the city or anything?" Trivette groused irritably, still abusing the buttons on his keyboard. He instantly detected the uninvited return of the foul taste of jealousy in his mouth, leftover from his lost bet five nights before. It was freshly flavored by the unpalatable, yet predictable news, that Walker's ordinary pumpkin had turned into a shiny coach, and he, of course, had come off as the gallant prince of the evening.

"What did you say, Trivette?" Walker questioned innocently; not hearing Jimmy's muffled, begrudging remark. "Oh nothing, Partner. Just cursing this giant paperweight of a computer. It's not giving me what I'm looking for. Are you ready to take off for the airport?" Trivette quickly changed the subject, and his attitude, realizing he would be forced to deal with whatever aftershocks might be started by his surly comments for their entire 2-hour flight to Albuquerque.

"Yeah, I'm ready to go. I just want to stop and say goodbye to Alex on our way out. Gage, you keep digging into Bank's' past. We'll check in with you this afternoon, before we head out to the Estancia Prison cemetery. Where are Sydney and Watson?" Walker inquired curiously, as he scanned the office, noticing their absence. "It's only 7:30. Are they already on the streets?"

"Yes sir... " Gage confirmed, before updating his boss on their latest activities. "They were meeting with Lenny Draper, one of our local snitches, at 8:00 o'clock sharp. It appears that we're going to get some feedback to the unfriendly message you had her deliver for Nipo the other day. I'm sure he must be getting a little uneasy, now that it's public news that he's a hunted man."

"He'd better be feeling more then a little uneasy. We're not stopping until he's back in Huntsville, and this time, I'm throwing away the key, myself." Walker stated, with an ironclad note of reliance.

"Do you think he'll try and hightail it out of the Metroplex and move on?"

Trivette questioned. "I doubt it." Walker responded. "It's too close to the Holidays. This will be his busy season and he can't afford to start over right now. He'd be losing profitable sales from his established clientele. Besides, I'm sure Nipo's figured out that we have State Troopers and D.E.A. agents watching the Mexican border and every major access road in and out of Texas. He'd never make it out of the Metroplex area with all of his equipment and supplies, and it would be too costly and too risky to leave it all behind."

"Well," Gage shared his contribution to Walker's sharpened perspective. "With all of that said, I know I can't wait to hear what Syd and Watson bring home from their unofficial business meeting. Draper wouldn't have been so anxious to make this appointment if he didn't have something concrete to deliver from Kurt Nipo."

"You can fill us in with the updates when we call you from New Mexico," Walker concluded. "Let's go Trivette. We don't want to miss our flight."

Alex's office door was slightly ajar when Walker quietly slithered in to tender his good-byes. She was rifling through some files on her credenza, her back to the door, when he unexpectedly snared her enticingly curvaceous waist from behind.

"AAAH! You scared me, Walker!" Alex shrilled, immediately naming the identity of her intruder without looking, simply by the indulgent roaming of his adept, well-acquainted hands.

"Sorry. I couldn't resist," Walker confessed, with a counterfeit expression of regret. He quickly kissed her cheek before curling her in his arms to face him.

"Trivette and I are leaving for the airport. I'll call you from New Mexico, later tonight."

"All right. You be careful out there. New Mexico's correctional facilities are privately owned and their staff has been known to be less then cooperative with outsiders," Alex reminded him, while straightening the collar on his jacket.

"I'm always careful, Alex." Walker gave his stock answer to her futile request. Ironically, he'd always meant it when it came out of his mouth. He just couldn't make good on his promise when he was out in the real world with the ever-provoking bad guys.

"Yeah, right," Alex rebutted, with her own standard response before leaning in to kiss her slightly mendacious husband goodbye. "I don't believe you, but I love you anyway. Don't forget to call me, okay?"

"I won't, and I love you too, even if you don't trust me." Walker smiled sheepishly; knowing she'd accurately pegged his transparent shortcomings many years ago. He kissed her sweetly, enfolded her in a hardy, sustaining hug, and then loped off to join his waiting partner.

The Boeing 747 transporting Walker and Trivette touched down at Albuquerque International Airport at 1:15PM; and hour later then scheduled. They had been detained on the runway in Dallas due to mechanical issues with the jumbo-jet. The instinctive duo was concerned about losing a valuable hour of daylight, which could easily hinder their digging efforts at the prison cemetery. Jimmy phoned ahead and directed the Warden to have the exhuming equipment in place and ready to begin when they arrived. He yielded explicit instructions to hold off on turning over a single grain of soil before he and his partner were on site.

Warden Paredes was less then neighborly during his conversation with Trivette. It was obvious that the he and his personnel at the Estancia Prison weren't going to bend-over backwards to assist the intruding Texas Rangers.

"Sounds like our ticker-tape parade is cancelled, partner. This Warder Paredes is almost as cantankerous as you are. Don't expect any warm welcomes when we arrive. We'll probably have to pick up a couple of shovels and dig this corpse up ourselves," Trivette fretted, as he folded up his cellular phone and cast it, pessimistically, on the seat of the rental car.

"Well, they don't have to like us, Trivette, but I sure hope they plan on cooperating. I'm not in the mood for any bad attitudes today. I just want to get in there, see who's buried in that gravesite, then get the heck out of there. Thanksgiving is two days away and I promised Alex we'd be home tomorrow. Give Gage a call and find out what's going on back in Dallas."

Trivette rummaged on the seat to reclaim his discarded phone. It only took a second or two before he recovered it and began punching in the ingrained call numbers for the private line to Ranger HQ. When the auto-attendant picked up, Jimmy keyed in his own extension, feeling pretty confident that Gage would still be taking advantage of his offer to use his state of the art FBI investigation programs and informative criminal databases that were linked to his powerful computer. The connection was accepted on the second ring.

"Gage..." "Yah, Gage, we're on our way to Estancia but we're a little behind schedule. Can you give us a fast update?"

"Sure. It's a real humdinger, Trivette. Syd and Watson got back about eleven with an interesting message from Kurt Nipo and Company. It appears that Mr. Nipo isn't too happy about Walker messing up his game for the second time around. The word on the streets is that Nipo plans on turning the tables on Walker's pledge to take him down. Our snitch was told that Nipo has put a bounty out on Walker's head: one million dollars to the first contestant who can waste him. And Trivette..... The word is, Nipo plans on getting in the game himself, just for kicks."

"A bounty? Are you sure your snitch isn't just blowing off steam, feeding you with horse hockey to stay on our good side?" Trivette suggested, concernedly. Walker's ears perked up, noticing the uneasy timbre in Trivette's voice. He was also intrigued by the subject matter of his partner's half of the conversation. Walker tapped Trivette's arm and nodded his head while shrugging his shoulders in a "what's up" gesture. Jimmy swatted his hand away and refocused his diligent attention to Gage's significant, breaking news.

"No way!" Gage answered Trivette's question without hesitation. "Syd said that Draper was pretty shaken up. One of Nipo's thugs paid him a little visit yesterday and really rattled his cage. He was given clear-cut instructions and was told to deliver them today or he'd be first on their list. They even made him write it all down so he would be sure to get it right. He begged Syd and Watson for one of their business cards so he could have proof that he'd spoken with them. Pretty bizarre, hungh?"

"Yah, that's bizarre, alright. Did Sydney and Watson get a detailed description from Draper on Nipo's messenger boy?"

"Draper gave a general description of the guy, but he refused to come back to headquarters to make a statement and work with a sketch artist. He said he was being watched and he didn't want to spend any more time with them then was necessary to deliver his message. Sydney said he was as nervous as a cat the entire time she spent with him. He just wanted to deliver the message to her and go hide under a rock somewhere."

"Start running his general description through the system to see if anything clicks. We'll check in when we're finished at the prison."

"We've already started on it, Trivette. Good luck at the prison."

"Yah, thanks. We're gonna need it." Jimmy pressed the "end call" button, then sandwiched his phone into the breast pocket of his sports coat before turning to face his suspense-filled partner.

"What did he say, Trivette?" Walker blasted out, impatiently. Jimmy briefed Walker on the details of his conversation with Gage. When he finished, he folded his arms and settled back in anticipation, against the cushioned bench of the car to await Walker's response to the news that he was, once again, a hunted man.

"Only a million? I was worth a million the last time there was a bounty on my head and that was six years ago. Don't these bad guys know about inflation?"

"This isn't a joke, man. Stop kidding around, will you?" Walker was chuckling, provokingly, at Trivette's bona fide concern until he sensed the steel gray SUV closing in on them from behind. The oversized vehicle was moving much too fast to safely pass them on the narrow stretch of road. The automobile increased its speed as it quickly closed its gap between the much smaller sedan carrying Walker and Trivette.

"We've got company, Trivette."

Meanwhile, back in Dallas, a comparable situation was unfolding along the outskirts of the city on rural route 143, which led straight to Walker's ranch. Alex had trudged through the morning with the onset of a mammoth, migraine headache. After fulfilling her last scheduled court appearance of the day, she decided to head home where she could properly tend to her upgrading affliction. She had already left her office when Sydney arrived to delicately inform her of Nipo's declaration to render vengeance against her husband.

The weather was gentle enough to put down the top on her Ford Mustang. Alex fastened it back; deciding the fresh air might help to clear her throbbing head. As she made the programmed drive home with sensitive eyes shielded by dusky sunglasses, her overburdened focus was streamlined to the usually familiar road that lay before her. Climbing into a hot shower and the comforting refuge of her soft bed was all she could think of. She didn't notice the battered Chevy pick-up truck, aggressively stalking her from a shrinking distance.

Walker instinctively thrust the accelerator to the floor while he surveyed the progress of the encroaching vehicle in his rear-view mirror. Two men were saddled on the front seat of the SUV. The co-pilot was sporting a semi-automatic rifle, which was posted designedly outside his open window. Walker and Trivette simultaneously yielded to their respective holsters for their allegiant firearms. The reckless mass of an automobile abruptly invaded their road-space, paralleling the exposed sedan along the driver's side. As the relentless operator swerved his wheel, the sturdy SUV made contact with the rear quarter of the Ranger's rental car, careening it into a slipshod skid towards the soft shoulder of the road. Walker strained the wheel to the left, recovering quickly from the impact. "Who the heck are these bozo's?" Trivette petitioned, bracing himself against the dashboard. "I don't know, but I sure would like to give them a quick lesson in automotive courtesy," Walker grumbled, as he dodged a second blow to his back end. He conferred with his side view mirror just in time to observe the artful shooter, peering with one eye shut through the anchored spyglass on his weapon. His rock solid aim was emphatically targeted at the back of Walker's head as he mercilessly fingered the trigger. The sedan deflected to the right, adulterating the bullet's intent. The side-view mirror fractured instantly. Its fragments confected the ground while the still potent slug effortlessly continued on to sever the remains of the mirror's mounted housing from the Ranger's car.

"Welcome to sunny New Mexico, folks... The natives are as friendly as can be!" Jimmy snarled sarcastically, mocking his own disbelief over their unexpected encounter, as he unfastened his seatbelt and rolled down his window to climb onto its framework.

Alex's hunter green Ford Mustang was coasting along the quiescent throughway at a conservative pace when the looming Chevrolet tapped it tormentingly, from behind. She mustered out an involuntary scream as her unprepared body lunged toward the steering column. Her properly functioning seatbelt instantly recoiled into its compartment, rebounding her back against the seat as she examined her rear-view to confront her visitor. Even with her top down, the narrow scope of her mirror would only allow her the panoramic view of an endless, intimidating hood with concave dents and fissured green paint, towering ominously over her small sports car. She pounded the gas and rambled out a desperate prayer for her own safety.

Rallying in a second attack, the strenuous automobile struck her once again, even harder then before. Alex lost control of her steering as the runaway Mustang slalomed haphazardly towards the flank of the road. A tree introduced itself into her impending path, causing her to lurch the steering wheel sharply to the right, overworking the vehicle into a side-ways slide. After what seemed like an eternity, her helpless sports car violently vibrated to a shuddering standstill. The uncontrolled swerve had snugly burrowed it into a hollow ditch

on the side of the road, facing the opposite direction that it had been traveling. Alex slammed the shift into park and cut the power to the engine. She peered over her shoulder and saw her tormentor speeding off in victory. The hastening truck was already several car-lengths away. She couldn't make out the numbers on the crumpled, mud-splattered license plate. Alex closed her eyes and exhaled a beholden sigh of relief before she anxiously searched for her lost phone on the floor of her car. She massaged her temples, reacquainting herself with her throbbing ailment. Her headache had amplified to an unmeasurable high.

The simple task of dialing the numbers for Ranger Headquarters caused a strain on her susceptible eyes. As the phone rang, she tapped her foot nervously on the floorboards of the car, impatiently waiting to hear Sydney or Gage's voice on the other end of the receiver.

Trivette was perched precariously on the doorframe of the car as he returned fire on the sharpshooter, forcing him back into the protective hull of the SUV. The armed fighter tentatively leaned out, releasing a hastened, awkward round toward the car before quickly retreating back into the sheltered safety of the cab. His misguided bullet tore through the rear-windshield of the sedan, instantly diffusing it into tiny nuggets of dull glass that showered the back seat of the car.

"Dang it!" Walker cursed, as he swerved to the right in a knee-jerk reaction to the hit. "Watch the quick turns, partner, watch the turns..." Trivette pleaded with due panic, as he shifted his weight against the front of the doorframe to compensate for the reckless move. Walker scoped out his environment, searching for a crossroad to retreat to. There had been nothing but undeveloped land for the past five miles and the repetitive scenery didn't look like it would be changing in the near future. The highway was as barren as an artesian well during a major drought. His infinite view was unobstructed by the desired sight of a single private home, business, intersection, or any signs of aiding life. He silently blighted the now suspect, airport baggage attendant who had eagerly offered "quicker" directions then those obligatorily supplied by the car rental company. They had been set up, and the baggage attendant was a strategically positioned cohort of these ruthless hunters who were badgering their vulnerable tail.

Walker maxed out the six-cylinder engines' limited capabilities as he broached 100 miles per hour on the twitching speedometer. The more powerful, eight-cylinder monstrosity trespassed once again, alongside the comparably dwarfed automobile. The SUV passenger listed out once more, scrupulously aiming for the Ranger's left-rear tire. Trivette released a custodial bullet, hoping to impede the accuracy of his opponent's marksmanship. He was unsuccessful. The slug ruptured the back-tire causing a jeopardous blowout, which sent the

four-door sedan into a spiraling journey across the deserted thoroughfare.

Walker strenuously steered into the slide with insignificant progress. The car was still moving at an excessive speed. Trivette collapsed himself into the flailing car, fully aware that he would be triumphantly claimed as trivial road-kill if he tried to hang on to its exterior for much longer. The rental car radiated into a 360-degree rotation before it came to a staggering halt. The wild ride squared their rear bumper into the trunk of a stout tree that trimmed the dusty roadside. Walker and Trivette freed themselves from the paralyzed automobile as they quickly took cover behind their respective doors. Gunfire surrounded them as the steel-belted radials on the solid SUV screamed to an authoritative stop. The unimpaired vehicle was strategically positioned on the opposite side of the road, maintaining a conservative distance from the Ranger's makeshift bunker. Both men sprang from the cab, armoring their bodies with their car doors. Texas's finest looted a fast glance of the men who were stalking them before the retreated to their defensive positions.

Bullets rang through the air like fireworks on the Fourth of July. One of Walker's rounds sunk deep into the shin of the coward who had tried to shoot him from behind. The renegade hopped on one foot behind the screen of his door as he mercilessly reloaded his weapon. Trivette's next shot obliterated the windshield, spewing glass over their enemies, causing them to momentarily desist their retorting fire. Both vehicles were already sown with bullet holes when the cease-fire ended and the potent ammunition resumed its flight across the highway.

As he vigilantly dodged the airborne warfare, Walker could feel a strong vibration beneath his feet. He was sure that a heavy vehicle traveling along the road was the cause of the mounting tremors. Peering over the mutilated hood of the car, he took in the welcomed sight of a sprawling fire-truck lumbering towards them at a leisurely pace.

"Here comes the Calvary, Trivette. I don't think these boys will mess with ten tons of solid steel."

"Yee-Haw... Come to papa, you big, beautiful red hunk of metal." Trivette cheered the firefighters on, proclaiming his eternal gratitude for their well-timed arrival. "Walker, Did I ever tell you that I wanted to be a fireman when I was a kid?" Walker just shook his head and smiled involuntarily at his partner's insatiable, boyish spirit, as he eluded another projectile object soaring ominously above his exposed noggin.

Observing the immutable approach of the steel-sheeted engine drove the opposition back into their annihilated SUV. Windshield less, stitched with holes and with glass-covered seats, the disfigured automobile sped off in the opposite direction of the oncoming meddlers who had unknowingly disjointed their assassination assignment.

The native Albuquerque Fire Chief and his suited team stayed with the Texas Rangers until the police arrived. "Thanks Chief! You saved our hides. I'm not sure what would have happened if you and your boys hadn't come along," Walker confessed, while delivering a solid, honor-bound shake to the man's hand.

"What brought you guys out here, anyway?" Trivette questioned curiously.

"We use this road for our scheduled safety drills," The Fire Chief advised. Since the new highway opened up, no one travels this drawn-out, deserted old strip so it's the perfect place for us to check our sirens and test our equipment. Now, I could ask you Ranger's the same question. What the heck are you rubbernecks doing out here in the middle of nowhere on your first trip to Albuquerque?" The Chief chuckled to himself, as he looked around at the glorified "nothingness" that surrounded them.

"Bad directions," Walker brooded. "Let's just leave it at that, okay?"

"You got it Ranger. I sure hope the rest of your visit in New Mexico is a tad better then your introduction." The Fire Chief tipped his hard-hat before climbing back onto his polished machine. His fine-tuned engine purred in unison with its precautionary backup signals, which permeated the suspicious silence, as Albuquerque Hose #4 prepared for its departure. Their tangled statement was obligatorily noted by the skeptical Albuquerque police officers. After several explaining phone calls back and forth between Hertz rental and their persuasive Commander at Ranger Headquarters, a tow-truck was dispatched and a replacement rental car was reluctantly delivered to the ill-starred team of Ranger's Cordell Walker and James Trivette.

As they watched the shredded sedan being carried away on the back of the flatbed, Jimmy turned to Walker and asked, "did we pay the extra fourteen bucks for the extended insurance?"

"Get in the car, Trivette," Walker threatened. His pithiness indicated that he hadn't secured the extended coverage, which meant the Commander would be bellyaching about the extraneous fees upon their return to Dallas. As the Rangers resumed their pilgrimage to Estancia Prison in their fresh, untainted rental car, Trivette redialed the Warden to inform him of their unexpected detainment. Getting no answer, he was forced to leave a brief message on his voice mail, confirming that they were, once again, on their way.

 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

The Texas Rangers rolled onto The Estancia State Correctional Facility grounds at 5:02PM. The afternoon sun was fading fast as the preambles of nightfall willfully introduced themselves to the clement milieu of New Mexico. Prison security met them at the gate where their entry was cleared after two phone calls to the Warden's office. The road leading to the cemetery was endless and empty; eerily similar to the strip they had been ambushed on earlier in the day. After traveling several miles on the dirt road, Walker and Trivette could finally see the boundless, enfeebled prison burial grounds. The Rangers were reluctantly admitted through the last, secured gate where they were given lukewarm directions to the digging site. Walker maneuvered his car through the narrow travel-ways leading to the requisite grave at the Northwest corner of the cemetery.

As they neared their destination, the rumbles of heavy machinery provokingly fell on their ears. "They're digging already! I told Paredes to sit tight until we got here," Trivette cursed out-loud, as he slammed the blameless dashboard in downright annoyance. It had already been a exceedingly long day, and the Warden's blatant noncompliance was the bitter icing on their crumbling cake.

Walker parked alongside the activity before he and his partner quickly vaulted out of the car to join the small crowd that surrounded the exposed hole in the ground. As they neared the deep cavity, it was obvious that the digging had been going on for quite some time. The rugged backhoe was pulling away to turn the job over to the waiting manpower who would climb into the hole and prepare the casket for exhumation. The disjointed Rangers aggressively approached a paunchy man in a dark blue suit. His tailored jacket was pompously decorated with an ambiguous, official-looking emblem over his left breast pocket. The thick-set, excessively tanned man stood with his arms folded across his inflated chest in a deliberate, courtly stance. It was clear that this was the ornery, self-important, all-governing - Warden Parades.

"Warden Parades?" Walker solicited his identity, only as a customary courtesy. He knew exactly whom he was addressing.

"Yes... and you must be Ranger's Walker and Trivette," the Warden responded reclusively, through a viscous, yet articulate accent. "I'm Ranger Cordell Walker and this is my partner, Ranger James Trivette." Walker didn't bother to extend a diplomatic grip to shake the Wardens hand.

"Warden Paredes, I gave you crystal-clear instructions to hold off on exhuming the body until Ranger Walker and I got here. We were suppose to be granted sufficient time to examine the area before anything was touched," Trivette challenged.

"I can appreciate that, Ranger Trivette. But your tardiness tied our hands. Darkness was quickly falling upon us. We had no idea when you would arrive, and your sanctioned document of extrication, ordered by the very influential state of Texas clearly states that the exhuming must be performed on the 21st day of November, in the year 2000. That is today, Senior Trivette," Paredes endorsed with a contrived, patronizing smile as he mockingly waved the elusive court order in front of the simmering Rangers.

"We were held up unexpectedly, Warden. Trivette left you a message at 4:00PM, stating that we were on our way."

"Yes...I received your message. But how could I be sure when you would arrive? You had already phoned me earlier in the afternoon, promising that you were on route: Yet you were...as you say... "Unexpectedly" detained. Were you not?"

Trivette and Walker's deep-seeded exasperation towards Paredes was hastily switched off by a hollow call from a workman assigned to the newly dug opening in the ground, several feet below them.

"The casket's empty, Warden. There's nothing here but sawdust," the laborer reported.

Walker, Trivette and Paredes scrambled over to the crude tomb, peering inside to verify the disturbing announcement. "Paredes, what's going on here? This grave belongs to Arthur Banks: A maximum-security prisoner. Are you telling me that you can't even keep track of a dead man? Or maybe Banks was never buried here in the first place? Is that it, Warden?" Walker interrogated, with his trademark, point-blank approach.

"Your insinuations are ludicrous, Ranger Walker. I witnessed the embalming and the entombment of Arthur Banks, myself. I am as alarmed as you are by this disquieting discovery," The Warden retaliated, with an ineffectual bid of conviction.

"Disquieting discovery?" Jimmy's response exploded caustically in complete distrust of the Warden's slighting tone and insolent word-choice. "This is a little more then disquieting, don't you think? You've got a max-security criminal who's been potentially identified as being alive and well and killing helpless kids in Dallas, that mysteriously ends up missing from his pine box in a graveyard that's surrounded by more layers of security goons then the White House. "Disquieting" wouldn't be the adjective that would come to my mind, Warden. Where could this body have gone?"

"Perhaps our language barrier has caused me to phrase my concerns in a manner that has offended you, Senior Trivette. I assure you, this was not my intent." Warden Parede's response was delivered with a deadpan expression and a cool tone, making it difficult for Jimmy to determine if he was telling the truth or lying through his pearly whites.

"Warden, this man was buried over a year ago, and now that there is a suspicion that he may still be alive, his body turns up missing. That alone justifies enough cause for a thorough investigation by the state of Texas. I want copies of all of the activity logs for this cemetery: Every burial that has taken place since then, maintenance calls, families visiting their loved ones, anyone who has stepped foot on these grounds since Banks was supposedly buried. I also want a copy of your security ledgers for the outer-prison gates as well as the separate gate to the cemetery," Walker mandated.

"Senior Walker, this facility is run by the competent state of New Mexico, not by your domineering federal government, which readily controls your dependant dominion. Our legislature will decide how this will be handled. Senior Banks was our prisoner and our solitary responsibility. We will investigate this calamity forthright, and when we have denounced a proper explanation, we will inform your regulated state of Texas of our findings," Warden Paredes brusquely declared.

"That's what you think, Warden. If you don't provide the requested information willingly, I'll gladly arrange to have another court order on your desk by the end of business tomorrow, commanding that you relinquish it. It's your call, Paredes. You can cooperate, or you can resist. Loosing a prisoner, even a dead one, is going to catch the attention of those supervising Feds that you say you don't have to answer to, and they're not going to give a flying hoot as to who runs this institution. They'll be swarming this place like bees on honey. Has our language barrier caused me to phrase my concerns in a manner that's offended you, Warden?" Walker chastised. He was thoroughly enjoying the timely opportunity to backlash Paredes with a hearty dose of his own condescending medicine.

Warden Paredes angrily heaved out a few untranslatable words in his native Spanish language before he sharply motioned to one of the security guards and stormed off towards a chauffeured prison vehicle to escape his ill-received humiliation.

He muttered a few instructions to another officer before climbing into the passenger side of the car. Dust filtered the air as the automobile sped out at an uncalled-for speed.

The security guard returned to the graveside to deliver the Warden's orders. The men immediately began nailing the casket shut while the backhoe fired up its engine. A flatbed utility truck backed up to the edge of the open cavity. Walker and Trivette approached the guard, asking what Paredes had instructed them to do with the empty casket.

"We are to secure the casket and deliver it to a warehouse on the prison grounds where it will be guarded, twenty-four hours a day." The security guard returned to supervise his squad, who was loading the casket into the back of the waiting truck. The backhoe lowered it with ease while two workers carefully guided it onto the flatbed.

"I'd love to do some DNA testing on that coffin to see if Banks or anybody else was ever buried in there," Walker said.

"Getting a court-order for that might be a little tougher then getting one for the prison records, Walker. Besides, Paredes has possession of it for now and I'm sure he'll be cleaning it up if he's had any involvement in this little fiasco. Quite frankly, I think he orchestrated the whole bloody thing," Trivette accused, vocalizing his backbiting suspicions towards Warden Paredes.

"I know, Trivette. I was just wishfully thinking out loud," Walker responded. We'll just have to find another way to nail Paredes for whatever part he's been playing in all of this. Let's take a closer look at the gravesite before we leave."

The Rangers knelt down along the edge of the shaft, scrutinizing the scene for any indications of foul play. "Come here, Trivette. Look at this. There are two breaks in the soil. One from the hole dug today and another one just outside of it."

The frame of the freshly squared cavity was almost undetectably trimmed along one side by moist, unsowed soil that had recently been unearthed. "This grave was dug up before today," Walker sanctioned. "Based on the packing of this topsoil, my guess is that it was done within the past 48 hours. Didn't you say that they had just gotten a fair amount of rain when you checked the weather report before we left?" Walker questioned his partner.

"Yeah, they had a few heavy showers yesterday morning. Why?"

"This outer soil is moist, yet evenly dispersed. Hosing it down would have created some pitting in the dirt from the concentrated pressure, but natural rainfall would have aerated it just enough for it to settle uniformly. I'm guessing someone pulled this coffin out of the ground over the weekend, right after Paredes received his court-order." Walker stood up, preparing to discuss his subsequent plan of actin with Trivette, when the conspicuous ringing of his partner's cell-phone interrupted him.

"Yah, Trivette...."

"Hi Trivette, it's Sydney."

“Hey Sydney, what's up?"

"We just phoned into the Commander back at the office and heard that you guys ran into a little trouble out there. You okay?" She concernedly asked her comrade. "We're alright, but I think our Hertz bill might force the Commander to pull all of our allowances for the rest of this month. Where are you guys?" Trivette inquired, wondering why they weren't at headquarters.

"Gage and I are with Alex at Walker's ranch. She ran into some trouble of her own on her way home today. Is Walker there? I'd like to talk with him if I could."

"Sure, he's right here. Is Alex okay, Sydney?" Walker's submerged concentration was immediately redirected to his partner's discussion. He hurried over to Trivette before he anxiously ejected an open hand towards his partner, motioning to take over the call.

"She'll be fine, just a little banged up."

"I'm glad to hear it Syd, here's Walker."

"Sydney, what's wrong with Alex? Is she hurt?" Walker questioned, frenzied by the thought of his wife being in any kind of danger when he couldn't be there to protect her.

"She's alright Walker, she's just got a few bruises and she pretty shaken up."

"What happened to her Sydney?"

"Alex left work early with a terrible headache. While on her way home, she was run off the road by some lunatic. She called Gage and I, and we got to her as soon as we could. She banged her head on the steering wheel, but other then that; she appears to be okay. Her car is another story."

"Does Alex have any idea who it was?"

Alex had passed it off as a joy-riding teen-ager out to stir up some trouble, but after we told her about Nipo and the bounty on your head, she really got nervous. We pretty much figured it was a little calling card from Nipo, and then when we heard about your near miss, there was no question that Alex's trouble was a message from Nipo. She's really worried about you Walker."

"It's more like a warning then a message, Sydney. He's using Alex to get to me. Her accident was a threat for me to back off, just in case his assassination attempt here in New Mexico didn't work out. Nipo probably figured he should cover his basis. If I did survive his hit man, he wanted to make sure I knew that he was in control," Walker fumed.

"Well, we've finally got her calmed down. She's taken some aspirin and a hot shower. I made her some dinner and she's resting now."

"Thanks for being there Sydney, can you and Gage stay with Alex until I get home? Trivette and I will try and catch the red-eye flight. We could be home by 2:00 AM," Walker appealed to his more then trustworthy Junior Ranger.

"Sure Walker, It'd be our pleasure. Take your time. We'll stay with Alex until you get back. She's much better company then Gage. I'm enjoying the adult conversations we've been having," she kidded, trying to ease Walker's exposed anguish, which was unmercifully gnawing on his conscience for being so far away from his wife when she needed him.

"Thanks again, Sydney. I really appreciate your help. We're on our way." Walker slammed the tiny phone into his clenched hands as he forged off to determinedly commandeer the wheel of his second round of rental cars in his outrageously eventful day.

"What happened Walker? What the heck is Nipo doing going after Alex?" Trivette beseeched, overhearing bits and pieces of Walker's disturbing conversation.

"I really don't think he knows what he's doing, Trivette. If he did, he'd know enough to stay the hell away from my wife if he wants to keep on breathing. Let's get out of here. I've had enough of Albuquerque and The Estancia State Prison to last me a lifetime. We've got a plane to catch."

Walker parked the Ram next to Gage's car in his reserved section of his driveway. It was 1:30AM, on Thanksgiving Eve morning. He was still smoldering over Nipo's misdeeds, yet he found himself easing into an unexpected state of calm; feeling the need to give thanks - for he, Alex and Trivette had made it through this treacherous day, which could have ended very differently. After taking a moment for himself, Walker hurried into the house to check on his wife and to relieve Sydney and Gage from their worthy post.

Gage was rising up from the living room chair as Walker turned his key in the front lock. Hearing the activity, Sydney woke from her cap-nap snatched in Walker's overstuffed recliner. Alex was curled up on the sofa, her arms vulnerably cradling her own body as she slept.

"She tried to wait up for you Walker, but she was so exhausted. Once the aspirin finally took the edge off her headache, she just couldn't fight it any longer. She's been asleep for about an hour," Sydney whispered.

"We had her car towed to Hansen Ford downtown. They're going to pop it up on the lift to see how extensive the damage is. You can give them a call tomorrow - I mean later on today." Gage corrected himself after glancing down at his accurate watch.

"Okay, Thanks Gage. Were there any witnesses driving by that might have gotten a better look at this guy then Alex did?"

"Not a sole, Walker. We found an old detour sign positioned at the Route 143 on-ramp where Alex entered. DPD found another one set up at the off-ramp leading to your ranch. Two cars had to be involved to pull it off, making contact by cell phone or radio. They had to know that this was the route that Alex uses to come home, or they wouldn't have been able to box her in like they did. This creep made sure that he wouldn't be interrupted. He must have been following Alex long before she even got onto 143. That's what makes it all so scary. Alex's car was wedged tight as a drum in that ditch and her top was down. If

this perp wanted to-------"

Gage prudently rephrased what he was going to say. He somehow, felt uncomfortable in mentioning the obvious fact to her husband, that Alex could have been murdered. Even though Walker was in the business of dealing with vicious crime and cold-blooded death everyday of his life, Gage didn't think he could handle the same kind of candid shoptalk when the victim could have been his wife.

"If this perp wanted to harm Alex in any way, he certainly had the perfect opportunity. She's a lucky lady, Walker."

"Don't I know it, Gage. It really eased my mind during the flight home, knowing that you and Sydney were here with her. Can you guys hold down the fort with Trivette today? I think I'm going to stay home with Alex until she's feeling better."

"We can handle it Boss. Get some sleep, okay?" Gage consoled, while patting Walker's shoulder.

"You too," Walker added, as he accompanied them to the door. "We'll be seeing you on Thursday for Thanksgiving dinner at The H.O.P.E. Center, right?" He reminded them. "Six O'clock sharp. I'll make sure Gage is on time," Sydney chastised, elbowing her absent-minded partner in the ribs as they exited the ranch house. Walker locked the door securely before turning to get an intimate look at his slumbering wife. As he gingerly positioned himself on the edge of the couch beside Alex, he immediately noticed the scarlet bruise on the right side of her forehead, dominantly peeking through her fair-haired locks. Walker's festering guilt over her ordeal returned with an amplified level of intensity. Nipo was trying to get to him through Alex. This was the part of his job that he hated the most. "Why was it that criminals always had to play dirty by going after innocent bystanders to secure their edge? Why couldn't they fight like real men? Because they're not real men! They're spineless cowards who menace wives and children to feel powerful and in control."

Walker stopped his profitless pondering and redirected his focus to his wearied, sleeping beauty. He leaned in close, brushing a delicate, sympathizing kiss over her injury; something she'd done for him on more occasions then he could count. Alex stirred beneath the warm haven of his tender, devoted lips. Her eyes fluttered open as she forced herself to rouse so she could see her husband's face.

"Well, you're a sight for sore eyes;" Walker spoke softly through an affectionate smile. "I could say the same thing about you," she whispered, happy that he was finally home and seemingly, in one piece. As she awakened fully, the pain in her eyes and head were awakened three-fold. She cringed beneath the hurt as she pressed her fingertips into her throbbing temples. "Boy, could I say the same about you. Talk about sore eyes..."

"The headache's still pretty bad, hungh?"

"Yeah - The medicine helped for a little while but the orchestra's back from break and they're playing a full symphony in my head," Alex whimpered, still kneading her hairline in a futile attempt to force out the discomfort.

"Do you want me to rub it for you? That usually does the trick," Walker offered.

"Could you? I just can't seem to shake this one. The bump on my head must have made it so much worse then it already was."

"Sure. Come here," Walker said, reaching for her hands to pull her up into a sitting position. He wrapped one arm around her back before he gently guided her head to his chest with his free hand. As she relaxed full against him, Walker laced his fingers into her golden mane. While holding her close, he began massaging her scalp; hoping to relieve her visible suffering.

"Alex, I'm so sorry about what happened today. Nipo is trying to get to me by frightening you. I swear; I'll keep you far out of his reach from now on. I could never live with myself if anything happened to you." Walker increased the pressure of his supporting arm that was protectively coiled around her waist. He was holding her so tightly that her breath involuntarily gusted from her lungs. "Walker," Alex squeaked. "I can't breathe."

"I'm sorry, sweetheart. I didn't mean to hurt you," he promised her, while easing up on his reflexive squeeze. "I'm just so glad that you're okay." Walker apologized profusely for his overprotective reaction.

Alex eased away from his bear hug to look into his hurting eyes. "Walker, you have nothing to be sorry for. You didn't torture me out there on that road toady. It was one of Nipo's abusive entourage. They're not going to play by the rules, Walker. They're heartless criminals who are being sought after by the finest Ranger in the state of Texas. Nipo and his thugs are going to continue to murder innocent kids and chase unsuspecting wives off the road until they're finally stopped. Tomorrow, it could be someone else's wife or child. He doesn't care who he hurts; he just eliminates anyone who gets in his way. You get out there and find him and do whatever it takes to stop him, and I'll promise to be more careful, okay?" Alex assured him.

Cordell stared into her clear-sighted eyes before he enfolded her, once again, into her previous place of comfort. "Well, I can be more careful too. You're going to ride shotgun with me for a while. I don't want you going out without me or another Ranger or a Police Officer. Can you promise me that?" He pleaded.

"I promise," Alex agreed. She rested her head against his strong torso and snuggled her arms around his waist. They had done enough talking for now. The spent couple simply needed to hold on to one another.

They sat, nestled together for a long while. Walker faithfully continued to administer his healing head-rub. Alex's breathing was rhythmic and shallow now. She was finally asleep. He held her for a moment longer; allowing his senses to fill up with the familiar aromas of her freshly washed hair and delicate perfume. Walker eased her onto the sofa, then stood up to harvest her into his capable arms.

As he carried her up the stairs to their bedroom, Alex woke in his cradling embrace but made no attempt to tell him that she was not asleep and could walk on her own. She didn't even bother to open her eyes. His safeguarded damsel merely tightened her arms around his neck and nuzzled her face deep into the comforting harbor of his sheltering chest.

 

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

The Walker's slept till nearly 10:00 O'clock on Thanksgiving Eve morning. Each of their treacherous ordeals endured on the previous day had taken more out of them then they had realized. Alex was feeling much better after a good night's sleep, spent in her husband's protecting arms. Her headache was finally gone, but she was still feeling a bit lightheaded. "Probably from too much sleep," she reassured herself.

Walker made Alex breakfast and tidied up the kitchen while his wife soaked in a relaxing bath. After breakfast, they read the paper together then shifted their concentration to the work that needed to be done in the next twenty-four hours before they would be ready for their Thanksgiving Dinner at the H.O.P.E. Center. After the lists were made and an inventory was taken on all the necessary ingredients needed for their intended baking, Walker was feeling the urge to take a ride up to Eagle Ridge to visit with Lucas. He usually buried his painful, private memories of the boy deep inside himself, but the Holiday's always forced them back up to the surface of his heart.

Eagle Ridge had always been Walker's favorite retreat on the ranch, ever since the day he'd stumbled upon it. It was the highest point on his property, and there, he could stand witness to the abounding beauty that surrounded it for miles on end. On the summit of the ridge, the only sounds that could be heard were the sonorous choirs of birds singing their praise, while the call of the wind accompanied them in perfect unison with their glorifying songs. He took comfort in knowing that Lucas rested peacefully there.

Walker could always find harmony with the spirits during his visits to the ridge. It acted as a sanctuary for him, where he could humbly achieve acceptance of God's will, even when it seemed tragic and senseless. He found himself yearning to find some level of acceptance over this toxic X-DREAM case. He was questioning God's judgment for allowing a man like Kurt Nipo to continue to walk His blessed earth while a gentle, young soul like Lucas had been taken away.

Walker was suffering from the effects of the mounting pressure on his overly weighted shoulders and he was in dire need of some relief. Eagle Ridge and Lucas's tranquil spirit would help him to put it all into perspective so he could move forward with a rational, unclouded head.

"Alex, let's pack some lunch, saddle up the horses and take a nice long ride. It's a beautiful day and we could both use a little R&R. What do you say?" Walker was hoping she would agree. He desperately needed to spend some time with Lucas. It always helped to clear his overburdened mind, but he didn't want to leave Alex alone at the ranch. After what happened yesterday, he wasn't going to let her out of his sight.

"That sounds wonderful. Things have been so crazy around here since we started this case. I can't remember the last time I took Angel out for a ride. I'll make us some lunch while you go and saddle up."

Alex prepared two salads, sliced cheese and crackers and fresh fruit, and then packed them into plastic containers. She ventured out to the barn, expecting her husband to be anxiously awaiting her arrival. Cordell could outfit the horses quicker then anyone she'd ever seen. When Alex entered the stable area, Walker was leading Amigo out to the hitching post but Angel was still in her stall. He hadn't even put on her riding blanket.

"What's the matter sweetheart, is my girl giving you trouble? Do you need my help getting her ready?" Alex asked, kiddingly. Angel was the most gentle-spirited horse she'd ever ridden and Walker had a way with her that warmed Alex's heart whenever she watched him carefully tend to the caramel mare. He certainly didn't need anyone's help where horses were concerned.

"Angel's feeling a little under the weather. I thought it would be better to let her rest. You can ride with Amigo and me. You don't mind sharing a saddle with me, do you?" Walker smirked and winked simultaneously as he took the lunch containers from Alex and packed them into his saddlebag. "I'll ride with you anytime, Cowboy...But what's wrong with her? Is she sick?" Alex inquired with a spike of concern.

"No, not sick - pregnant! See the swelling in her belly? She's about two months along. I'm afraid you're going to be a grandma, Alex." Walker broke the joyful news, then watched the unexpected, contrasting reaction from his obviously stunned wife.

"Pregnant? What do you mean she's pregnant? How could this have......? WHEN could this have......" Alex's mind was reeling as she tried to figure out how her corralled mare could have been taken advantage of under such controlled circumstances."

"Sweetheart," Walker placed a calming hand on her shoulder as he looked into her eyes. "Remember that Sunday morning in September when we went for a ride then left the horses to graze? We snuck off for a quick swim, but we ended up getting a little carried away with each other and left them alone for nearly three hours?" Alex nodded and smiled sentimentally as she recalled their romantic rendezvous by the stream. "We'll, It looks like we weren't the only ones making use of our private time alone together. I guess we're not very responsible parents," Walker added with a playful grin.

Alex stood silent for a moment while giant tears began welling up over the rims of her eyes. She slumped her body down onto a bail of hay where she bowed her head and wept softly.

"What's the matter honey? I thought you'd be excited. You're going to have a new colt to take care of and Angel will be the perfect mother. She's gentle and patient and she's as strong as any stallion."

"I want to be a perfect mother. Don't you see..? Even my horse is going to have a baby before I am." Alex raised her head just enough to expose the increasing redness in her eyes and the look of pain on her face.

"Oh honey..." Walker kneeled down in front of her as he lifted her chin up with a gentle hand. It never occurred to him that she would react this way. He knew how anxious she was to have a baby and he should have been more sensitive to that when he told her about Angel. As he searched her tear-filled eyes, Walker scrambled for the right words that might soothe her heartache.

"Alex, how long did it take for me to admit my feelings for you?" He asked her.

"Forever! You were a stubborn, thick-headed, big jerk for years." She brutally answered his question through her free-flowing tears.

"That's right, I was.... And after we finally got together, how long was it before we were married?" Walker continued his prompting, hoping she would follow his lead. "Several years later, you know that. Why are you asking me all of this now?" She pleaded, with a slightly irritated and confused expression.

"While you were waiting for me to come to my senses, did you ever consider giving up on me, on us?"

"No........" Alex spoke softly in a calmer voice, realizing where Walker was going with his little pep talk. "I would have waited for you forever. I could never have given up and walked away. I loved and wanted you so much and I knew in my heart that you were worth waiting for. I was sure that someday - we'd be together."

"Honey, when we have our first child, all of this waiting will seem so unimportant. Allow yourself the same kind of patience that you gave to me. When it finally happens, nothing else is going to matter. It'll be the happiest day of our lives. Heck, you waited on me for seven years, I think we can give this baby quest a little more then six months, don't you?"

"Okay, you win. I know you're right. I'm sorry for getting so emotional over this. I don't know what got into me. I guess you and Angel just took me by surprise. You too, Amigo." Alex cast a scolding glare over to the soon-to-be proud father. Walker helped her up and surrounded her with his comforting arms. He kissed her softly then wiped away the remains of her dwindling tears. "Are you ready to go for our ride?" He asked tenderly. "I'm ready. Just give me a second." Alex unfastened the latch on Angel's stall and went inside to be close to her radiant animal. She cradled Angel's head in her arms and hugged her around her neck. "My little Angel's going to be a mama. Don't worry girl, we'll take good care of you and your baby." She kissed her muzzle and smoothed back the hair on her mane with a gentle hand. Angel nuzzled Alex's cheek and whickered softly, as if she'd completely understood her owner's calming words.

Alex hadn't bothered to ask Walker where they were headed, but as they crossed the brook and started up the slope towards Eagle ridge, Alex knew exactly where he was taking her. She felt a steep pinch in her chest as she remembered the fair-haired little boy who had stolen both of their hearts. She tightened her hold around her husband's waist and rested her head against the back of his shoulder. Alex was sure that Walker had been thinking of Lucas all day, which made her feel all the guiltier for broad siding him with her emotional outburst - on top of everything else he had to deal with.

Amigo was clearly leading the way, having made the ride many times before with his master. The intuitive animal knew just where to place his careful hoofs on the rocky incline, but Walker still held lightly onto the reigns with one hand out of sheer habit. Alex reached out for his free hand that rested in his lap and gave it a reassuring squeeze. She wanted him to know that she was here for him, just as he had always been for her.

Amigo's sure footing delivered them without effort to the top of the summit on Eagle Ridge. Alex purposely laid out the picnic blanket several hundred feet away from Lucas's grave, knowing Walker would want to spend some time alone with him. He reached for her hand as they neared Lucas's resting-place. They prayed together in silence before Alex kissed Walker's cheek and headed back to the blanket without uttering a single word. She didn't have to. He knew she understood.

Walker knelt down to place a flawless eagle feather on Lucas's grave before starting his much-needed conversation with the tiny spirit.

"You know, Lucas...You were incredibly wise beyond your years for a little boy. I only wish more adults had the insight and faith that you had. I must admit, I'm loosing faith in God and myself over this case I've been working on. How long and how hard do I have to search for this man who is killing innocent kids without any remorse? How many more kids will die before I can stop him? Sometimes the road seems too long and too costly. When will God decide that he's had enough, Lucas?"

"God has already had enough, Walker. His heart aches whenever evil overtakes His children. He created the earth as a sanctuary for His people to manage on their own as a test of their faith and dedication to His name. You have to decide when you've had enough. His true followers are the only ones who can stop those people who choose to serve themselves, instead of the one true Master. His goodness will always overpower the evil, as long as His children believe in Him, without doubt. God won't turn His back on you, Walker. He will help you to stay strong as long as you are true to His work. If your will is to serve Him, He

will stand beside you in your journey, no matter how long the road. Don't give up. I know you can do anything that you set your mind to and God knows it too. We have faith in you Walker. Have faith in yourself."

"I will, Lucas. Thanks for setting me straight." The Walker's rose early on Thanksgiving morning to get started on the long list of chores that needed to be completed before it was time to host their dinner at the H.O.P.E. Center. Four of the less fortunate families that participated in the H.O.P.E. program would be joining them in their meal of thanks. Alex knew that these families had little means to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and she was delighted that she could give them one. Josie was readying the center for their feast while she expertly roasted the hearty 32-lb. bird. Alex and Walker made the pies for dessert while Trivette, Sydney and Gage helped with the fixings. They wanted it to be perfect for their guests; especially the children. Some of these kids had never had a traditional Thanksgiving dinner before. Alex was determined to show them what Thanksgiving was really about. Love, unity, gratefulness and the promise for new beginnings.

The troops finally sat down at 6:30 to enjoy their bountiful harvest. The large table was pleasantly crowed with fifteen place settings and chairs, cozily shoehorned around it. Jacinta Raposo, a tiny eight-year-old beauty who was sitting next to her mother Clementina, would be delivering the Thanksgiving prayer. Their friends referred to them simply as Jessie and Tina. Jessie stood up in front of her chair as she began to read a prayer by Robert Louis Stevenson. She'd picked it herself from a book in the library where her mother worked. Jessie read the words from a crumpled piece of orange construction paper covered with seemingly illegible strokes of green marker, yet the little girl read the words with remarkable ease and a youthful essence of hope.

Lord; behold our circle here assembled.

 

We thank thee

For this place in which we come together;

For the peace accorded us this day,

For the hope with which we expect tomorrow;

For the health, the work, the food

And the bright skies that make our lives delightful,

For our friends in all parts of the earth, and our friendly helpers...

Let peace abound in our small company.

Amen.....

 

"Let's eat!" Jimmy said impatiently, as he reached out for a slice of the warm bread that had been enticing his watering palate from the second he'd sat down. Josie slapped his hand before he could make contact with the brimming platter. "We serve the children first, Ranger," Josie scolded, trying hard to hold back a gentle smile.

"Of course we do! I was just getting ready to pass the bread around and get this celebration rolling. I wasn't gonna eat it," he added unconvincingly. Everyone enjoyed a hearty, yet harmless laugh at Jimmy's expense. Jimmy stood up and began circling the table to serve their guests. As he walked around, he took in the festive view of the beautiful table and the glorious display of food that had been prepared with love by he and his talented accomplices. "Big Dog would have been real proud of the spread we put together," Trivette said unconsciously. The room grew quiet. C.D. hadn't been mentioned very often since his death two months earlier. It was still too painful for everyone; especially Walker. They sat in absolute silence, taking a moment to remember their dearest friend.

"Thanksgiving was C.D.'s favorite holiday," Alex said softly. "He sure would have been proud of all of us today. The only thing that's missing for a genuine C.D. Parker - Texas Thanksgiving dinner is a pot of his homemade chili." Everyone liberated an involuntary chuckle over the 100% accurate statement, except for Walker. He was staring down into his empty plate. The unexpected reference to his dear friend and father figure seemed to be causing him to mourn his tremendous loss all over again. No one else noticed his pensiveness except for his intuitive wife who was seated close at his side. Alex placed her hand on his arm and squeezed it gently, as if she were reassuring him; "it's okay honey, it will get easier."

The cozy crowd ate hardy, talked freely and laughed abundantly for nearly two hours. Alex sat back for a moment to observe the diverse group of people she had brought together. They all came from different social and ethnic backgrounds, yet they were sitting here as one united body of family. Each of them seeming to be as comfortable as they would be in their own homes. Her heart was saturated with contentment. She knew she could never have pulled this off without the help of hers and Walker's closest friends. Everyone opened their hearts without question to make these family's feel wanted and worthy of being in each other's company.

Trivette was helping Josh and Chloe Benson; ages 10 and 7, to construct an enormous vegetable tower on the table from the unwanted greens put on their plates by their mother Abby. Alex remembered the day Abby had shown up at the H.O.P.E. center with her children. Her husband had beaten her so severely that her right eye was completely closed and her left arm was immobilized by a makeshift sling after being broken in three places. Abby had become pregnant at sixteen and was forced into marriage by her parents. She'd never finished high school and hadn't worked a day in her life. She was afraid to leave her abusive husband until a close friend told her about the H.O.P.E. center. Now, two years later, Abby was going to college for her nursing degree. She worked part time at night for a medical lab while Josie and the H.O.P.E. staff cared for her children. Alex was able to get a

conviction against her husband and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Abby knew he would be eligible for parole in five years but she had every intention of being independently strong long before that day would come. Alex marveled at her determination.

Sydney was singing harmony to "What A Friend We Have in Jesus" with Fernanda Vasquez and her mother Isabel. Gage accompanied them by tapping out the tempo on the table with his fork and spoon. He'd tried to join in with their singing but Sydney had squelched his vocal contribution almost immediately, telling him that people were still eating and it wasn't polite to make them nauseous. The trio's angelic sounds lingered sweetly in the background of the spirited conversations taking place around the table. Alex was impressed by Fernanda's turnaround from that of an angry fourteen-year-old girl sentenced one year ago to six months of community service at the center for vandalizing school property. Now, six months after her responsibilities were met - Fernanda still came to help out in the nursery every Tuesday and Thursday while her mother worked in the kitchen on her days off.

Josie sat and talked with Moeisha, a budding young woman of thirteen who had been brought to the center by her father when she'd started to enter womanhood. The H.O.P.E. Center was geared primarily to woman in need, but John Dumas and his daughter were welcomed into the H.O.P.E. family with open arms. John had multiple sclerosis and had been confined to a wheelchair for two years. His ex-wife was convicted of drug trafficking and prostitution when Moeisha was only ten years old. John had been granted custody of his daughter and was now trying to deal with all of the challenges of single parenting, being handicapped and living on a limited disability income. When his daughter started showing the complex signs of pre-menstruation or "pre-miserable", as he called it - John was completely overwhelmed and came to Alex for help. Moeisha visited with Josie each week to discuss anything that was on her mind. Josie gave her books and pamphlets on the physical and emotional changes of a woman's body as she matured, but most importantly, Josie listened without judging. Moeisha loved her like a mother and Alex knew that the two had a special bond and friendship that would last a lifetime. Alex helped to move them into handicapped housing so John could be more independent. To show his gratitude, he began showing up at the center everyday after Moeisha left for school and he pitched in with anything that needed to be done.

Lastly, Alex turned to her husband who was playing tic-tac-toe with Jessie, the little poet of the day. He was letting her win but he didn't want her to know it. Jessie was Alex's special case. She had been hastily diagnosed as being mildly retarded at the age of four by a staff of experimenting interns at a free clinic that accepted welfare patients. The Raposo's were the first family to be helped by the H.O.P.E. Center when it opened. When Jessie was ready to start kindergarten, the school department insisted that she be placed in a special program for special children, but Tina knew that Jessie was bright and alert and she wasn't ready to give in to their decision. Alex had Jessie tested and thoroughly evaluated by a host of reputable experts. She was accurately diagnosed as being dyslexic - not retarded. Once her real needs were determined, Jessie excelled in school. Her reading skills improved drastically during kindergarten. After only two months in the first grade, Jessie's was reading at a third-grade level. Tina and Alex were equally proud. Jessie read everything she could get her hands on. Alex had gotten Tina a job at a local library where she was allowed to bring Jessie to work with her. The little girl taught herself to read everything from Dr. Seuss to Stephen Crane. Alex was amazed by her tenacity. Now, the mother and daughter team ran the story hour at the center on Wednesday afternoons. The other children were always anxious to hear the new adventures Tina and Jessie would bring to them each week.

All of these families had come such a long way with just a small dose of love and support and now they were all sharing themselves with others in need. "The magic of reaching out to one soul who then reaches out to another can create an endless chain of strength and promise. This is truly a extraordinary Thanksgiving," Alex thought to herself.

After their guests had gone home, the clean-up process was immediately initiated with Josie calling out the instructions for an orderly and efficient process. Everyone was bustling around the kitchen with their assigned tasks except for Walker, who was stacking chairs in the dining room. Jimmy and Gage were suppose to be covering up the leftovers and putting them away, but they insisted on making the simple task into a new-age sport. Jimmy was wrapping the food at the counter, then tossing the covered dishes to Gage who was strategically positioned by the open refrigerator door. They had ignored Josie, Alex and Sydney's warnings to stop their nonsense before they broke something. Both insisted they were experts at this sort of thing and their challenge escalated as they tried to speed up their rough-and-ready assembly line.

CRASH....

A glass-serving dish filled with sweet potatoes grazed Gage's fingertips before it splattered the floor. Jimmy ran over to him where they both squatted above the mess, mournfully inspecting it as if it were a football that had just missed its first down. "You drooped the ball, man! That was a perfect throw. You were sleepin' on the job," Jimmy criticized. "I wasn't sleeping; you missed the mark by at least two inches. I'm throwing from now on. You can receive," Gage requited.

They stopped their childish squabbling when they noticed the three sets of shapely legs surrounding their huddle. The clumsy athletes peered upward to find Alex, Josie and Sydney staring down at them with hands on their hips and looks of exasperation on their faces. "Here's a new sport you can try," Josie snapped, as she handed them a dustpan and brush. Sydney jutted a hand towel over each of their seemingly rock-filled heads, purposely covering their chagrined faces.

"The mop is in the hallway. Oh, and by the way, you push a mop like a shuffleboard pole," Alex lectured, as she mimed the proper, desired action with her hands. "You don't throw it like a football. I don't want any broken windows. Is that clear boys?" Trivette and Gage cleaned up the debris without causing any further damages to the kitchen. When they were finished, Trivette approached Alex who was drying the dishes as quickly as Josie could wash them.

"Hey counselor, it's still early. What do you say we all go over to C.D's for old time sake? We always went there after every Thanksgiving dinner and I think Big Dog would like it if we were all together there tonight. It's been too long."

"I don't know Jimmy. I'm not sure that Walker's ready for that. I'm not sure that I'm ready. Besides, Mable and Rosa may have plans of their own at C.D.'s tonight. I would hate to barge in on them."

"We won't be barging in. You know that Mable and Rosa always have big to-dos at home with their families. I'll give them a call and let them know that we're going to stop by so they won't think that someone is breaking in. You know it's the perfect time for all of us to go back there. I think we should go." Alex struggled with how she should answer. C.D. had willed the bar to Cordell because it was their perpetual harbor, which sustained their relationship after C.D. retired from the Rangers. C.D. loved his little Texas establishment and he knew Cordell would do right by it. After the funeral, Cordell couldn't bring himself to step foot into the building, but he didn't have the heart to sell it either. He'd asked Rosa to stay on to run the bar and manage the books and C.D.'s dear friend Mable generously agreed to return and supervise the kitchen. Between the two of them, they were admirably maintaining C.D.'s Texas Grille & Bar as the fine institution its spirited owner had primed it to.

"Okay Jimmy. You're right. I'll convince Walker to go.... Somehow."

As the three couples neared the doorway to C.D's, Walker slowed his pace, falling to the back of the party. Trivette turned around, waiting for his friend to open the door. Walker tossed him the keys as he continued to loiter his chosen stop, five feet from the entrance. "You comin' in, brother?" Jimmy asked.

"In a minute. It's a beautiful night. I just want to get a bit of fresh air first."

Sydney, Gage, Josie and Trivette went inside the building, leaving Walker standing firm on his mark. Alex reached for his arm, but she didn't budge from his side. She wasn't going to rush him before he was ready.

"I don't know if I'm ready to do this, Alex. This place is C.D. to me."

"I know sweetheart. But you can't run away from someone who was such a big part of your life. He's gone, but his memory and his love are still alive in all of us. It's time for you to start healing. Let's go in and visit with C.D.... Okay?"

"Okay Alex."

Jimmy brought out a bottle of C.D.'s favorite vintage wine and a strong pot of Colombian coffee for Walker and Alex. The three couples sat around their old table and chatted about the good old days, spent at the lively saloon with its boisterous, yet loveable owner. "I ate a lot of pie at that bar," Jimmy remembered, as he turned his head to catch sight of the sprawling mahogany surface behind their table. "But Big Dog would never serve it to me. If I asked him for anything, he'd say something like, "What? Do you have hoofs for limbs, boy? Get up and get it yourself. You're likely to starve to death if you're waitin' on me to serve you."" Jimmy did his best imitation of the cantankerous old cowboy, and everyone laughed as they affectionately remembered the benevolent, yet peculiar qualities of his colorful character. "I guess that was his way of making me feel at home - like I was part of his family. He always made sure of that."

"He sure did make all of us feel loved and at home here, didn't he?" Alex agreed. "To this day, I think I'm the only woman whose ever painted her fingernails on that bar and gotten away with it."

"That's because you were his girl." Walker finally spoke after being silent since he'd sat down at the table, but his words were delivered through a soft and solemn tone. "If you think about it Alex, he could never say no to you. You were the daughter he never had."

Alex's eyes watered slightly as the validity of her husband's observation sank deep into her heart. "Well if that's true, I hope I managed to give back even half of love and support that he gave to me."

"C.D. knew how much everyone loved him," Josie offered. "The children at the center always looked forward to his visits almost as much as he loved to visit them. Some of them still cry when they look at his picture hanging in the foyer of the center and they ask why Mr. Parker isn't coming back to see them. But there isn't a single child that would allow me to take that picture down." Everyone grew quiet and Walker's eyes were fixed on the floor as he wrenched his hands anxiously in his lap. Alex was sure he was wishing he'd never agreed to come here. She had to do something to change the crestfallen mood that had overtaken their intended celebration.

"We're a sorry bunch. I'm going to liven up this party if it kills me," Alex avowed, as she vigorously rose up from the table. She grabbed Walker's hand and towed him over to the jukebox. "Give me a dollar," she demanded from her husband, while emphatically sticking out her palm. "Yes Ma'am!" He obediently delivered the cash to her snatching fingers. Alex programmed her selections before she drafted her mate onto the dance floor. "You guys look like a clump of wilted wallflowers. Get up off your sorry tails and come and dance with us," she called out to their friends. Walker curled Alex into his ready-made embrace as

they began drifting across the polished parquet surface. Alex had a natural ability to brighten a room with her undiluted spirit. Walker knew what she was trying to do. The mood had turned melancholy - and she, as always, had taken on the weighty task of patching up everyone's heavy hearts, especially her husbands. He spilled an involuntary smile, remembering a time not so long ago, when he wouldn't be caught dead on a dance floor. He'd never had the desire to learn how to dance until Alex came along. Now, holding her close in his arms, Walker eagerly led her through the alluring rhythms of the music. He felt better already.

 

When the rain is blowing in your face

And the whole world is on your case

I would offer you a warm embrace

To make you feel my love

 

"Shall we join them, madam?" Jimmy asked Josie, as he pushed in his chair and extended an inviting hand. "It would be my pleasure, Sir." Josie eagerly accepted his gentlemanly invitation with a hint of shyness. As they danced in each other's arms, Jimmy couldn't help but wonder why he'd never asked her out. She was smart, quick-witted, refreshingly honest, and incredibly beautiful. Walker and Alex had brought them together so many times before during celebrations and events at the ranch and the HOPE Center. He'd just never mustered up the courage to ask her for a date. Jimmy was thinking that this definite blunder might have to be addressed in the immediate future. "Strike while the iron is hot," he thought to himself. Holding Josie in his arms felt awfully natural and terribly nice. He nonchalantly pulled her closer to him for a more intimate embrace. Josie blushed at his welcomed advance before she rested her warm cheek against his sturdy shoulder, hoping she wouldn't appear too forward.

 

When evening shadows and the stars appear

And there is no one to dry your tears

I could hold you for a million years

To make you feel my love

 

Well Syd, I'm the last man sitting and I feel pretty stupid. Can you help me out, here?" This was Gage's manly way of asking her to dance. "Just stay off my feet," Sydney said defensively, as she hesitantly stood to meet her partner in front of their table. As their hands touched, Gage remembered the only time they had danced. It was at Walker and Alex's wedding. They were thrown together for an obligatory promenade with the rest of the wedding party. Hundreds of eyes were glaring over them; turning it into a mandatory chore instead of a voluntary, romantic interlude. Both resumed the same aloof stance that they had practiced that day, staying far enough away from one another - keeping it "friendly," yet distant. Gage carefully thought about how he was ever going to get past the ironclad armor worn by the inaccessible Ms. Texas Ranger. He secretly longed to hold her tenderly in his arms, but the thought of her reaction to a bold advance; most likely a knee to the groin or a potent right hook to the jaw... discouraged him from attempting anything that he might painfully regret. They held each other tentatively in the politically correct position for dancing. The stiff couple appeared to be preparing for a martial arts move instead of a relaxed dance. Neither wanted to get too close to the other, fearing that they might lose control of the feelings they were fighting so hard to suppress.

 

I know you haven't made your mind up yet

But I would never do you wrong

I've known it from the moment that we met

There's no doubt in my mind where you belong

 

Alex steered her hubby to the edge of the room so she could dim the lights. "Okay little Mrs. Matchmaker, are you trying to make your own fanciful dreams come true again? Did you ever stop to think that these two couples might want to make their own choices for a romantic partner?" Walker whispered scoldingly into her ear. "My dreams have already come true, honey," Alex swelled, as she kissed his cheek with animated affection. "I'm only trying to make a few dreams come true for them; they deserve it. I'm just planting the seeds. They can do the watering if they're interested. It's not like I'm trying to force them onto each other..." she added, while flashing a contrived look of innocence towards her doubting husband. "Yah, right!" Walker's spontaneous smile resurfaced as he remembered all of the things he had adamantly debated - then peacefully yielded to, solely for this stubborn, persuasive lady in his arms. He was sure that she was already planning their weddings and naming their first-born children in that busy mind of hers. Once Alex Cahill-Walker set her determined sights on something, her unknowing subjects didn't stand a chance. Walker's countless surrenders were proof of that. He couldn't remember the last time he'd won a

disagreement with his wife. Still grinning over his better half's transparent motives, Cordell couldn't resist his urge to cuddle Alex into a loving hug. He knew that she had him wrapped tighter then a Christmas ribbon, yet - for some reason, he didn't mind one single bit.

 

I'd go hungry; I'd go black and blue

I'd go crawling down the avenue

There ain't nothing that I wouldn't do

To make you feel my love

 

Sydney refereed a mental argument with herself over her memorized recall of the day at the gym when Gage suggested they reenact their first kiss...."Simply to determine if there was anything behind it." She'd chickened out at the last minute and nailed him square in the mouth with a closed fist, abusive swipe. "She'd wanted to kiss him. Why hadn't she allowed herself to give it a try?" Her stomach was doing summersaults while she struggled with her urge to either melt into his arms or run straight for the door. Sydney relaxed her grasp on Gage's hand, moving in just a little closer to her partner. She wasn't sure if she was doing the right thing, but her up surging desire to be near him overpowered her instinctive need to be in total control of the situation. Gage immediately responded by cinching his arm tighter around her waist. Sydney's heart skipped a beat. "Why was she so afraid of taking the next step with him? ... With any man? She saw what Walker and Alex had together and she knew deep in her heart that she wanted the same kind of commitment. Gage was boyishly impulsive and definitely high maintenance, but his heart was gentle and true." As Sydney allowed her body to lightly rest against his, the turbulence in her stomach intensified. Only this time - it felt very different. Her feelings of sheer panic had transformed into a blaze of excitement. She made a conscious decision to take a chance on him; yet, her chronic insecurities instantly kicked in to overthrow her judgment, causing her to second-guess herself. She wondered if Gage was really ready for the likes of Sydney Ellen Cooke. Gage fully accepted her as a partner and he was well aware of the fact that she could knock his teeth out if she was mad enough. This alone was enough to scare away most of the male population that she had come in contact with in the past. But there were other obstacles; children always came up when any of her relationships had become serious. The potential fathers just couldn't get passed the thought of the mother of their children accessorizing her professional attire with a pistol-filled, leather holster strapped to her hip. Sydney had always been very upfront about her intentions to continue her career if she should ever have

children. She knew that she wasn't your typical millennium woman and this was the real reason for her reluctance to venture into a serious relationship.

 

Storms are raging on the rollin' sea

Down the highway of regret

The winds of change are blowing wild and free

And you ain't seen nothing like me yet

 

Josie rested contently in Jimmy's arms. She'd waited too long for this day. Josie remembered the moment that she realized she was in love with Sergeant James Trivette. Alex and Walker were sharing their special dance on their wedding day. The look of love and devotion on their faces had mesmerized the entire circle of guests. No one could take their eyes off of the envied couple, yet Jimmy's euphoric expression had instantly stolen her attention away from Walker and Alex. He had mesmerized Josie instead. His eyes told her everything he was feeling at that very moment. Jimmy loved them both so much and he was in complete awe of the inspiring partnership they shared. He was painfully aware of the heartbreaking road they had faithfully traveled before they could finally be completely together - and he was so very thankful that he was fortunate enough to be a part of it. She'd never seen such warmth and compassion flow from a man's face like she saw in his that day. Jimmy never noticed that she was staring at him because he was so blown away by his private, emotional connection with Alex and Walker. Any man who could display the bare essence of his heart so exquisitely - without uttering a single word, was worthy of the most sacred love and Josie desperately wanted to be the one to give it to him.

 

There ain't nothing that I wouldn't do

Go to the ends of the earth for you

I'd make you happy,

Make your dreams come true

To make you feel my love

 

NOTE:

For any of you who might know your poetry, I took a few creative liberties with the poem by Robert Louis Stevenson. I changed a few words to suit my personal story needs. (Sorry Bob). A special thanks goes out to C.C. for the select graphics. She went above and beyond the call of duty to help me find exactly what I wanted for this chapter.

The words of the song are from Garth Brooks' "To Make You Feel My Love." AWESOME SONG. If you have it on CD...listen to it! If you don't ---go to NAPSTER and download it. (Not that I want you to partake in any illegal activities). As you are listening, gaze at the pix and use your vivid imaginations to visualize the circumstances. (HEAVY SIGH)

 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Walker glanced down at the calendar on his watch. It was already December 14th. They had been working on the X-DREAM case for more then a month and he was getting a little short-tempered. He anxiously shifted his position in the drivers' seat of the Ram, trying hard to ignore the irritating chewing sounds coming from his partner who was perched on the passenger seat beside him.

"Will you cut that out, Trivette. I can't concentrate with you gnawing at your sandwich like that. I've never seen anyone who needed to eat so many times in one day. Isn't that your forth sandwich?"

"It's only my third. And what do you need to concentrate on anyway? We've been parked at this convenience store for five hours and we haven't seen a single sign of Nipo's goons. I think the wild goose is chasing us this time pal. And by the way, if you were a little less cranky, you might actually pass yourself off as halfway-decent company and I wouldn't have to AMUSE myself by eating everything in the cooler." Jimmy shoved the last oversized bite of his sandwich into his mouth and chomped on it as if he were incising a thick hunk of tree bark. His overly dramatic actions were purposely displayed to irk his partner to the point of no return and they delivered instant results.

"Get out of the truck Trivette," Walker bellowed to his provoking partner in a voice loud enough to be heard back at Ranger Headquarters.

"Wha...?" Trivette tried to mumble his disbelief through his mouthful of turkey.

"You heard me. Get out of my truck! If you're going to eat like an animal, you can do it outside where you belong! Now GET OUT!"

Trivette swallowed hard, prematurely gulping down the remainder of his sandwich so he could sputter out his inflamed response to his partner.

"I can't believe you called me an animal! That's a fine way to be talking to the guy who covers your back during life and death situations. If I'm such an animal, why don't you just get yourself a monkey for a partner and then you'll only have to worry about slipping on the banana peels." Trivette's hands were flailing high above his head while his peeved voice met them in their stormy crescendo.

"I didn't call you an animal, Trivette. I said you were acting like one."

"Same thing in my book "partner." "But don't worry. I'd much rather sit outside in the cold then spend another minute in this crowded automobile. The present company has a negative effect on my digestive tract," he added caustically, as he hurled the door open to escape from the explosive tension that was building inside. The door slammed forcefully, then it cracked open just enough for Jimmy's hand to slip inside and grab the well-stocked cooler from the floor. SLAM! Went the door for a second time, with double the intensity.

"Animal," Walker grumbled, as he shook is head in frustration before he picked up the binoculars from the seat to reexamine his distant target for and signs of Nipo's boys.

Trivette had dropped the tailgate on the Ram and sat facing the street, intentionally turning away from his irritable partner. He'd taken yet another sandwich from the cooler; determined that he would enjoy this one in peace when a stray dog appeared out of no where, begging at his feet for a morsel of his appetizing cuisine.

"Oh man! You gotta be kidding me. Did he put you up to this?" Trivette moaned, as he pointed over his shoulder to his temporarily alienated sidekick. Jimmy decided that the cards were stacked against him with his fury dinner guest. He didn't want to end up with a gruesome bite on the leg from a possibly rabid dog, so he forfeited sandwich #4 to the insistent canine.

Walker sat in the cab of the truck, relishing the temporary silence. He realized he'd been hard on Trivette, but his nerves were shot to hell over this case. Trivette knew it and he should have been more understanding over Walker's blown fuse. As he continued to mentally document the justifications for his crusty behavior, his thoughts turned to Alex. She had been experiencing painful migraines for the past few weeks. Walker wondered if he was unintentionally passing on his anxiety over this oppressive case to his innocent wife.

Insignificant progress had been made since the trip to Albuquerque and he was painfully conscious of the fact that he had been more then a little high-strung since then. Walker went to bed each night saddled by the mounting strain from the stalled case and he woke up each morning with it still intact; heightened actually, by the disturbing realization that another day had gone by without any headway being made.

He chronicled the developments on the X-DREAM case in his mind for the hundredth time; trying to sort through the details for something conspicuous that he must have missed.

The lab analysis came back clean on Arthur Bank's casket, which blatantly proved Trivette's predictions of foul play by Paredes and his conspiring staff at the

Estancia Prison. DNA testing had confirmed that Banks, or anyone else for that matter, never occupied the coffin. It had been buried empty. Walker was sure that Paredes had dug up whoever was first buried a year ago and replaced the "John Doe" with the less incriminating, vacant casket. The state on New Mexico was successful in tightly tying the Ranger's hands for the past three weeks by withholding any further information until their Government went through the stalling, compulsory motions of a sequestered investigation. Trivette and Walker were able to identify one of their roadside attackers by searching the jam-packed computer database of convicted felons. The elusive Isaac Stone, A.K.A "The Rock", fit the detailed description given by the competent Rangers. A face was finally put to the byname of the criminal who was directly linked to the apocalyptic right hand of Kurt Nipo.

Stone's nefarious record ranked him pretty high up on the criminal food chain. After hours of savvy computer research, Trivette was able to link Isaac Stone, at least indirectly, to the "presumed dead" Arthur Banks. During the time Arthur Banks' cartel was flourishing, Stone worked for another drug lord by the name of Robert Crenshaw. Crenshaw was in direct competition with Banks over claimed turfs for their drug sales in New Mexico. A brutal territorial war had broken out between the two organizations and Stone was brought in to take out Banks' two right-hand men. After Stone's job was done, Crenshaw was found dead and the word from the underground world was that his own hired gun had tidied up the job, then fled with a hefty amount of Crenshaw's dirty cash. Rumors told that Crenshaw refused to pay Stone his exorbitant fees for his service. He'd obviously planned to kill Stone, but the expert marksman was much quicker on the draw. Crenshaw's organization was dissolved with his death and the evading Isaac Stone had disappeared off the face of the earth: Until now... The Rock had reared his degenerate head, working for an underworld leader who had once been a target of his lethal expertise. His skilled marksmanship and vast knowledge of explosives would surely make him a valuable asset to Banks. It wasn't uncommon for crime bosses to employ an adversary who had successfully penetrated their organization. The slaying of Bank's men gave The Rock an impressive mark on his résumé, making him a high-demand commodity, especially to Banks. High-stakes criminals always felt much safer keeping characters with that much talent on their own side of the street.

Nipo and Banks were using Isaac Stone as their middleman to Ahmed, James, Caruso and Saah. With Saah gone the three remaining suspects willingly turned evidence against Nipo when faced with numerous charges of first degree murder, but none of them had any idea who Nipo's silent partner was or where they were hiding out. Banks and Nipo secured their cover by using The Rock to do their dirty work. He did the hiring, the drug delivering, and the roughing up when Nipo's employees threatened to break away.

Gage's thorough background checks on Jake Caruso and Broady James turned a minimal profit. He couldn't find any connection between them and Arthur Banks. Walker speculated that Banks had his feelers out for potential employees and Caruso and James's reputations had been well established in their own crime circles. Searching for an outlaw was no different then seeking out a worthwhile candidate for any other job. If you knew where to look and the money was right, there was never a shortage of lowlifes to choose from. The city of Dallas was tapped out for resources on the case. The dollars were flowing freely for the first couple of weeks, maintaining the diligent roadblocks and the expensive officer coverage. Though the DA was adamant about not letting his guard down, the Mayor was starting to have second thoughts about financing the case from the city's shrinking budget. The initial "card blanche" mentality was reigned in and the manpower on the case was reduced by more then 30% after two unprolific weeks spent waiting for Nipo to slip up again.

Even though his support was dwindling, Walker vowed to keep his promise to DA Moody and to himself. He would push hard until Nipo was back where he belonged: Behind the solid iron bars of a padlocked cell.

Nipo's pledge to exterminate Walker had simply acted as a mild inconvenience for the expert Ranger. Two diluted attempts had been made on his life since his close call in Albuquerque. The first onslaught was tried only a few days after Thanksgiving. Walker was stopped at a busy gas station. He was filling up the Ram's bottomless gas tank while Trivette visited the restroom and grabbed them some coffee. A wanna-be sharp shooter was parked across the street, poised and ready when Trivette caught a glimpse of him while exiting the building. He circled around the back of the station and crossed the street a few storefronts down. Just as the flunky was preparing to fire, Trivette leaned inside the passenger window with his eveready revolver pointed at the back of the man oblivious head. "You can't spend that million if I splatter your brains across this windshield, now can you?" The suspect was brought into HQ and grilled repeatedly by the Rangers. It was obvious that he was just a two bit con who had heard about the bounty and was striving to make a fast buck by trying his deviant hand at ending Ranger Cordell Walker's notorious life.

The second attempt came nearly a week later and also proved impotent, but none the less, alarmed Walker to the brink of unrestrained fury. He had taken Alex to the movies and a late dinner at The Bistro restaurant on Fatima Street in downtown Dallas. The valet was approaching with his truck when a shot rang out from a rooftop on the opposite side of the busy strip. Walker had intuitively sensed their threatened exposure only seconds beforehand. He grabbed Alex and took cover behind a car that was parked outside of the restaurant just before the shot was sowed. The shooter had escaped and Walker's anger over this bounty game was quickly elevated. They weren't just after him. They would take out his wife or anyone else who happened to get in their way. He doubled Alex's officer coverage during the day and he made damned sure that he was the one who escorted her home each night.

Yesterday had offered the first glimmer of a lead since their trip to Albuquerque. One of the student-contacts had overheard some other students discussing a meeting to pick up "the goods" at a remote warehouse in south Dallas. The pickup was scheduled for today. A time wasn't mentioned, but Walker and Trivette had arrived at 6:00AM to be sure they wouldn't miss the transfer of X-DREAM from Nipo's boys to the senselessly addicted students.

"Walker..." Trivette called his name as he rapped on the passenger window, breaking his partner's preoccupied concentration. Jimmy opened the door and quickly slid onto the seat beside Walker. "An old beat-up pickup that looked like it had a couple of kids in it just pulled into the alley behind the warehouse," Trivette said, as he conducted a brief inspection on his weapon before snapping the barrel back into place.

"Nipo's delivery boys should be showing up soon then. Let's move in a little closer so we can get in there fast. I don't want those foolish kids getting themselves hurt."

Walker and Trivette left the Ram and hurried into a narrow three-foot alley that led to the abandoned warehouse 800 yards away. They had inspected the area the day before to strategize their plan of attack. They moved quickly yet carefully, dodging piles of repellent garbage and droves of overgrown rats. The enormous rodents were scurrying frantically, disordered by the unwelcome intruders who were invading their squalid environment. "Man, you could put a saddle on one of these things and ride it to Houston." Trivette flinched repeatedly as he darted between the scampering inhabitants. "Quit whining Trivette! They're more afraid of you then you are of them," Walker said, with a complete lack of sympathy for his skittish sidekick. "You wanna bet on that, partner?" Trivette objected, as he sprinted past Walker to exit the wretched dwelling as quickly as his agile legs would allow.

They reached the end of the waste-laden ally, taking cover behind a moss-covered building where the pickup truck was parked alongside. They could hear the young men bragging insolently about the obscene amounts of cash they would be rolling in before the year was through.

"Stupid kids. I'd think I'll lock them up for a few days and knock some sense into their empty heads," Walker whispered coarsely.

"You can do more then that," Trivette encouraged. "If we can prove that these punks are on the take with intent to sell, you can scare the pants off of them by threatening a hefty prison sentence. The red tape alone would allow the DA's office to hold them for at least a week: Maybe more. I'm sure Alex would help the cause and play along."

"I'm sure she would too, but let's nail the big boys before we start worrying about the babies."

Turning in slowly off the main street, a black Ford Bronco (most likely stolen) pulled up behind the shabby pickup. Two overgrown men stepped out of the automobile with an inflated amount of authority. The man who exited the passenger side strongly resembled the artists sketch created from the description Sydney had given of the messenger who had delivered Nipo's threats on Walker's life to Lenny Draper, the street-wise snitch. The driver, a craggy looking character in his mid-thirties, stepped away from the car and checked his wrinkled attire and the thinning bits of hair on his bulging head. They approached the nervous college students with an unhurried, intimidating stride.

"Are you tadpoles ready to hit the big leagues?" The driver provoked, as he neared the three young men sitting on the tailgate of the pickup. "Sure," said the largest boy, as he slid off the tailgate and apprehensively extended a doddering arm to shake the driver's hand. The thug swatted it away with unnecessary force, sending the young man into a backward skip. "We're not here to make friends lads, we're here to do business. Now let's get down to it."

The leaner man who had surfaced from the passenger seat moved in closer to the students, hovering over them while pointing his finger into their limp chests like a drill sergeant during basic training. "We front each of you a quarter kilo, broken out into 15-gram packets. If you can't do the math, that's twenty-eight packets for each of you to sell with a little sampler for you to keep for your own personal use. You sell 'em for two bills each. We meet here in two days, same time -- and the three of you had better have two grand apiece to pay off the march. You put the difference in your pockets. You got it?"

"Sure man. We got it. But what if we don't sell it all?" Said the young man sitting in the middle. The pusher looked the boy up and down, leering at his designer clothing and his overpriced shoes before he let out a potent snicker. He moved his jacket aside with one hand, intentionally exposing his loaded gun while he stared the boy down with a bloodthirsty look. "Then you sell those $200.00 sneakers you got there, or you beg your mommies and daddies for a loan. Two days...back here...no returns. Am I making myself clear kiddies?"

"Crystal," - "Yeah, no problem man," - "We can handle it."

All three boys nervously chimed together in agreement, quickly realizing they had no other choice.

"That's what I thought," said the driver as he moved in closer to the huddle around the truck. "You know your territories. Get the job done and we'll front you more product, which means more green in your pockets. You sell where we tell you to sell. If we find out you're tapping someone else's turf, the partnerships' over."

"That's why we haven't gotten any tips sitting Nipo's men from our students lately," Walker whispered to his partner. "He's recruiting the students as his middlemen so his goons can stay far away from the schools."

"Who knows how many other students he's got dealing for him," Trivette added while shaking his head in frustration. "Let's do it, Trivette. I've seen enough," Walker admitted, as he armed his weapon and leaned out from behind the cover of the building. "Texas Rangers!"

A shot instantly riveted through the air, vibrating past Walker's shoulder. The driver tried to charge for the Bronco, backpedaling all the way. He was straining to keep his unexpected visitor in clear view while he attempted a fast getaway. His partner in crime took cover behind the student's pickup, peering over its frame to take a pot-shot at the exposed Ranger. Walker discharged a well-aimed bullet in his direction, grazing his shoulder, which forced him to retreat behind the truck to recompose himself. The petrified boys crawled on their bellies into the bed of the truck, praying for their survival. Trivette intentionally hovered behind the cement wall, allowing the unscrupulous crowd to assume that Walker was acting alone.

The driver was nearing the Bronco, stretching for the car door while he continued to unload his counter-fire in Walker's direction. His revolver clicked quietly as he reached for the door handle. His barrel was empty! The con pulled hard on the handle and swung the door open so he could take cover inside. Walker readied his weapon, aimed and fired, all in one split second. The handle was severed from the framework of the car in one clean stroke. The lowlife danced about the driveway, cradling his stinging hand from the excruciating pain.

Walker charged across the lot after his shaken antagonist, trying to prevent him from climbing inside of the car. Perp #2 resurfaced from behind the shroud of the truck, pointing his Smith and Wesson at the back of Walker's head. Sensing his own jeopardy, Walker stopped---turned about-then fired without delay. The coward's weapon was seared free from his shooting hand before it landed on the ground behind him. He dropped down behind the body of the pickup, shaking off the pain in his hand.

Once Walker had cleared the path of the only possible escape route, the terrified boys sprang from their horizontal huddle over the side of the bed of the truck. They made a frenzied run for the back ally. As they rounded the corner of the building, they were stopped still in their pricey hi-tops by the seemingly endless barrel of Jimmy's influential sidearm. "Going somewhere boys?" Trivette questioned casually, as he and his serviceable revolver effectively blocked their passage into the narrow ally-way. "You guys don't want to go down there... There's HUGE rats with beady little eyes and sharp fangs just waiting to sink their teeth into some fresh lunchmeat." Jimmy handcuffed them together; securing them to a drainpipe that was bolted to the concrete wall. "I'll try and remember to come back for you before we leave, fair enough?"

"Hungh?" One of the shaken kids murmured unwittingly. "Oh, sorry," Trivette corrected himself. "I promise...I'll be back in just a few minutes. Right after me and my partner bury your friend's faces into the pavement. Sit tight guys." He gave their shoulders a belittling pat before he hurried off to aid his comrade in arms.

Walker was going hand to hand with the driver while the second bungler recovered his steaming gun from the ground. He was preparing to shoot at Walker just as Jimmy emerged onto the battle scene. Trivette aimed and fired, burying his potent slug into the vulnerable chamber of the outlaw's chest. He slumped to the ground, motionless.

The physical combat continued between Walker and his newfound rival. Trivette kept a guarded watch but made no attempt to intervene.

He knew that his accomplished partner had things under control. One-on-one situations were a cakewalk for Walker and Jimmy didn't need to worry about over-exerting himself by providing him unnecessary aid.

The thug had Walker in a breath-stealing headlock while he struggled to reach for Walker's gun, which had been honorably returned to its holster before Walker approached his unarmed opponent. The determined Ranger jammed his elbow deep into his attacker's ribs, causing him to loosen his grip around Walker's neck. Walker reached behind him, grabbed the man by his shoulders and flipped him over onto the hood of the Bronco. He lay still for a second, gasping for air as he struggled to recover from the forceful impact. With too much at stake, mainly his freedom, the senseless stoop came back swinging. He managed to land one lucky punch to Walker's jaw before Walker took flight, spun around in mid air and drove a solid kick straight home into the rogue's unprotected abdomen. He bounced off the hood once again. When he rebounded, he encountered a desensitizing kick to the head, commissioning him to the ground without further argument. Walker fixed the position of his hat, checked his gun and straightened his shirt before he turned to confront his spectanting partner. "Thanks for the help Trivette," Walker panted out with a saucy tone. "You didn't need my help. You had him from the get-go." Jimmy grimaced without reserve. He vividly remembered his recent encounter at El Centro where he would have welcomed some assistance, but it was no where to be found. Walker remembered it too, which is why he decided against taking his criticism any further. "Check!" One point for Trivette.

Sirens blared powerfully over the steady hiss of the late morning breeze, signaling the approach of their necessary assistance to aid in the clean up. Trivette's pesky cell phone rang on cue: Just as the bothersome grunt work needed to get done.

"Trivette."

"Trivette, it's Alex." Her voice was soft and shaken.

"Hey Alex. What's up?"

" I'm at the medical examiner's office with Sydney and Gage. There's been another X-DREAM casualty. And Trivette........."

"Yeah Alex......" He sensed the hesitation in her troubled voice.

"It's the Mayor's niece.... Shauna Peterson." Jimmy knew that Alex was trying hard to contain her unnerved emotions on the opposite end of the receiver. "We'll be there as soon as we can honey. You sit tight, okay?"

"Okay Jimmy." Trivette pocketed his wireless and hurried over to Walker who was briefing the DPD sergeant on the events of the day. "Sorry to interrupt, but we've got somewhere else that we need to be right now."

"What's goin' on?" Walker asked, as they moved in double-time down the main strip leading to the remotely parked Ram."

"Another kid dead from X-DREAM. The Mayor's niece..........." Walker's instant fury aided his already swift stride. Trivette followed close behind. In a matter of seconds, they were speeding down the street with the lights gleaming and the sirens clamoring.

As they entered the regretfully familiar corridor leading to the morgue, they found Alex sitting alone in the waiting area. The distraught look on her face told Walker that she was in need of a comforting hug. She slowly lifted her unsteady body up off of the bench to greet them. She looked so tired; so troubled. As Walker approached her with open arms, she willingly collapsed herself inside of them. Alex held on tight for a long moment, drawing from his tremendous strength before she was able to tell them what had happened.

"You okay, counselor?"

"No, Jimmy. I'm not okay. The Peterson's are not okay. All of this is not okay."

She forced back her tears of anguish while Walker continued to hold onto her to steady her wavering balance. "Shauna Peterson was seventeen years old. She was just a baby. What her parents are going through right now has got to be the saddest and the cruelest thing I've ever witnessed."

"Where are the Peterson's Alex? Are they in with Mary and Gage and Sydney identifying the body?" Walker questioned.

Alex swallowed hard and sat back down on the bench. Walker and Trivette sat on either side of her.

"Roger Peterson was away on business. He's been contacted and he's on his way home now. Cheryl Peterson is at Methodist Hospital being treated for severe shock and a possible heart attack. They Mayor and DA Moody are with her." Alex exhaled a mournful sigh before she continued on with the next part of her story. "Apparently, Shauna must have taken X-DREAM before leaving for school this morning. She was already gone when her mother woke up. Cheryl got ready for work and entered the garage through the house like she usually does. She got in her car and activated the garage door opener. She looked behind her and backed out of the garage into her driveway. She stopped immediately, realizing her back wheels had run over something. She got out of the car and found Shauna trapped underneath. Mary said that she had already been dead for at least an hour before the accident, but Cheryl is completely devastated. Not only did she lose her child, now she has to deal with the haunting memory of running over her body. I can't even begin to imagine what she's going through. This is all so tragic and senseless." Walker put a comforting arm around Alex's shoulder and Jimmy offered her his handkerchief to dry her watering eyes.

"We're going to stop Nipo and his deadly poison, Alex. I promise..." Walker surrendered his adamant pledge to his sorrow-filled wife as he gave her hand a reassuring squeeze.

"Trivette and I are going inside to talk with Mary, Gage and Sydney for a few minutes. You wait for me here and then I'll take you home, okay?"

"Okay."

Mary McPherson was reading the victim's lab report to Sydney and Gage when Walker and Trivette entered her office. Shauna Peterson's body lay on a gurney in the center of the room, covered by a blood-soaked sheet. "You're just in time Rangers," Mary called out. "The results just came back from the lab."

"Give us the details Mary," Walker said, as he and Trivette joined Gage and Sydney in front of Chief Medical Examiner McPherson's workbench.

"The victim took in at least three grams of X-Dream over the past twenty-four hours. Considering the fact that she weighed in at no more the 100 pounds fully clothed, the last dose probably killed her within minutes of the injection. She must have taken it just before leaving the house, then collapsed against the garage. She was dead before she hit the ground."

"If she was dead for at least an hour before she was run over, why so much blood? If her circulatory system was stopped, shouldn't her blood have started to coagulate?" Trivette questioned.

"The weight of the car had crushed her skull, Trivette. Sydney and I got there shortly after it happened and I must admit, it was a pretty gruesome sight."

Gage described the scene in detail to Trivette and Walker. Sydney listened on, wishing she hadn't witnessed it first hand.

"The head bleeds severely, Rangers; even shortly after death," Mary explained.

"The paramedics bandaged her up as best as they could, but the dressings were soaked right through before they even left the scene." Sydney spoke softly from her stool at the far end of the counter. She, like everyone else, had been rattled by this tragic catastrophe.

"Gage and Sydney, I need you to go back to headquarters with Trivette. We took down two more of Nipo's men this morning. DPD delivered one of them a while ago and he should be ready for questioning. The second suspect is being brought to County Hospital. I want you to get to them and find out whatever you can before Nipo realizes we've got them. I'm going to drive Alex home. Once her protecting officers get there, I'll catch up with you." Walker thanked Mary for her expedient work and left to collect Alex from the waiting room. The rest of his solid team stayed behind to gather copies of the medical examiner's report for their files.

Walker unlocked Alex's door and helped her into the Ram. He climbed into the drivers' seat and fastened his seatbelt before turning on the ignition. "I'll go back to the office with you, Walker. You don't need to bring me home," Alex offered. "Are you sure you're alright?" Walker asked concernedly, as he placed a soothing hand on her arm. "Yeah... I'm sure... We've got work to do." Her soft smile reassured him that she was feeling better. He slid the shift into reverse and backed out of his parking space, making his way across the parking lot towards the busy intersection.

Walker waited for the passing traffic to blow by before he could pull out onto the busy street. His ever-scrutinizing eyes took in his surroundings as he sat idle. A late model van caught his attention as it eased away from the curb across the street. The man in the passenger seat appeared to be watching him. Walker's eyes widened and his adrenaline surged when he recognized the antagonistic face. His thoughts flashed back to the dusty road in Albuquerque where he first saw Isaac Stone through the fleeting gunfire. As the van pulled forward, Walker's obstructed view of the driver was quickly cleared. The hair on his neck stood on end as he stared into the stone-cold eyes that he remembered only too well. The driver delivered a sadistically twisted smile as he raised his hand to his forehead and waved off an evil salute in Walker's direction. He was sending Walker as message. "I'm your lethal opponent. Now - come and get me!" The van spun out into the stream of cars, dangerously fleeting in and out of the heavy traffic.

Walker's initial instinct was to follow suit, which is exactly what he did. He floored his accelerator and moved into the narrow opening between two moving cars.

"What's going on Walker?" Alex asked with sudden alarm. Before he could answer her question, his infallible sixth sense kicked in. Walker jammed the breaks and hurled the shift into park. The Ram suffered an abrupt hit from the vehicle following close behind. Walker and Alex's bodies pitched forward from the sharp impact.

"Get out of the truck, Alex," Walker commanded in an authoritative tone that told her not to ask questions. They freed themselves from their safety belts and exited the truck. Walker circled around to the passenger side and rushed his wife away from the Ram. They fled into the parking lot, taking cover behind a parked car. Just as Walker was wrapping Alex in his arms to carefully coerce her to the ground............The truck exploded, spewing its burning debris in all directions. Alex covered her ears, conserving them from the deafening blasts. Walker hovered over her, shrouding her body from the falling wreckage. When it was all over, Alex lifted her head and looked into her husband's telling eyes. "Who was that, Walker?" Alex asked in vain. She was terrified by the alarming fact that she already knew what his answer would be.

"NIPO......"

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

After his and Alex’s narrow escape from death and the dramatic demolition of his beloved truck, Walker quickly slid back into his instinctive role of a diehard lawman.  Trivette, Sydney and Gage had raced from the medical examiner’s office when they heard the blast and they immediately jumped in to aid their commander and chief in gaining control of the chaotic situation.

Walker and Trivette pulled an elderly couple free from their burning vehicle that had rear-ended the Ram after Walker brought it to a screeching halt.  Just after the couple was whisked away to safety, the full gas tank detonated the large hunk of steel, causing another lethal fireball that flickered high into the sky, severing power lines and dropping the live wires

onto the surrounding buildings and cars. Sydney and Gage cleared the area and directed the traffic away from the burning wreckage’s to create a path for the approaching fire-trucks.

Alex checked the elderly couple’s minor injuries and tried her best to calm them until the rescue team could conquer the deranged maze that barricaded the parking lot.

Once things were under control, the close-knit crew crowded into Gage’s tiny sports car and headed back to Ranger Headquarters. The fired up team members assembled in their office for a brief strategy meeting before they went off in different directions in an attempt to quickly harvest crucial information.

Gage and Sydney set out for County Hospital to call on the abject recipient of Trivette’s bullet.  Walker and Trivette headed for the interrogation room to question suspect number two.  Due to all of the unexpected excitement, neither of the men had been identified as of yet. Alex had gone back to her office to call DPD to find out if any of the assisting officers had any leads on Nipo or the van he was driving. Her call was a wasted effort.  Nipo and The Rock had escaped without difficulty. Not so much as a single letter from the license plate was noted in the police report.  The violent explosions and consequent accidents had distracted the witnesses from noticing anything else. Walker and Trivette had wrapped up their sterile interrogation on the driver of the Bronco.  He’d refused to talk or even give his name, but after running his surly mug shot through the computer he was quickly identified as Clint Cianci, a grungy parasite pre-owned by the Chicago Mafia.

After visiting County Hospital, Gage and Sydney met up with Walker and Trivette in the principal debriefing room at HQ.  Just like Alex, Walker and Trivette, they had come up empty handed.  The criminal identified as Rosco Rosenthal was still in surgery and the doctors firmly forbid any sort of questioning until he was out of danger.

“We have to get a lead on where Nipo and Banks are holding up,” Walker firmly began.  “Cianci seems pretty stubborn.  I don’t think he’ll give us anything, which means we have to wait until Rosenthal is well enough to be questioned.  Now that Nipo has shown his face, he’s likely to do it again.  We can’t afford to wait on Rosenthal.  If we release Cianci on some lame technicality, he’ll eventually make contact.  If we stay close enough to him, he just might lead us to Nipo.”  Walker was pacing anxiously around the oblong conference table while Trivette, Gage and Sydney followed him with their eyes, struggling to keep him in their sight path as he spoke to them. Trivette had seen him like this countless times before, and he wondered how his partner managed to avoid spontaneous combustion whenever his adrenaline level brought all of the blood in his body to the verge of boiling out.

“Walker, do you think that’s such a good idea?” Trivette cautiously challenged him.

“Nipo doesn’t care about Cianci.  He’d have him killed before he’d risk being found.  If Nipo could get to him in his cell right now – you and I both know that he’d waste him in a second.  Nipo isn’t going to let his guard down.  He’s so hell-bent on getting to you on his terms that he’ll eliminate anyone that might help us sniff him out.”

“You’re right, Trivette. Cianci is completely expendable to Nipo. He’ll just have Banks call on another one of his syndicate thugs to replace him. I guess I’m getting a little impatient with this one.  The fireworks display that he planted in my truck today proves that Nipo knows exactly how to get to us, but we’re no closer to finding him then we were a month ago.”  Walker rested on the edge of the table to rethink his game plan on how he was going to finally stop Nipo. He brought one hand up to his beard; stroking it unconsciously, as if the nervous habit was aiding him in his labored concentration. 

“We saw them towing your truck away on the back of a flatbed when we were coming back from County.  It looked pretty flame-broiled, boss. You and Alex are lucky that you got out when you did,” Gage commented with noticeable thankfulness in his voice.

“No one could have survived that explosion,” Sydney added objectively, as she replayed the image of the twisted mass of mutilated steel in her mind.

Walker nodded his head in agreement as his mental gears automatically shifted away from his job and transferred to Alex. She had been terribly shaken by Shauna Peterson’s death, then again by the ill effects of Nipo’s lethal calling card.  They hadn’t had a chance to talk after the explosion in front of the ME’s office and he was concerned about her emotional state of mind.  Walker decided to wrap up the business side of his life for the day so he could focus on what was really important.  He suddenly had an irrepressible need to be with

his wife.

“Trivette, see if you can find anything on Cianci that will give us some leverage to persuade him to talk.  Gage and Sydney – see if you can get a lead on the van Nipo was driving.  I’m going to check in with Alex and see if she had any luck with the guys at DPD,” Walker said, leaving his team to their work..

Alex stood in front of her office window and smoothed her throbbing temples with her fingertips. After dealing with the horrifying circumstances of Shauna’s death, followed by the frightening attack on hers and her husband’s life, her headache had returned without mercy.  She squinted her eyes in a reflex attempt to protect them from the relentlessly bright sunlight filling her office.  It was only making her headache worse so she decided to close the blinds.  She turned on her small desk lamp and shut the overhead lights before collapsing into her chair where she leaned her elbows on her desk and cradled her aching head in her hands.

Walker rapped out a quick knock on the door before turning it open. Alex’s reflexes were slow to respond to her unexpected company.  Walker looked on in despair as her sensitive, pain-filled eyes turned up from her hands to meet his guilt-ridden expression. He knew he was the main cause of her reoccurring affliction.

“Hey.”

“Hi...” she responded softly.  “Did you get anything out of Cianci?”

She asked in a distant, cursory manner.  Her mind wasn’t prepared to process whatever answer he might offer.

“He’s tight as a clam. Trivette’s pulling his rap sheet off the computer now.  How are you doing? Another one of your headaches, hungh?”

“It’ll be fine in a little while. I just took something for it,” she said through a slightly cool and preoccupied tone while she stared down at her desk, still kneading the lobes of her forehead.

Walker circled around behind Alex’s desk and rested his hands on her shoulders.  He leaned in to kiss her cheek and he could feel her body tighten beneath his touch.  She didn’t pull away, but her obvious tension came through load and clear.

“Hey…. I’m sorry about today.  You didn’t deserve to be exposed to that. If I’d thought Nipo would try to get that close, I never would have had you with me,” Walker apologized, keeping his hands on her shoulders while he stood behind her. Before he could finish his explanation, he could feels her shoulders knot up like a pair of iron biceps on a prizefighter.

“Oh, so it’s okay if you get yourself killed as long as you don’t take me down with you, is that it?” Alex pushed her hands against her desk and forcefully moved her chair backward, nearly knocking him over.  She stood up and turned to face him with a new sense of energy, awakened by her perceived interpretation of his innocently spoken words.

“So we should ride to work in separate cars?  Eat lunch at separate restaurants? What’s next? Live in separate houses?” Walker could clearly see the steam coming from her ears and the poison darts shooting out of her riled eyes.  He knew he’d struck a nerve…and it was a BIG one.

“Alex, it’ll be okay.  Nothing’s going to happen to us.  I’ll double your security and I’ll be extra careful when I’m out…”

“Don’t patronize me Walker. I don’t need to be handled like a child. I thoroughly understand the danger involved with both our jobs.  But is it really too much to ask to be able to maintain some level of security and sanity in our lives that says we can go to bed at night without being frightened to go to sleep, or, that I’ll still have a husband when I wake up in the morning?”

Alex slammed her chair under the hull of her desk and stormed off to the darkened, blind-covered window where she deliberately stared at the repetitious pattern of the narrow slats.  Her arms were locked across her chest and Walker could see her shoulders rising up and down from the negative excitement he had unmistakably ignited in her.  He thought about her emotional, yet legitimate anxiety and he wondered how he was going to respond to her

without hanging himself.  He decided that the truth was the only answer she was going to accept.

“You’re right Alex!  This is getting out of control and the only way we can gain control is to stop Nipo and Banks. We’re in danger every minute of every day until then.” He moved in behind her, daringly placing his hands on her hips as he leaned his face forward to place his cheek next to hers.  She allowed his advance, but her arms remained in a deadlocked position in front of her.

“No sugar coats… no more reassuring promises that everything is going to be okay…. But the one thing I can promise you is that I won’t let us be separated. I won’t have you sleeping in a strange place, in a strange bed...unless I’m right there beside you,” Walker professed, with a gentle and sincere intonation in his voice.  He braved a second attempt at kissing her lightly on her cheek.  This time, she responded positively by tilting her face subtly into his lips.

         Completely exhausted, she decided it was senseless to take their verbal sparring any further.  Walker wasn’t the cause of all of this. Nipo was, and they had come too far to turn back now.  Even if they wanted to, Nipo had his own malicious, unstoppable plans for the likes of Cordell Walker. She let out a surrendering sigh before she leaned her drained body back against his sturdy frame. Whenever he got this close to her and she could feel his commanding touch, she knew that it was always just a matter of time before she would melt

into his arms and forget about her anger. She just wanted to go home and put on her pajamas before collapsing in his arms in front of a comforting fire.

Walker responded to her evident submission by wrapping his arms snugly around her waist.  Tears pooled in her eyes as the calming sensation of his affectionate touch forced the tension from her body. He relaxed her further by placing gentle kisses along the curve of neck.   She unfolded her arms from her chest and placed them over his as she nestled herself deeper into his embrace.  

Closing her eyes, Alex caressed her check back and forth against his as she guided his comforting arms upward along the curves of her body, resting them just beneath the swell of her breasts.   Her instant arousal triggered a pleasurable, tingling sensation through her craving body. She needed to lose herself in his love and forget about all of the stress and strain that had been devouring their lives: Even if it was just for one night. Turning around in his arms, she immediately took his face in her hands and pulled him to her as she delivered a burning kiss to his unsuspecting lips.  Taken aback for a moment by his wife’s uncharacteristic behavior during working hours, Walker dangled his hands at his side like a naive high school boy, forgetting how he was supposed to react.  As the sensation of her moist lips and her exploring tongue aroused his healthy libido, he quickly remembered the rules of the game and he eagerly returned her passion with intense enthusiasm. As he took her in his arms, she pressed her shapely torso full against his.  He could feel her every curve as she fused herself into him.  Lost in the intimate heat of the moment, Alex tugged at his shirt to free it from his snug-fitting jeans.  Reaching under the constricting fabric, she eagerly ran her hands along the defined contours of his muscular back. Before Walker could protest, though he wasn’t really sure if he was going to, a knock came from the outside of Alex’s office door.

 “Walker, Alex…it’s Jimmy.”

“Just a second,” Walker called out to his partner as he abruptly unlocked their embrace and began stuffing the tails of his shirt back into his pants.  “Do you think Commander Briscol and DA Moody would approve of the way we spend our coffee breaks?” He asked her, while sporting a glowing smile.

Alex came back to earth as she watched him redress.  Her cheeks were flushed and hot, partly from their heated recess, but mostly from her embarrassment.  She and Walker had stolen quick kisses or meaningful hugs at work, but never had either of them made sexual advances towards the other while on the job.

“I’m sorry.  I don’t know what came over me,” she stammered shyly, still unorganized from their brief, yet potent encounter.

“Well, whatever it was, you make damned sure it comes back once we get home, okay?”   Walker flashed an enormous grin for his wife, assuring her that her impulsive offerings were eagerly received.  He finished tucking in his shirt and kissed her forehead before he turned to open the door.  She grabbed the sleeve of his shirt and pulled him to her so she could wipe the sienna-colored lipstick from his mouth.

“Incriminating evidence,” Alex whispered.

“Thanks.  I’d be in a whole lot of trouble if my wife saw it.”  They shared a free and easy smile with one another before he headed for the door. As he turned away, Alex swatted his tempting rear-end as playful punishment for his fresh remark. Walker gave her an ever-so-subtle wink that would have been invisible to anyone but her. As always, she easily recognized the tiny gesture and its greater meaning before she tucked it away for safekeeping in the privacy of her heart.

“Hey Trivette…. What did you dig up?” Walker put on his best “we were just talking” face for his ever-observant pal when he finally opened the door for him.

“Playdirt! The underground operation that Cianci worked for in Chicago would occasionally wholesale their big-city narcotics to Bank’s operation in New Mexico. Cianci was their middleman.  Hey…..What’s up with the romantic lighting?” Trivette asked, noticing the inadequate level of illumination in the office for conducting business. “Did I interrupt something, buddy?” Jimmy whispered privately, leaning in closer to Walker so Alex couldn’t hear his prying question.

“No, no…. You didn’t interrupt anything. Alex has another one of her headaches so she turned off the overheads and closed the blinds because they were bothering her eyes.” Even though he was telling the truth, (at least part of it) Walker’s response was delivered with a lame, unconvincing tendency in his voice.  Jimmy picked up on his partner’s wishy-washy tone, but he decided to let it slid for Alex’s sake.  He glanced over to Alex who was still standing by the window.  He couldn’t help but notice her flush cheeks and her slightly tousled hair. Had she not been in the room, he would have played this one to the hilt.

“Are you still getting those headaches, Alex?  Maybe its time you had them checked out?” Jimmy said, in a genuinely concerned voice.

“She’s calling the doctor tomorrow to make an appointment,” Walker confirmed, while turning his eyes towards his wife to render her a look that distinctly told her that his announcement wasn’t up for discussion.        

“I am?”

“Yes…… You are…”  Walker sanctioned.

“Glad to hear it...

Walker, do you want to try and crack Cianci one more time tonight, or should we wait until morning?”

“Tomorrow’s soon enough, and I’m sure you can handle it, Trivette.  I think we’re going to take tomorrow off.  Alex needs her rest and I need to find myself a new means for transportation,” Walker said, as he brusquely aimed Jimmy towards the door.

“You know you’re gonna buy the same dang truck, Walker.  Can’t you just pick up the phone and say “ditto” to the last one? That shouldn’t take a heck of a lot of effort on your part  - partner.  Are you sure the two of you aren’t trying to cook up a long weekend alone? You seem awfully anxious to get rid of me Walker. Are you sure I didn’t interrupt anything?”  The mental promise he had just made to stay silent was quickly broken. He couldn’t resist the golden opportunity to let his pal know that he had a pretty good idea as to what was going on behind Alex’s door before he arrived unexpectedly.

“Don’t bust my chops Trivette. A man’s vehicle is a sacred possession, and choosing it takes serious time and consideration.  Now get out of here so I can take my wife home so she can get some rest.”   Walker did his best to wipe the implicating grin from his face.  It was obvious that his partner was suspect to his and Alex’s fiery romp and he clearly saw right through Walker’s request for a desperately needed day off to search for a new vehicle.

“Don’t be so quick to throw me out, pal.  Alex’s car is back at the ranch and your truck is sitting in a pile at the junkyard by now. You need me,” Trivette remarked smugly, as he dangled his keys up in front of him for his partner to envy.

Walker flashed a guileful grin for Trivette.  He was relieved that he could finally take control with his partner who had somehow caught him off guard and had cornered him in a slightly uncomfortable position up to this point in their conversation. 

 “No…we all need Gage! I picked you up bright an early this morning for our stake out.  Your car is parked at your place, remember? So, those keys are about as worthless as mine

right about now.”

Jimmy puffed out an aggravated sigh as his mindful partner took him down a notch.  What really made him angry was the fact that he’d set himself up this time.  “I’ll go and ask Gage for a lift for all of us,” Trivette sulked, as he turned and exited Alex’s office without saying another word.

Walker turned to his wife and smirked over his tiny victory of managing to sidetrack his hassling partner.  Her lips spontaneously parted as the corners turned upward, flashing her pearly whites back at him as he joined her by the window.

“You know, I really miss that beautiful smile of yours.  I know things have been crazy lately, and I’m sorry if I’ve been a cranky old goat,” Walker resolved, as his hands automatically gravitated to their habitual resting spot on her waist.  Alex draped her arms over his sturdy shoulders.  Finally feeling a bit more relaxed; she allowed her hands to fall behind him in a carefree motion as she locked her eyes onto his loving gaze.

“Cranky...YES!  Old…No… and I think you’d be best described as a grizzly bear, not a goat.” Her smile extended from ear to ear as he unknowingly lured her in with his captivating look that laid bare the gentlest place in his slate blue eyes. She amazed even herself when she thought of how often she was able to visit that gentle, private place inside the man who emphatically displayed himself to the rest of the world as an eveready armored warrior.  Alex knew that she was a luckier then most women.  She could always rely on his mountainous strength and support, yet…she could melt his heart and bring him to his knees without even meaning to.  As she basked in the entrancing glow of his love and adoration, the girlish butterflies dancing inside of her stomach sanctioned the transparent fact that the heart-rending effect she had on him was without doubt, reciprocated.  She decided to try harder to regain control of her roller coaster-emotions that had randomly plagued her lately.  Her husband had enough to worry about without having to field the landmines she laid down every time her sensitivity surged or plummeted.  She was feeling the stress, but he was certainly burdened with much more then she.  Walker’s day had included the same grim events as hers with the added plights of dodging bullets, hand to hand combat, and the premeditated obliteration of his automobile.  He didn’t deserve the cold behavior that she had frosted him with earlier, and she needed to find a way to apologize discretely without having to admit that she was an emotional basket case.

“I’m sorry about your truck honey. I’ll help you find another one tomorrow.  You know, this is your chance to get one of those newer, loaded models that they’ve been advertising lately,” she said delicately; knowing the sabotage of the Ram was like losing an old friend for Walker and it couldn’t be replaced easily.

He felt a pinch in his chest as he remembered the violent desecration of his beloved truck. With all of the turmoil, he hadn’t been given the proper time to mourn the loss of his ever-faithful companion. “The model I had suited me just fine.  She had a sound engine, a sturdy frame, and she handled as good as any horse I’ve ever ridden.  All the fancy bells and whistles in the automotive industry aren’t going to make me feel better about having to replace my truck, Alex.”

“I know honey.  I’m just trying to look on the brighter side of things. We can talk about it tomorrow, okay?”  “I guess…” he grunted reluctantly.

There was little conversation between the fatigued passengers during the thirty-minute ride to the ranch.  Everyone was dog-tired from the days’ calamitous events. Alex had fallen asleep instantly, snuggled cozily between Walker and Trivette in the narrow backseat of Gage’s car.  Walker drank in the precious sight of her sleeping peacefully against his shoulder.  Her right arm was draped across his stomach while her hand tightly clutched a small section of the fabric of his shirt.  Though she was sound asleep, she maintained her steadfast grip on the material as if it were a reassuring security blanket that comforted her during her restful slumber.   She didn’t look anything like the spitfire of a lady who had boldly lashed out at him just a few hours earlier.  She looked like a beautiful, vulnerable angel who needed to be held and protected from any hurt or pain.  She seemed to tire so easily lately.  Walker knew she was overdoing things and he had to get her to slow down a little. He planned to pamper her and keep her close to him during their long weekend alone.

 She needed to feel safe and loved and he was going to make sure that her needs were met to the best of his ability.  He pulled her closer to him and buried a soft kiss into the crest of her hair.

Trivette smiled to himself as he watched the devoted couple.  If anyone had ever told him that there would come a day when his “all business” partner would reveal his gentle and affectionate side openly in front of others, he would have laughed at the thought.  As he witnessed the sight of his closest friend completely consumed by his sleeping lady, he admitted to himself that this was one of the rare instances when he would have happily acknowledged that Walker had proven him wrong.  Inspired by their closeness, Jimmy wondered if he and Josie would ever be blessed with anything close to what Walker and Alex shared.  Things had been going great between them since Thanksgiving and he was sure they could only get better.  He wondered if Josie would mind if they skipped dinner and a movie tonight as they had planned and just stayed in to cuddle by a cozy fire.

Sydney had been watching in the rearview mirror while Walker doted over his slumbering wife.  Though she felt like she was spying on them, she just couldn’t turn her eyes away from the heartwarming scene.  “Would Gage ever look at her like that?” She asked herself.  They had been spending more time together outside of work, but he seemed to be reluctant to move things along.  At first, she thought that he might have changed his mind about his interest in her, but she quickly decided that he was simply courting her in an old-fashioned, gentlemanly manner.  She wondered if he had more in common with Walker then just their fighting skills.  Would he turn out to be her insatiable seven-year itch that she couldn’t scratch like Walker was to Alex?  She prided herself on her many God-given virtues, but patience wasn’t one of them.  She didn’t know if she could survive the wait.  Feeling a little irritated by her own private thoughts, Sydney turned her eyes away from the rearview and glared over to the man who was causing her suppressed annoyance.  Gage met her gaze with his ever-innocent, illuminating smile and a sexy wink meant for her eyes only.  She quickly forgot about her pessimistic speculations and decided that she would play by his rules for a little while longer. “God, he’s got a great smile!” She thought to herself.

Alex had woken slowly from her much-needed catnap in the backseat of the car.  Walker said goodnight for both of them before he gently guided her into the house.  He drew her a warm bath and helped her settle into it before he started dinner. He grilled some chicken and topped it on a fresh garden salad.  The light meal was just enough to satisfy their overtired bodies before they headed up to bed.  Walker showered quickly and climbed into bed beside Alex.  He eased her on her side and guided her head to his chest before he wrapped his arms around her waist. “I was suppose to show you some more of my animal magnetism tonight,” she muttered apologetically in a half asleep voice.  “You can show me tomorrow.  Tonight, you need your sleep,” he reassured her.  Walker kissed her forehead and adjusted the covers over her so they were just the way she liked them.  “I love you Alex.  Go to sleep now sweetheart.”  She snuggled closer to him and tangled one leg in between his before she drifted off into a sleep that was more restful then she’d had in days.

Walker let Alex sleep in the next morning while he forced himself to make the unavoidable call to the Dodge dealership.   He spoke with the manager, Bill Durand.  Bill had been with Metro Dodge for as long as Walker had been doing business there.  Walker hesitantly informed Bill that he was in need of a new set of wheels.  Having made three previous sales to the Ranger, the experienced manager didn’t even bother to ask if there would be a trade-in involved in the equation of sale.  Walker didn’t own his automobiles long enough to wear them out.   He simply replaced them out of sheer necessity whenever his volatile profession caused the premature disposal of the previous one.

“I’ve got three Ram 4X4’s on the lot right now; two brand-spanking new ones and one used with low mileage.”  Bill cut strait to the chase with Walker. He didn’t need to put on his sales hat and pitch all of the varieties of vehicles inventoried on his lot. Walker had faithfully purchased the same make and model truck for the past ten years.

“Just three hungh? Can you tell me a little bit about each of them, Bill? Alex thinks I should consider one with more options this time around.”

Durand gave Walker a quick run down on each truck and it’s particulars.  One of the new trucks was fire engine red and the second was metallic blue. Both had fine leather seats and a new-fangled navigation system that Trivette had been raving about.  The last of the three, a one year-old silver Ram with modest options had been traded in by a regular customer who had found it to be too large for his needs.  The mileage was minimal and it had a CD player, which Walker didn’t have in the old truck.  “With the acceptation of the CD player,

this could easily be passed off as your old truck, Ranger,” he added casually. 

Walker stayed silent on the phone for a moment before he told Bill that they all sounded good and he would be in on Saturday to take them for a test drive.  Bill assured Walker that he’d be available to personally service him.

The manager hung up the phone and called one of his best service men into his office.  “I want you to take the silver Ram around back and give it a good washing and waxing.  The new owner is coming in to pick it up tomorrow and I want it to look like it just came out of the showroom.”  Bill smiled at his own intuitiveness as he resumed his work on the invoice sheets that he had been looking over when the Ranger called. Walker hung up the receiver and wondered if he could pass off the addition of a CD player as an upgrade to his wife.  Both men had already made their decision as to which automobile Walker would be driving off the lot the next day.

Alex bounced down the stairs at 9:30AM, freshly showered and feeling rejuvenated from a restful night’s sleep. Her turquoise satin teddy sprang up her thighs just enough to let Walker know that it was all she had bothered to dress in. While flashing her brightest smile for her ogling husband who had been resting comfortably on the sofa with the morning paper, she deliberately made eye contact with him from across the room.  Even at a distance, he caught a glimpse of the telling gleam in her eyes just before she made a running dash for the sofa. When she reached her intended finish line, she proceeded to drop

herself in a frolic some manner, square across his paper-covered lap.

“Hey, I wasn’t finished reading that yet,” he kidded, as he instinctively circled his arms around her back and waist to support her body from falling backwards after her spirited leap into his arms.

“You can read my lips instead,” she purred seductively, as she planted a passion filled kiss on his lips that instantly forced him to shift her weight in his lap away from his awakening manhood. Alex eased away from their enthusiastic merger and began tracing his primed lips with her moist tongue.  She knew that this provocative, controlling maneuver always drove him wild.

When he couldn’t stand the temptation any longer, Walker tightened his hold on her waist and pressed his yearning mouth full against hers with more force then he had intended.  She responded to his physical plea by parting his lips with her provoking tongue. She explored his mouth with a vengeance: knowing exactly when to apply pressure, and when to tease her way around. There was no question in either of their minds as to who was in control of their smoldering foreplay.

Alex had effortlessly lured him in with her irresistible, feminine talents and she was putting them into full practice. Walker could never grow tired of kissing her, he thought to himself. Every one of her kisses was a sensuous work of art. It soon became impossible for Walker to ignore the powerful signals that her skilled mouth and lips were transmitting to certain sensitized locations in his body. He had to remove her from his lap before his impaired circulation was cut off completely.  Still locked in their kiss, Walker eased her onto her back on the sofa and lay down atop of her.  The abrasive newspapers crackled between them; prohibiting their anxious attempt to fuse their bodies together as one. Walker lifted his hips up just enough to yank the annoying chronicles free from the midst of their embrace. Alex never missed a beat during his clumsy movements.  The marathon kiss was given her undivided attention and Walker instantly forgot about the bothersome newsprint that had been sandwiched between them. She only broke her hypnotic kiss when it was absolutely necessary for them to come up for air.

“What was that for,” he asked in a breathless voice.  “My first installment on my IOU.  It would be downright sinful if I didn’t finish what I started in my office yesterday,” she whispered playfully in his ear.

“Well I think I have a few of my own outstanding debts that I should make good on,” he  responded suggestively.  Walker took the lead in their seductive dance as he slid the back of his hands underneath the cool satin of her nightgown while his palms drifted upward along the sides of her contrastingly warm body. As he explored her neck and shoulders with his lips, she could feel his undeniable enthusiasm straining through his jeans as it pressed against her thigh. “Are you going to get out of those jeans Cowboy, or do you enjoy self-inflicted pain?”

She teased him. “Self-inflicted?  I didn’t do this to myself, lady. You did!” 

They shared a healthy laugh before they stood up to quickly undress. They returned to the sofa, free of all the obstructions that had kept them from the true essence of each other’s bodies. They made love at a lingering pace, savoring each tender touch and unhurried motion.  It was well after noon before they reluctantly got up to shower and get some work done around the house.

Once they were up and about, Walker instigated the first and foremost order of business that needed to be tended to. He hovered over Alex while she made the mandated call to her doctor. She informed her of her chronic headaches and undeniable fatigue while her meddling husband prodded her through the conversation, making sure she shared all of her recent symptoms with her attentive physician. An appointment was set for the following Tuesday:

December 19th at 5:30PM. Dr. Ramos had reserved her last appointment of the day for Alex, which meant she would only have to leave work a little earlier then usual. 

Alex did a few loads of laundry and washed the kitchen floor while Walker generously watered, fed, and carefully groomed the horses.  He was feeling a little guilty over the lack of attention he’d been showing them lately. He lingered in Angel’s stall for a few extra moments to be sure the expectant mother was progressing nicely. Once satisfied with the condition of his thoroughbreds, he crept into the house through the living room door to surprise his wife by sneaking up behind her before he playfully covered her eyes with his hands.  Alex let out a frightened scream and her body tensed up as she jumped a foot off the ground. Even though she recognized his intimately familiar touch, and could smell his favorite brand of saddle soap, the recent disquietude in their lives had left her vulnerable and oversensitive. For one split second, she was brutally transported to a place of sheer terror.  Walker instantly realized his bad judgement and removed his hands from her eyes.  He gathered her unsettled body into his stabilizing arms while she caught her breath.

“Honey, I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking. I know you’ve been on edge about this case lately, and my uptightness over it hasn’t helped your mood……….” 

“My mood is fine,” she snapped, as she pulled free from his embrace and marched over to the counter in front of the window.  She kept her back to him while she struggled to gain her composure, hoping he didn’t notice.  He noticed! …And his guilt flourished as he watched his wife battle against her charging emotions as she fought to collect herself. She’d seemed so relaxed all morning. He thought his playful antics would feed into her improved spirits, but he now knew better.

Alex was feeling overwhelmed and endangered by their unpredictable life and he needed to constantly reassure her that things would work out. Even more important, he had to find a way to stop Nipo so she could relax in her own home without jumping out of her skin every time someone came up behind her. 

When he couldn’t think of anything to say that would provide an antidote for his unintentional blunder, he decided to change the subject completely. “You know what we both need? We need some Christmas spirit. It’s December 16th and we don’t have a single stitch of Christmas decorations hanging in the house. Why don’t we go into the backwoods and find the perfect tree, and when we get back, we can bring the decorations down from the attic and spruce this place up a bit. I think I’ve got a rubber mistletoe tucked away in one of the boxes,” Walker quipped with a light-hearted tone in his voice that was obviously intended to propose a truce.

Just as she was beginning to gain control of her involuntary emotions, Alex felt her cheeks go flush again. “How could she have let so much time pass without realizing that it was Christmas? It seemed like Thanksgiving was only yesterday. This was their first Christmas as husband and wife and she had had such special plans.” Feeling even more vulnerable then before, Alex affixed a phony smile on her face for her perceptive husband for the first time in their married life.

“You’re right honey,” she said gingerly, as she slowly turned to face him. “We both need some Christmas Spirit. You go ahead and find us a tree and I’ll bring down all of the decorations so we can trim it when you get back.” 

Alex lightly patted his chest with her hands in an effort to appear relaxed while she struggled to hide her embarrassment. She might have fooled him if she had been able to look at him.  Instead, she fixed her hesitant eyes on her trembling hands, realizing what little control she had over her emotions……and her life.

Walker felt the evasive vibes that she was sending and he decided to let her have her way. He didn’t want to leave her alone, but he knew she needed some space to deal with whatever it was she was dealing with.

“Okay sweetheart, if you’re sure you don’t want to come with me?”

“I’m sure. This way, we can have the job done by nightfall. It’s better this way…more productive……” Alex anxiously walked over to the sink and started filling the dishpan with soap and warm water, as if it were a job that just couldn’t wait.  Walker watched for a moment as she put the two dirty coffee cups and one single spoon into the full bucket of water. He decided that this was his obvious cue to leave her alone, so he hurried over to her and gave her cheek a cautious peck.  “I won’t be long, and I’ll find us an amazing tree.”

 “Okay honey. I’ll be ready for you when you get back,” she answered in a preoccupied voice.

Alex climbed the narrow staircase leading to the attic where she tugged on the lengthy chain attached to an exposed light bulb hanging overhead. It took a second for the current to travel through the rarely used circuit before the bulb made a quiet sizzling sound and a bright fluorescent light filled the room.

With her hands fixed stiffly on her hips, she made a visual inspection of the box-filled lair and remembered why she didn’t venture up here very often.

Though Walker had always kept things neat and orderly throughout the rest of the house, it was obvious that the attic had serviced him well as a virtual catchall for his “priceless” treasures.  “Thank goodness for Jimmy,” she thought, as she discovered her boxes that he had moved into the attic while she and Walker were on their honeymoon. They were clearly labeled by her and Jimmy had stacked them neatly in the far corner of the attic. “At least my Christmas decorations will be easy to get to,” she consoled herself. 

After choosing the well-marked boxes of decorations from her neat stack, she took a deep breath in preparation for the scavenger hunt that she would have to partake in to find Walker’s boxes. As she scanned the jumbled cubbyhole, she wondered if she could get away with using only her decorations this year. A mental picture of her Victorian ornaments and satin tree-bows quickly reminded her that she was half of a couple now and she would have to bite the bullet and find Walker’s contributions to their first Christmas together as husband and wife.

Alex cleared a large area in the center of the room and sat Indian style on the cold floor of the attic. She dragged box after box over to her designated work area where she inspected and explored each and every one to determine its contents. Though they had been stored in a disorderly fashion, she was pleasantly surprised to find that they were packaged with the utmost care. She found boxes of Cherokee artifacts that were organized chronologically by date and event. There were several boxes of pictures of Walker with his mother and father when he was very young.  Numerous medals of commendation honoring Walker filled multiple boxes and she marked each and every one for future reference. The discovery of a carton of homemade Native American decorations finally inspired her to keep up her search. They were delicate and intricate in appearance.  Alex was sure that they had been made by Walker’s Aunt Ruth; the beloved wife of his Uncle Ray who had raised him after his parents’ death. She boldly marked the box “Aunt Ruth’s amazing Christmas Decorations” before she put it to one side so she could continue her search.

Alex reached into the shelving that was assembled in the far corner of the room. She stretched for the top rack, thinking the row of boxes looked festive. They were bold and bright in color; unlike the kraft-colored corrugated cartons she had opened beforehand.  As she reached for a storage bin decorated in implicating Christmas bulbs, a small box fell from behind it and landed onto the lower platform. It was a pale shade of lavender with a shiny finish. Alex knew it couldn’t possibly be Walker’s and she was sure it wasn’t hers. She wondered if it was a personal treasure box that belonged to Walker’s mother or his Aunt Ruth.  She hesitated in opening it; feeling uncomfortable about invading someone else’s privacy.  “They’re both gone now,” she assured herself.  All of this is just a part of her husband’s history and she was eager to learn every detail about the man she already knew better then anyone else in the world.

Alex settled back into her spot on the floor with her new point of interest. As she lifted the cover, she wondered if it contained an antique hairbrush owned by Walker’s mother, or a host of cultural recipes penned by his dear Aunt Ruth.  As she slid the cover away, she knew exactly who it belonged to. Resting on top of the collection was a picture of Walker and Ellen, his former fiancée who had been brutally murdered nine years ago. They looked so happy together; as happy as Alex knew she and Walker were.  She had known about their relationship and their engagement but she was not prepared for the calamity of emotions that she would feel when she saw them together in an immortalizing photograph.  Her hands trembled as she sifted through the remaining components of the box. There were sentimental cards from flowers sent by Walker, valentines and love-notes…cute sayings on napkins that meant nothing to Alex. They were all written in Walker’s handwriting. Instantly, she felt a pang of jealously towards a woman who had died before she’d even met Walker. 

She reluctantly continued her search through the box, needing to see what it concealed, but plainly afraid of what it might disclose.  A tiny book with tattered edges and a rose-laden cover rested secretively at the bottom of the box. Beside it, lay an engagement ring that was simple, yet exquisite.  As she inspected the modest book, her heartbeat quickened when she realized that it was a personal journal written by Ellen. Alex gave in to her intrigue as she began reading the private pages of Ellen’s innermost thoughts.

“Walker and I made love in the barn today on top of some bales of hay that we were ‘pretending’ to stack. Who’d a thought that unrefined hay could be an aphrodisiac.”

 Alex cringed at the visual image that she had fabricated of Walker being intimate with another woman. Though her wounded heart told her to close the book, her subconscious curiosity forced her to proceed with her reading. She turned a few tattered pages and continued….. 

“I thought my heart would break today when Walker told me about the horrible way his parents died.  We sat on the front-porch swing at his ranch for hours and cried together. I have never felt as close to him as I did today. This man is mine, God. I know it…..and you know it too.”

Tears overflowed Alex’s eyelids as she read the sanctifying accounts of her husband’s former life with another woman.  Huge droplets of water showered the pages as she failed in her second attempt to restrain herself from going further.

“He asked me to marry him last night. I said YES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Of course! Any woman who would say no to Cordell Walker is a fool, to say the least….  And momma didn’t raise no fool!  YIPEE!!!!!!!!!!!  I’m getting married!!”

 The downspouts from Alex’s eyes intensified as she ventured deeper into Ellen’s accounted existence. She felt so confused as she filtered through her mixed emotions of jealousy and grief for a woman who had shared Walker’s life before she was harshly robbed of her own life at the young age of 34. Alex timidly thumbed through more of the exclusive entries.  All of them evolved around Ellen’s relationship with Walker. Ellen had documented countless experiences they’d shared together: activities and pastimes that Alex didn’t even think Walker had any interest in. When she stumbled upon Ellen’s narration of their first Christmas together, Alex fixed her eyes on the page and slowly read each and every word over and over again. The blissful tone of the passage provoked a sickening feeling of panic in Alex’s stomach.

 “We got the greatest Christmas tree today.  I picked it out and Cord cut it down in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. He even made me some homemade mistletoe to hang over the doorway so he can sneak a free kiss when I come over.

Little does he know; my kisses are always free for him.  I can’t wait until next Christmas. We’ll be married by then and everything we do together will be that much more special.  Merry Christmas to all…And to all a goodnight! I need to get up early in the morning because I have a date with a sexy Ranger who has my name carved on his heart…. and his Christmas tree!  (I did it myself…when he wasn’t looking!)  “ELLEN LOVES CORD”…..  It’s scribbled straight down the truck of that healthy sucker! You can’t miss it! Sweet dreams Cord…. I know mine will be scrumptious! 

 Alex was sobbing uncontrollably when she abruptly closed the book. She let it fall from her hands into the box as if it had some kind of ghostly powers. She replaced the cover and hastily carried it back to the shelf where she had found it. Alex leaned her unsteady body against the racks and closed her eyes for a moment.  A wave of nausea surged in her abdomen, intensifying her lightheadedness.

 “How could I have been so selfish with Walker? I let my pride get in the way and I sent him off alone to find our tree so he wouldn’t see what an emotional wreck I am.  I should be thanking God for every minute we have together because it can all be gone in a split second.” 

 These were the thoughts that raced through the frontal lobe of Alex’s consciousness, but the fundamental reasons for her self-torment were tucked away deep in the back of her mind where her intrinsic goodness and virtue kept them from infecting the forefront.

“Ellen didn’t send him off by himself. She was right there by his side, and it was a moment that was important enough for her to write about in her journal. Is Walker thinking about her right now, remembering that his fiancée had taken the time to pick out their Christmas Tree with him, but his own wife couldn’t be bothered?  I’ve got to go and find him right away. I want him to remember experiences with me, not with Ellen. I wonder what other things they’ve done together that we haven’t done?”

Alex took in a few deep, cleansing breaths until the nausea passed and she could stand on her own without feeling dizzy. Leaving the attic in disarray, she shut the light and headed down the stairs. She grabbed her coat from the closet and raced to the barn. She saddled up little Ranger, leaving her pregnant mare behind in her stall.  Walker had given Little Ranger to Lucas during his brief stay at the ranch. He was just a small pony then, but he had matured quite nicely into a spirited young horse.  Alex guided Little Ranger out of the barn, checked the cinch, and quickly mounted him. She headed for the backwoods in search of Walker’s small tractor, which she knew would be parked along the edge of the woods where he was searching for their tree. Without his pickup truck, he would have to strap the tree to his small utility trailer that attached to the tractor. She spotted it at the west-end of the property and prompted Little Ranger into a canter across the field. 

Alex stopped at the threshold of the woods to think for a moment. After sifting through Ellen’s private possessions, she was felling guilty and she wasn’t sure if she could face her husband.  How was she going to explain her change of heart without exposing her ulterior motives for deciding to join him?

She swallowed hard and eased her heels into Little Ranger’s sides, signaling him to continue. Several hundred feet into the woods was a spacious clearing where she and Walker had picnicked once or twice. She spotted him almost immediately upon entering it.  He noticed her even before she saw him. 

He stopped what he was doing and waited for her approach. Little Ranger followed her command and he doubled his stride. As she got closer, Alex slowed the young horse and Walker helped her to dismount.

“Well this is a nice surprise. What made you change your mind?”

Alex’s body tensed a bit as he asked the one question she was hoping to avoid. “I couldn’t let you pick out our first Christmas Tree as a married couple all by yourself. This is something we should do together,” she said cautiously, before she gave in to her urgent need to wrap her arms around him. He happily responded by circling his obliging arms around her waist and lacing his thumbs through the belt-loops on the back of her jeans to lock her in his embrace. He held her against his chest for a long moment as they gazed into each other’s eyes. Walker sensed that there was more to her explanation then she had offered. He wasn’t really sure why she changed her mind about coming, but he didn’t care.  She was with him now and he devoured the unquestionable love that was radiating from her softened eyes. He hadn’t been able to focus on finding their Christmas tree because he couldn’t think of anything but her and how he had upset her. As he took in the ever-addicting sight of his beautiful wife, all was right with his world again. He was glad that she was feeling better.

Alex drank in the same unfaltering love from her husband’s expression. She placed a tender kiss on his cheek, braking the trance-like encounter they were sharing.  They both knew that there were words left unsaid, but each of them found a sense of comfort in knowing that words alone could never break the impenetrable bond they had cultivated over the years.  Together, they could conquer the world, and today, their world consisted of only the two of them and the discovery of a befitting Christmas tree.

I can’t decide on this one, or that one,” Walker announced, as he showed Alex his two choices of trees. “Which one do you prefer?”

She studied his recommendations before she turned around to survey the rest of the bounteous trees in the clearing.  Facing the opposite side of the steppe, Alex pointed to a proud offering that instantly caught her eye at the far-left corner of the field.

“That one!” she sanctioned without hesitating.

Walking hand-in-hand, they made their way through the tall grass to gain a closer look. Walker inspected it carefully and wondered why he hadn’t considered it beforehand. It’s perfect,” he agreed.

“Yes, it is perfect,” she acknowledged with a beholden smile, as she savored the pleasantly surprised look on her husband’s face.  Though Walker wasn’t privy to it, her comment had held dual meaning for Alex.

The significance of the moment was so much more ‘perfect’ then the quality of their chosen tree.   She had accomplished her goal of burying an old memory by creating a beautiful new one for her husband to remember. Alex had already crossed this experience off of her mental list of things she needed to do with Walker that he had done with Ellen.

“I’m so glad you came,” Walker admitted.

“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world,” Alex pledged.  They enjoyed a brief, heart-warming embrace before Walker skillfully harvested their symbolic Christmas tree.

 

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

The Walker’s spent the better part of Saturday morning putting the finishing touches on their freshly cut Christmas Tree. Together, they had ventured up into the attic the night before to locate Walker’s decorations. He knew just where to find them in the thick of the mélange of unmarked cartons. Alex left the attic wishing she’d listened to Walker from the very beginning. If she’d gone with him to choose their tree when he first asked her, they would have come to the attic together and been in and out in no time at all. Alex could have avoided the burdensome anxiety she was still suffering with after her accidental unearthing of Ellen’s personal effects.

Alex couldn’t bring herself to tell Walker about her plaguing discovery. She knew that she didn’t need to hide the fact that she had innocently stumbled upon Ellen’s things from Walker. What she felt she couldn’t reveal were her oppressive insecurities that were unwillfully festering inside of her after she’d found them. Telling him about it would surely offer a segway for him to think about Ellen, and the last thing she wanted to do was to open up old wounds for her husband. Under normal circumstances, her trademark self-confidence would have allowed her to encourage him to share his feelings, and she would have fielded them with assurance, objectivity, and compassion. In her current, emotionally dismantled state of mind, she didn’t think she could field a discussion over a Hallmark commercial without blubbering like an overly sensitive, effeminate marshmallow.

She actually found her absorbed self-assessment ironically amusing: “Commanding Assistant District Attorney by day – emotionally incompetent wife by night.”

“Stop it Alex,” she admonished herself. “Walker wouldn’t have married you if you weren’t what he wanted. Cordell Walker didn’t commit himself into personal relationships of any kind without being absolutely sure that he was more then ready.”

His inner most feelings weren’t bared easily and Alex knew what a huge step it was for him to even pop the question of marriage. It took a few more years for him to agree to a wedding date. She had left that green light to him and he had approached her when she’d least expected it.

“What’s your favorite month?” He’d asked her with a serene sense of calm in his voice. “May,” she had answered without knowing the rationale behind his questioning. “Would May be okay?” He queried with a hint of game in his voice. “Would May be okay for what?” Alex challenged him in a naive manner that he’d expect from anyone else but the lady who routinely read his mind before he even knew what he was thinking. “To get married……” He was as cool and collected as she’d ever seen him. She’d witnessed the same guttural certainty in him in regards to his work on more occasions then she could count on both of their fingers and toes. She didn’t think that she had pushed him into anything.

“Stop this nonsense and come back to reality. If Dalton Reed showed up today and asked if you still had feelings for him, you’d wave him off in a heartbeat; telling him that you were happily married and totally committed to Walker. Ellen is gone. She isn’t even a threat, so stop this teenage jealousy and go and make a new memory with your husband. You’ve got a Christmas tree to decorate.”

Alex had coined the phrase, ‘making a memory’ on the day of their wedding. Each new experience they ventured into as man and wife was given a cherished moment of silence to allow for a sweet remembrance to be etched into her heart and her mind.

Alex swallowed her insecurities and the couple went about adorning their tree. They laughed and kidded each other in the way they always had. It was old home week in the Walker household, and Alex was thankful for the reunion. Walker was ribbing her – she was countering nobly, and the spirit of the moment was filled with playful sparks and ever-surpassing innuendoes. It was the usual sporting banter amongst the fetching “Team Walker.”

Alex plugged in the extension cord and hundreds of tiny white lights sparkled like delicate flakes of fresh snow on the evergreen branches. As she took her reserved seat on the sofa beside her husband, his left arm automatically lifted to receive her into his embrace like an authorizing bar on a toll both. She eagerly snuggled into him, and they sat in silence for a moment while each of them made their personal assessment of the product of their teamwork. The eclectic blend of decorations gave the Christmas tree a charm all of its own. The diversity between the two sets of decorations had been more then noticeable while Alex and Walker were taking them out of their respective boxes. Once joined together, they complimented each other with the same kind of indefinable chemistry that was ever present between the two distinctly different individuals who had hung them.

“What do you think?” Alex asked in anticipation: Wanting to hear Walker’s response before she gave her own. “It’s okay, except for those overgrown hair-ribbons you weighted it down with.” He delivered his comment with a hint of prankish sarcasm in his voice. He thought he was harmlessly fueling the offhand witticisms that they had initiated while decorating the tree. “Walker – those are expensive Victorian bows - not hair-ribbons, and if you didn’t like them, why didn’t you say something while I was putting them on the tree?” An involuntary heave escaped Alex’s chest as she deliberately moved herself over on the couch away from her husband. “Hey, I was only kidding.” Walker had expected a playful elbow to the ribs, followed up with a biting comeback from his wife. He hadn’t intended on hurting her feelings, but he had somehow managed to do just that for the third time in less then 48 hours. He decided that it would be better for both of them if he keep his side of their conversations light and literal until she was feeling better; no teasing puns or verbal baiting. It wouldn’t be easy, but he knew that it would be worth the effort if he could avoid stepping into the lion’s den during feeding time.

“The ribbons, I mean bows – look great. It’s the most beautiful tree I’ve ever had, Alex. Don’t be angry with me. I was only playing with you. I thought you knew that.”

“Your comment didn’t seem at all playful to me. If my decorations offended you, you should have said something a heck of a lot earlier then this, Walker.” Alex chained her arms in front of her. Legs crossed and eyes fixed forward, her toe began tapping out the overflows of her anger.

“Alex I’m sorry if I’ve hurt your feelings. Just give me a chance to tell you what I really think of our tree, okay?” He pleaded, as he discretely inched his way over towards her on the sofa. Replacing his arm around her shoulder, he gazed at their Christmas tree and chartered into his spontaneous monologue.

“When I was a little boy, our Christmas tree was decorated with my mother’s hair ribbons and glass red balls sold at the five and dime for $.50 cents a box: no lights, no special ornaments. That was all we could afford. When I stayed with Uncle Ray and Aunt Ruth, our tree was trimmed with symbols of my father’s ancestry, but nothing from my mother’s American heritage. This tree is brimming with my father, my mother, my aunt and uncle…and you! It’s a masterpiece. You’ve helped to create a tree that embraces my entire life. I can’t tell you how special this tree is to me.”

His heartfelt words were delivered with honesty and unquestionable emotion. It was moments like this that always caught Alex off guard. His genuine sensitivity and profound honesty flooded over her like a powerful wave. Walker didn’t bare his soul very often, but when he did…he always managed to steal just a little more of her heart away. Alex knew that it was already more his then her own. She fought back the tears that were collecting in the corners of her eyes as she slid closer to him, sealing the tiny gap that had been hovering between them. As she rested her cheek against his chest, her tears spilled over her eyelashes, sprinkling the front of his shirt.

“God, I hate it when you do that,” she whispered through a fragile sob as she gripped his shirt in her hands and buried her embarrassed expression into the cleft of his chest.

“Do what??” Walker questioned with complete confusion in his voice. He knew that he had upset her with his ‘ribbon’ comment but he thought he’d done a pretty good job in digging his way out of that misunderstanding by coming clean with his true feelings about their tree. Yet, she couldn’t be too angry with him because she was holding onto him for dear life and crying into his shirt! He decided he would never master the complicated task of figuring out what makes a woman tick…or detonate!

He swallowed his battered pride and washed it down with his outright confusion before he placed a comforting hand on her back to give it a gentle rub.

“What honey? You hate it when I do what?” He asked her in a calmer, prompting voice.

She lifted her head up just enough for him to hear her speak. “I hate it when I fly off the handle and get all emotional for no good reason, and then when I try to cover it up by blaming you, you go and say something unbelievably sweet and sentimental and I end up feeling like a complete snake.” Still sobbing, she quickly buried her face against his chest and went back into hiding.

“Oh sweetheart…,” he began with a warm laugh. His pleasant relief that he wasn’t in hot water again prompted his harmless chuckle. He also found it kind of funny to hear Alex call herself a snake. That was a pet name that she had branded him with once or twice over the years.

“Well, you’re beyond a doubt, the prettiest snake I’ve ever been bitten by.” She smacked his chest in response to his clever comment before she turned her cheek so he could look down into her susceptible eyes.

“I’m sorry that I’ve been such an emotional train-wreck lately. Since these headaches have started, I can’t sleep or eat, and to top it all off, I’m due for my period any day now.”

“So I really didn’t stand a chance of staying out of the doghouse today, did I?” He said kiddingly.

“No, I guess you didn’t. Will you forgive me?” She looked up at him with her apologetic baby blues and his heart instantly skipped a beat. The color of her eyes always intensified after they had been bathed in tears, yet today, their brilliance seemed so much more acute then ever before. Even though her spirit was melancholy, she was breathtakingly beautiful to him.

“I’ll forgive you if you give me a kiss under the mistletoe,” he charmed her, as he reached behind the pillow on the sofa for the item he’d planted there earlier. Rubbery green leaves and hollowed plastic holly berries were dangled above her head in a crumpled cluster.

“I’ll kiss you under any circumstances, Cowboy.” Walker waited a moment before moving in to collect his kiss so he could take pleasure in the half-smile he had managed to put on his wife’s face. As soon as their lips touched, the imitation mistletoe was tossed over the sofa and their bodies were chained together by two sets of exploring arms.

After their brief, yet unforgettable makeup session on the couch, the Walker’s headed for the Dodge Dealership to evaluate the prospective trucks that the dependable manager had recommend to Walker on the previous morning. Once they were inside the dealership, it had taken Alex all of three minutes to translate the unspoken gentleman’s agreement between the buyer and the seller. She quickly realized that they were there to simply pick up a truck that had somehow, already been pre-selected by her husband; sight unseen. Under normal circumstances, she would have boisterously chided him over his blatant distaste for change, but after putting him through the emotional ringer for the past few days, she decided to let her charming creature of habit enjoy his proud moment.

In less then two hours, all of the necessary forms, contracts, and financial papers were completed and the couple was rolling back onto to the interstate that led to their ranch. Alex’s Sebring fronted the short motorcade while Walker and his reincarnated, slightly broken in silver Ram followed close behind. He’d drop it off at the county’s garage in the morning to have the police radio, sirens, and lights installed. Man and machine would be back in action before the start of business on Monday morning.

While Walker and Alex were making their major purchase at the car dealership, Trivette, Gage and Sydney were putting in some unexpected overtime on the X-DREAM case. Trivette had spent the better part of Friday trying to crack Clint Cianci. Exhibiting the latest concrete evidence that clearly connected him to Arthur Banks didn’t soften Cianci in the least. He remained disinterested and brutally silent during Trivette’s three-hour interrogation and the aggravated Ranger finally gave up trying to break him.

On Saturday morning, the doctor’s had given the green light for Rosco Rosenthal’s questioning. The Rangers were allowed ten minutes with the wounded suspect, and they were given strict instructions not to excite or agitate the patient. It took all of five minutes to persuade the heavily sedated man to tell it all. Sydney documented Rosenthal’s statement while Trivette and Gage effortlessly prompted his loquacious disclose.

Like all of the others, Rosco Rosenthal had been summand into the X-DREAM cartel by Isaac Stone. He had never seen or spoken to Nipo or Banks. Stone would always make contact with Rosenthal and Cianci from a pay phone, so an implicating phone number could not be traced from Rosenthal’s confiscated cell phone. Stone would deliver the ‘goods’ to a remote pool hall called ‘The Beer Mug’ on the outskirts of Dallas. Stone was always sitting at the bar whenever they arrived. They weren’t allowed to make any attempts to approach Stone while they were inside the tavern. They would take a seat at a shadowy table and wait for their cue. Stone would have a few drinks, hit on the waitresses and barmaid, then get up to leave only when he was good and ready. Sometimes, it would be two or three hours before he would depart the dimly lit watering hole, but the men knew to wait patiently for him. He would walk outside, and they would stay behind for a few counted minutes before they would follow. The drugs and cash would be hastily exchanged in the ally behind the building, and then Rosenthal and Cianci would quickly depart the sordid establishment without so much as a glance in the rear-view mirror. They had never seen Isaac Stone arrive at, or leave the meeting place, so a description of his vehicle was out of the question.

The next scheduled rendezvous was set for Monday, December 18th at 4:00PM and the Ranger’s had every intention of being there to greet Nipo’s ill-famed, right-hand man, Isaac Stone: Also know as – ‘The Rock.’

A uniformed officer was left to guard the patient and he pragmatically took possession of Rosenthal’s freshly charged cell phone to ensure that the ‘right’ things would be said if Stone attempted to make contact with Rosenthal before the Monday meeting. Trivette made sure that Cianci and Rosenthal’s advantageous arrests were withheld from the media. All of the likely snitches were quickly silenced to avoid any leaks that might tip off Nipo and Banks to his employees’ indisposed circumstances. Walker was given a detailed update on Sunday morning to alert him of Monday’s busy agenda.

Ranger’s Cordell Walker and James Trivette spent the better part of their Monday morning preparing for their afternoon stakeout. Sydney and Gage would be strategically positioned inside the bar as patrons while the easily identifiable Ranger’s Walker and Trivette waited patiently for their cue at the junction of a nearby intersection.

“It’s already 3:53, Walker. Based on Rosenthal’s statement, Stone should have been here already.”

“Not necessarily. Rosenthal said that he and Cianci always arrived at the exact time of their scheduled meeting, no earlier. We’ve got six minutes to wait before we can consider him late.”

“You’re the boss, I’ll just put on the radio and enjoy the music until somethin’ breaks.”

Trivette fiddled with the knob on the radio before he found the familiar modern retro station that he frequently listened to when he was alone in his car or his apartment.

Walker immediately switched the frequency to quickly exterminate the ungodly ruckus that was bellowing through his state of the art speaker system in his newest RAM... A country and western tune eventually lilted through the speakers, and Trivette was equally offended by his partner’s so-called music of choice, as Walker was by Trivette’s previous selection.

“Come on Walker, this hillbilly stuff gives me hives. Turn the station, will ya? Haven’t you ever heard the word compromise?”

“I don’t need to compromise when it’s my vehicle, Trivette. My automobile…My radio stations! Deal with it!” Walker turned up the volume to reinforce his total control over the trivial situation. When Texas Rangers got bored, things could get pretty ugly.

Just as Trivette was preparing to deliver his counter argument, the clock in the truck advanced to 3:55PM, and a flashy, silver Lincoln Town-Car slithered into the parking lot of The Beer Mug. The sought after suspect Isaac Stone, stepped out of the back seat looking oddly displaced as he held tightly to a fist full of brightly colored wildflowers. He stretched his legs, and banged on the passenger window, giving the driver permission to leave. The Lincoln sped off in the same direction it had come from as The Rock checked his watch before turning to enter the seedy bar.

“Heads up, Gage and Sydney. He’s on his way in now,” Trivette warns through his headset that is linked to two small transmitters advantageously planted on the younger Rangers.

“What the heck is that rattlesnake doing with a bunch of sissy flowers? Is this a drug deal or a prom date?” Trivette asks Walker in a confused voice.

“Maybe he’s trying to get in touch with his feminine side, Trivette. But it isn’t his taste in flowers that I’m interested in,” Walker proclaims, as he starts up the quiet engine of the Ram and drives the short distance to the Beer Mug parking lot.

“Gage and Sydney, we’re covering the front. Hang back for a few minutes and wait for our signal to move in. If he tries anything funny, give us a shout,” Trivette advised.

“He’s coming through the door now. We’ll keep you posted,” Gage inconspicuously acknowledges Trivette’s directions with a careful whisper into the microphone fastened to his shirt collar.

The Rock sank into a barstool in the middle of the roadhouse. A forty-ish, smug looking barmaid approached him almost immediately with a short, mixed drink made to order. He delivered the wildflowers to her awaiting hands. She accepted without comment. A pompous smirk was the only thing he would get in return for his token peace offering.

“Looks like Stone has the hots for the barmaid,” Gage remarks.

“No, I don’t think so Gage,” Sydney disagrees. “Look around this hell hole. Every derelict within a 20-mile radius hangs out in here, yet the atmosphere is as calm as can be. I’m sure that the majority of the clientele in this dive has a gun strapped to their waist or a knife packed in their boots, yet, for some reason, they keep their weapons out of sight. That barmaid doesn’t maintain this kind of order by swooning over her patrons. Those flowers are a bid of alms of some sort. Stone is maintaining his spot at the bar under her rules, not his. Even though she knows he’s here on shady business, as long as he doesn’t make any waves, she allows him to stay. He’s not smitten. He’s just protecting his own interests. He plays her game, and she allows him to play his. It’s the old fashioned barter system in its crudest form. ”

“You got all of that out of watching a barmaid palm a wad of flowers from a guy whose face you couldn’t even see? Either your imagination is reaching to the max, or you’re a mind reader. Are you sure you’re not part Cherokee like the boss-man?”

“No… But I am a woman, which means I have a clue as to what makes the opposite sex tick. Keep your eyes and ears open, Mr. Macho. You just might learn something of value from my sound observations. You watch…Next, he’s going to pay her for his drink and he’ll be sure to include a generous tip.”

Before Sydney could finish her comments, Isaac Stone delivered a fifty-dollar bill to his server. She folded it neatly and proceeded to stuff it into the slope of her remote bosom. The flowers were dropped on the back of the bar and quickly forgotten about as the confident barmaid moved on to another shaded customer.

Walker and Trivette had left the confines of the truck and were waiting patiently by the main entrance for the right moment to move in. Just as Walker was preparing to give Trivette the green light to deploy Sydney and Gage, the gray Lincoln caught his eye as it cautiously inched its way back towards the parking lot.

“We’ve got company Trivette. Stone’s driver must have been hiding out down the road when we pulled into the parking lot. Tell Sydney and Gage to move in now, before he tips off Stone.”

Before Trivette could connect with Gage, The Rock’s cell phone chimed quietly, announcing an incoming call.

As Trivette conveyed the latest unanticipated development to Gage, the positioned Rangers witnessed the unfolding first hand. The Rock held the phone to his ear for a few seconds before his body visibly tightened with anger over the message delivered by his caller. He pocketed the phone and reached inside his jacket and across his chest to retrieve his loaded weapon. With a single jolt, he made an abrupt 180-degree turn towards the center of the room and began firing aimlessly to buffer his escape. Backing up towards the rear exit, he spotted the undercover Rangers approaching him with their revolvers determinedly aimed at his head and chest.

Texas Ranger – STOP!” Sydney commanded.

Walker and Trivette busted through the front door with their gleaming firearms leading the way. All of the patrons and employees had hit the deck when Stone showered the bar with haphazard bullets. Sydney and Gage were working their way over crouching bodies and around a partitioned wall to get an unobstructed aim on the fleeing Isaac Stone. Walker had a clear shot of him, and without delay, he took it. Fresh blood spouted from The Rock’s left shoulder just before he slipped out the back door that led to a narrow alleyway. Walker and Trivette ricocheted towards the front door to cut him off, while Gage and Sydney followed him into the passageway.

Tires squealed violently as the driver of the Lincoln leveled metal trashcans and boxes of empty beer bottles with the tremendous weight of his car as it fled the ally. Walker and Trivette cleared the front door just in time to step into the looming path of the speeding Lincoln. Backpedaling frantically, they managed to avoid contact with the car, but they couldn’t escape the flying rocks and the gritty dust that sprayed over them like a waterfall of debris. They wiped the abrasive dirt from their eyes and struggled to regain their focus on the retreating automobile.

The Ranger duo’s scurried to their respective vehicles to commence their mobile pursuit of the fleeting suspects. Walker’s Ram led the way while Gage’s Mustang hovered close to his rear bumper. They had lost visuals on the Lincoln as they struggled to maneuver the sharp turns and endless bends of the narrow secondary road at treacherous speeds. The Ranger’s high-speed chase continued for nearly two miles before the road straightened enough for the Lincoln to return into view. Walker kicked the gas pedal towards the floor and the Ram quickly closed the distance between them. Walker crossed over the broken line into the incoming lane while Gage boxed the car in from behind. Another hairpin turn surprised the racing automobiles and the driver of the Lincoln lost control, careening impotently towards a stone wall that outlined the winding roadside. Trivette strained to get a look at the driver before he spun to the right, but everything happened too fast for him to gain focus. The spiraling Lincoln squared the wall at a deadly speed that exceeded 100 MPH. A violent explosion succeeded the fierce impact. Flames instantly engulfed the metal frame of the defenseless car, devouring everyone and everything inside of it, within seconds of ignition.

It was 5:45PM when the fire fighters finally cooled the wreck enough for the Ranger’s to get a closer look. There wasn’t much to see, except a melted carcass of a car and smoldering ashes. Walker knew it would take a fully staffed forensics team better then a week to identify the bodies that had literally disintegrated in the blaze. With nothing else to be done, the Ranger’s left the local police officers and fireman to finish their work, and they headed back to the Beer Mug to questions the witnesses.

The barmaid and proprietor of the bar, Teresa McKinley; known by her patrons only as Irish, was giving the local PD more blarney then they could swallow. A young waitress, Renee Brewster, was sitting at a table with another officer looking like a frightened child. Sydney, Trivette, and Gage headed for the bar to see if they could assist the officer with his unprolific questioning of the feisty woman. Walker was drawn to the table where the rookie officer was dispassionately grilling the young waitress who was close to tears. As Walker approached them, it was obvious that the green cop was reciting from the police interrogation handbook, line for line: Forgetting he was dealing with a witness, not a suspect.

“I told you officer. That’s all I know. I only work here three days a week,” the girl sobbed.

“I’ll take over from here, officer. Why don’t you go outside and see if you can give the other officers a hand with sealing off the perimeter,” Walker said with a voice of incontestable authority.

The officer scowled up at Walker, but didn’t dare to question his direction. He muttered a few annoyed words to himself before he stood up and marched off in a huff, out the front door. Walker offered the girl a warm, trusting smile before he sat down across from her.

“Hi, my name is Ranger Walker. What’s your name?”

“Renee Elizabeth Brewster, Sir. Can I please go home now? I told the other officer everything I know. I don’t want to answer anymore questions,” she said through a quivering bottom lip.

“I know your shaken up from what happened here today, but why don’t you tell me what you told the other officer, and then you can go home, okay?”

Walker’s compassionate approach allowed Renee to relax a little bit. She nodded her head in agreement, took a deep breath, and began to tell him what she knew.

“I’ve only been working here for about four months. I work Monday’s, Friday’s, and Saturdays. Mr. Rock has come in almost every Monday and Friday that I’ve worked. I don’t know if he comes in during the rest of the week. You'd have to ask Irish that. He never stays more than an hour, and he never says a word to anyone; not even Irish. But he always brings her a bunch of wildflowers that he picks off the side of the road. I didn’t know that he was going to do something like this, Ranger Walker. He’s one of the few men in this dump that hasn’t hit on me. I thought he was a nice man,” she whimpered, as she remembered the frightening sounds of deadly bullets blasting through the small roadhouse.

Walker felt guilty for making her repeat her story for a second time. She wiped her red eyes on her sleeve and nervously pushed her straight, shoulder length brown hair behind her ears. In her vulnerable state, she didn’t look old enough to be a high school graduate. Walker wondered how such a young, beautiful girl with her entire future ahead of her could end up working in a dingy bar, fighting off crude advances from derelict men twice her age. He handed her his handkerchief to dry her weepy eyes.

“How old are you Renee?”

“I turned 21 in July. “

“Can I ask why you’re working in a place like this? You’re a beautiful girl, and you seem very bright. Why would you want to put yourself in a position where men repeatedly treat you with disrespect?”

“My life hasn’t always been this messed up, Ranger Walker. I grew up in a quiet little town on the outskirts of Atlanta, Georgia. I had a nice family, and I was in my second year of college when I walked away from it all. Everything was going great until I met my boyfriend Thom. My parents didn’t approve of him, but I was in love, and I thought they were just being nosy, controlling parents. Thom was dead-set on moving to Texas, and I wanted to come with him. I knew if I left with him, I could never go home again. We moved here in April. We were both going to college part time and things were going great. Then Thom got mixed up with a gang on the West Side. I know he was mixed up with drugs and trouble. We started fighting all the time, and he quit school and moved out. I couldn’t manage the apartment on my own so I had to quit school too. I’m working two jobs to try and make ends meet. I work in a coffee shop in the morning, but that doesn’t even cover my groceries. The tips in this place pay my rent. I put up with a lot of grief from the guys that come in here, but what else can I do?”

“You can do anything you set your mind to, Renee. You just need a little help to get you back on your feet.” Walker scoped his wallet and took out a business card. He reached for her trembling hand and folded the card into it. “Here, I want you to call this number and speak to a nice woman by the name of Josie. She helps my wife run a great place called The H.O.P.E Center. They work with young women like yourself everyday. The H.O.P.E Center can offer you a safe, clean place to stay while you decide what you would like to do with your future. They also offer education resources and job placement. You deserve better then this, Renee. Promise me you’ll call, okay?”

“I promise, Ranger Walker,” Renee answered, with a glimmer of hope in her eyes.

“Good. Now, do you have a car?”

“No. I take the bus here, and Irish usually drives me home after we lock up.”

“Okay. You finish filling out your written statement. Write down exactly what you just told me, and then I’ll have someone take you home.”

“Thank you, Ranger Walker.”

“You’re very welcome, Renee. I’m sure things will work out just fine.”

Walker stood up and tipped his hat regardfully to the troubled young lady before he headed off to aid his colleagues with the arduous questioning of Teresa McKinley.

“Ms. McKinley, I find it hard to believe that you have never seen Mr. Stone before today. You see; we’ve got a sworn testimony that says differently. We’ve got statements attesting that Mr. Stone frequents your establishment on a regular basis. Surely, you’ve seen him in here before?” Trivette cajoles sardonically.

“The name is Irish. Make a note for yourselves, will you, you overly bloated Texas Wranglers?”

“We’re Texas Ranger’s ma’am, not wranglers. You know, it would be a shame if we had to press charges against you for harassing officers of the law. Things could get pretty ugly if you added visible obstruction of justice for withholding information on a known felon to the list...” Gage advised her in a lucrative, yet polite manner.

“You need to understand where I’m comin’ from Rangers. My place is always filled to the brim. I can’t be expected to engrave every face that solicits my bar into my busy brain. I’m a businesswoman, and I don’t have the time to ruminate with my clientele. If this lout’s been hanging around my watering-whole, then I guess I’ve been asleep at the wheel. I see dollar signs in the faces of my crowd, not signs of trouble. This guy could be a regular Joe, repeatedly depositing into my bottom line, but quite frankly, I don’t remember names, and I could give a rat’s ass about the extracurricular activities of my patrons. As long as they conduct themselves in a gentlemanly fashion while they’re in my establishment, their outside business is their own business.”

“If you didn’t know him from Adam, then why did he bring you flowers today?” Sydney questioned economically.

“I guess I’m a motherly figure for some of these striplings. You know? A strange, authoritative image of some sort… I get flowers and candy on mother’s day and samplers of gourmet coffee at Christmas. They feel drawn to me for some reason.”

Sydney glanced over to the far side of the bar. A threadbare tuft of wild flowers sat over-ripened in their ignored vase at the furthest nook of the tavern. Though grossly wilted, the medley seemed more than familiar. Its decaying arrangement patterned the newest harvesting of plentiful Blue Bonnets, Ubiquitous Sunflowers, Blackfoot Daisies, Buttercups, Dandelions, Milkweed, and the rarest and tallest Golden Yarrow ever encountered in the glorious state of Texas.

“Then I don’t suppose you remember who brought you that bunch of flowers in the vase at the back of the bar either. Even though they’re pretty wilted, they look exactly like the fresh bouquet that Isaac Stone gave you today. Isn’t that a coincidence? Gage, what do you think the chances are of two people bringing Irish the same exact assortment of wildflowers?” Sydney asked with a toplofty tone.

“Well, the chances are pretty much slim to none, Syd. Unless it’s just an uncanny coincidence, like you said. But, you want to know what really impresses me, is how Irish knew what Stone drank before he even ordered. Either she’s psychic, or she’s got the best-darned intuition of any barmaid I’ve ever seen,” Gage added, with a sinister approach.

“Alright, alright. I’ll spill my guts. Lord knows, y’all are hell-bent to rip it from my bosom anyway. In all my days behind this bar, I‘ve never met a more persistent bunch of certified pains in the…” Terry McKinley stopped herself, mid-sentence, remembering the harassment charges that Gage had warned her about just minutes beforehand.

“Well, never mind… I knew The Rock was using my business as a cover for somethin’. When he first started comin’ round about four months ago, he’d come and go like a dog in heat. He never seemed to settle down at my bar; not even after a few stiff drinks. I knew he was scheming for trouble, but I couldn’t put my finger on his joke. As long as it didn’t involve my operation, I was better off not knowing, so I made him a little proposition. If he stayed clear of my business, I’d stay clear of his. End of story! I don’t know anything else. I swear on my pappy’s grave.” Irish pledges, with a raising of her hands.

“What about the flowers,” Walker inquired with undeniable interest.

“The Rock, or, Isaac Stone, as you call him, says he picks them along the highway on his way into town. I don’t know where he finds them, but his choice bouquets are downright prettier then any spray of Texas roses I’ve ever laid my eyes on,” Irish admitted.

“He’s never mentioned anything about where he lives or which direction he comes from?” Trivette prompts.

“Not a word! He’s never offered, and I’ve never asked,” the brassy barmaid answered with straightforward honestly.

“Alright Ms. McKinley, we’re done with your questioning for now, but make sure we have a number where you can be reached if we have any more questions. Gage and Sydney, I’d like you to take Renee home on your way back to headquarters. Trivette and I will meet you there,” Walker concluded.

“No problem boss,” Gage answered, as he and Sydney headed away from the bar to collect their young passenger. Walker and Trivette saddled up in the Ram and headed back to Ranger HQ.

“Trivette, as soon as we get back to the office, I want you to tap into your computer and look for any abandoned buildings or farm houses south of Dallas, within a fifty mile radius of highway 42.”

“Sure thing, partner, but why highway 42?” Trivette asks inquisitively.

“I have a hunch that’s where Irish’s flowers came from.”

“Why’s that?”

“Most of the wildflowers in that bunch can be found along almost any roadside in Eastern Texas, except for the Golden Yarrow. The Indians use it to stop the bleeding on cuts and scrapes. Aside from the reservation, there’s only one other place I’ve ever seem Yarrow grow so tall,” Walker commented. “It can only thrive like that along highway 42, where the sun is constant and the soil is rich from the surrounding farmlands. If I’m right, Stone has been coming into Dallas from the south, and highway 42 in the main access road that runs straight through the farmland sector.”

“I’ll get on it as soon as we get back. Too bad Stone got fried in that car blaze. We could have saved ourselves a lot of work if we could have got him to talk.”

“Stone wouldn’t have talked. He was a lifetime miscreant with a heart of cold steel. Nipo would never have a weak link for his right-hand man. We’ve got to figure out where he and Banks are holding up before they catch wind of Stone’s and the driver’s death; Not to mention Rosenthal’s and Cianci’s arrests.”

As the Rangers headed back into the city, Isaac Stone traveled swiftly on foot; camouflaging himself with thick woods that outlined the road where the Lincoln had met its cataclysmic fate. Once The Rock was far enough away from the scene of the accident, he took out his cell phone and called Nipo. After Stone filled him in on Walker’s latest damages, an enraged Nipo agreed to come and rescue him from his unanticipated plight. They would meet at the corner of highway 42 in thirty minutes. The Rock reassured Nipo that the Ranger’s hadn’t seem him jump from the Lincoln while it unerringly maneuvered one of the many winding turns that had obscured it from the Ranger’s view.

“No worries boss. As far as Walker’s concerned, I’m just a pile of smoldering ashes waiting to be cataloged. Based on what I saw, it’ll take them a while before they scrape enough DNA off the scorched wreckage to figure out whose remains they’ve got. By then, we’ll be thousands of miles away from this hell whole they call Dallas,” Isaac Stone vaunted confidently.

“You’d better be right, Stone. ‘Cause if your not, that car fire will seem like a mercy killing, compared to the ways I could torture you,” Nipo implied without repentance.

Trivette determinedly fingered his computer keys for a highway 42 match without profit until 8:30PM. Walker finally gave him the HI sign to close up shop and go home, and he planned to do the same before his wife sent out a posse to look for him. After saying their ‘I Do’s’, Walker had quickly figured out that the wrath of an irate wife was much worse then any vengeance delivered by the evilest of villains.

On Tuesday morning, Alex was awakened early by another one of her brutal headaches. Walker rose to find that he was suffering from one of his own, to match his wife’s. The stress of this case was definitely wearing on their nerves. The suffering couple struggled through their morning coffee. Both decided to pass on breakfast, fearing it would come back up as soon as it hit their unsettled stomachs. With Walker’s Ram bringing up the rear, Alex’s Durango took the lead as they headed towards the Justice building for another overburdened day filled with gnawing uncertainty.

When Walker arrived at Ranger Headquarters, Trivette was already up to his neck in research for possible safe-house locations on highway 42 where Nipo might be hiding out. Walker loped into the office, never bothering to check in with his partner. He slumped down into his chair and released an involuntary, debilitated sigh. In spite of the aspirin and Maalox he had swallowed earlier, his head was still throbbing, and his stomach was moderately queasy, at best. Trivette noticed Walker’s ‘green-gilled’ appearance, and decided to check up on him.

“Hey partner. You don’t look so good. Something you ate?”

“No. I don’t think so. Alex hasn’t been feeling very well lately, and I think she might have given me a touch of the flu.”

“Tough break. I feel for ya’, buddy. Last time I had the flu, I was hugging that cold porcelain bowl for…………”

“I get it Trivette,” Walker purposely interrupted. “Spare me the graphic details. I’ve got nothing in my stomach except a cup of coffee, but I feel like a ten-course meal is on its way up. Don’t provoke it, okay?”

“Sorry. Can I get you some tea or something? A few saltines?”

“No thanks. I’ll live. Anything new on highway 42?”

“Not yet. There are a few condemned homes out there, but I haven’t found any vacant locations that would be suitable for Nipo’s large-scale drug production. It’s such a rural area, and the topographical maps haven’t been updated in a dogs age.”

“The heck with the computer search on this one, Trivette. Let’s take a ride and see what’s out there with our own eyes.”

“Are you sure you’re up to it? Do you want me to take Gage or Sydney instead?” Trivette offered considerately, though his real reason behind his suggestion was to avoid riding in the same vehicle with his potentially contagious partner.

“No, I’ll be fine. You drive.” Walker conceded, while rubbing his throbbing temples.

“You want me to drive? Boy, you must be sick.”

“Just don’t get use to it Trivette.”

As Walker and Trivette headed south on Highway 42, Nipo, Banks, and Stone were busy taking the necessary steps for closing up shop on their drug operation in the Dallas Ft. Worth area. Nipo knew that he had more then overstayed his welcome, and his incessant need to defeat his arch enemy, Ranger Cordell Walker, was the only reason he had hung around longer then he had planned.

Isaac Stone was instructed to make his final pickups and deliveries over the next few days, while Nipo and Banks cleaned house. They would move out over the Christmas Holiday while everyone was pre-occupied with holiday pleasantries and ritualistic, Yuletide festivities. Law enforcement coverage would be at the bare minimum on Christmas Day. They planned to roll out first thing Christmas morning, before a single child’s eyes fluttered open in anticipation of devouring their chock-filled stockings and overpriced presents.

Walker and Trivette made the hour drive to the on-ramp of Highway 42. They picked it up just south of The Beer Mug and began their search for the oversized Golden Yarrow flowers.

Walker sat reservedly in the passenger seat of Trivette’s Mustang as it inched down the highway. Colorful wildflowers bedecked both sides of the road, but there wasn’t a single rod of Golden Yarrow in sight.

“Where do you think Nipo could be hiding out here Walker? A building, a barn? Where could he have set up his X-Dream production out here in the middle of no where?”

“It’s all suspect, Trivette. We have to consider each and every building that has a roof and a door. I wouldn’t put anything past Nipo.”

Twenty miles south of the Beer Mug, Walker woke from his nauseous trance and ordered Trivette to pull over. Both Ranger’s stepped out onto the roadside before they could fully appreciate the sight that lay so naturally before them. Nestled contently inside a burrow along the side of the road, was the most magnificent display of wildflowers. If Walker didn’t know better, he would have assumed that each and every seedling had been hand placed to guarantee a profound and perfect display.

Walker knew only too well that the proud state of Texas randomly scattered wildflower seeds along the highways to beautify the area, but this vivid eiderdown of blossoms was an undeniable work of art.

“There’s your giant Golden Yarrow Walker; right alongside all of the other gorgeous floral specimens that Stone collected for Terry McKinley. This must be the place.”

“Well, now we know that Nipo’s lair is south of this point. Let’s get moving before my stomach acts up again.”

Walker was at the passenger door of the mustang before he realized that his partner wasn’t following. When he turned to seek him out, he noticed Trivette, down on his knees, harvesting handfuls of the brilliant blossoms from the roadside.

“What are you doing Trivette? We’ve got to get moving. We’ve only got a few hours of daylight left.”

“I can’t resist these flowers, Walker. Josie would go nuts over these gems. I plan on using these beauties to get myself out of the doghouse for working late last night. You should get some for Alex too. We can’t loose partner. Beautiful bouquets of flowers for two beautiful ladies, and they won’t cost us a single dime! Lady luck is definitely shining down on us buddy. It would be an absolute sin to leave these flowers here to wilt away in the scorching Texas heat.“

“It’s December Trivette. There isn’t any scorching heat.”

After a few minutes of watching his impulsive partner pilfer the wildflowers, Walker slipped to his knees and succumbed to Trivette’s romantic advice. A pretty perch of flowers would certainly help to spark an added flame of romance with Alex on the eve of their seven-month anniversary. If he played his cards right, he could take pleasure from back to back love making sessions with his gorgeous wife: “A delectable ‘desert’ this evening, then a scrumptious ‘breakfast’ in bed at dawn.”

Before he could embark on an evening of passion, Walker realized that he would have to find a way to quell the unsparing feeling of queasiness that had been plaguing him throughout the day. He would try the herbal tea that Alex raved about, but he would never breathe a word about it to his wife or his partner. ‘A real man doesn’t drink tea, and he can most certainly, will away any ailments or weaknesses that might get the best of him.’ Walker was determined to regain control of his body and his inhibiting ill health before he arrived home to his alluring betrothed…even if it killed him!

Alex sat in the patient’s sitting area of Dr. Katherine Ramos’ office waiting to be called. It had been a grueling day at work, and it was already 5:50PM; twenty minutes after her scheduled appointment. The pain behind her eyes made each minute drag into eternity. She was tempted to tell the receptionist that she would reschedule her appointment for another time when she was feeling better, but remembered that ‘feeling ill’ was the fundamental reason for visiting a doctor. Not to mention, the firm scolding she would receive for ducking out of her appointment from one certain stubborn Texas Ranger. She closed her eyes and tried to block out the amplified sound coming from the menacing wall clock that seemed to be ticking out each agonizing second for her to count in unison with the rhythmic throbbing behind her temples.

“Mrs. Walker…. Mrs. Cahill-Walker?”… Alex was finally freed from her painful trance as the nurse called her into the examination room. She undressed and put on the fashion less gown left by the nurse, then proceeded to wait for the doctor for another 20 minutes.

“Well, Hello Alex,” Dr. Ramos greeted her, with genuine sociability and forgiveness in her voice. She hadn’t seen Alex since before hers and Walker’s wedding, and she was more then anxious to hear how married life was going with Alex’s scrumptious Texas Ranger. She extended her sincere apologies for making Alex wait before she jumped into her ice-breaking small talk.

“So how is that handsome husband of yours? What has it been? Five months since your wedding?”

“Seven months tomorrow, Katherine.”

“Good Lord! Time goes by so fast. I must be getting old. So is Cordell Walker treating his wife like a beautiful and brilliant lady should be treated?”

“Almost always. He slips up now and then, but I think I’m going to keep him around, just the same.”

“Good. You two make a wonderful couple. I was so glad to see the two of you get together. I was starting to wonder if you were ever going to tie the knot.”

“You and me both, Katherine! Talk about a lady in perpetual waiting? I had to take out an extended warranty on the dimming torch I was carrying.“

“Well, I’d love to hear more about your wedded bliss, but let’s talk about you for a bit. What brings you into my office on an emergency visit Alex?”

“Walker forced me to call you the other day because I haven’t been quite myself lately. We’ve both been under a lot of stress with a very complicated and dangerous case, and I guess I’ve let things bother me more then usual.”

“Describe to me what ‘not being yourself’ means to you,” Katherine prompted with a professional interest.

“Well, I’ve had terrible migraine headaches; I’m nauseous morning and night, so I never feel like eating, and my moods have been a little unpredictable lately. I’m not sleeping well so I’m always tired.”

“When was the date of your last period?”

“About 5 ½ weeks ago, but you know how irregular I am. Maybe that’s part of my problem. I’m way overdue. I could be in PMS overdrive.”

“What does Walker think of your physical and emotional changes?” Dr. Ramos questioned, in an attempt to substantiate her incipient diagnosis that was already being tossed around her medically trained brain.

“He’s trying to be nice, but I know he feels like he’s walking on eggshells all of the time. He’s even making himself sick over all of this. I don’t know if it’s the added stress at work, or the crazy changes I’ve been dealing with, but he’s getting migraines too, and he was actually sick to his stomach this morning. I’m affecting his health and well being too, so I guess I’d better let you find out what’s wrong with me so we can both feel better.”

“Well, I’ve heard of husband’s having sympathetic morning sickness along with their wives after they’ve been told that they were expecting, but this is the first case I’ve ever had where the husband suffers from it before he’s even been told. Does he have some kind of sixth sense or something?”

“Morning sickness?????? What are you saying Katherine? Do you think I may be pregnant?”

“Well, you tell me? Is it possible? You’ve been off the pill for several months, haven’t you?”

“Yes. You know that. I consulted you about it before I decided to stop taking them. We haven’t used any kind of birth control since right after we got back from our honeymoon. I guess…it’s possible,” Alex answered with a cautious half smile.

“It seems more then possible to me. You’ve got headaches; nausea, mood swings, and you’re always tired. Your period is overdue, your eating habits have changed, and your husband is commiserating right alongside of you. My money’s on a baby.”

“But what about the migraines? They’re not normal during the early stages of pregnancy? Are they?” Alex asked concernedly.

“No two woman are alike, Alex. Everyone reacts differently during pregnancy; especially during the first trimester. The measureless hormonal shock of conception on a woman’s body has been known to induce everything from vomiting to temporary paralysis. The extreme symptoms usually pass after the first three months. Lets do some blood work to see what’s going on inside of you. We’ll do a full screening to rule out anything serious, but the first result I’m concerned with is your pregnancy test. If I’m wrong, I’ll buy you dinner. Deal?” Dr. Ramos offered with an encouraging smile.

“If you’re right, I’ll buy you a week’s worth of dinners!” Alex rebutted, with overflowing exhilaration in her voice.

That won’t be necessary. “ Dr. Ramos laughed gently. “If you are in fact, expecting your first child with that handsome husband of yours, my only request is that you allow me the honors of overseeing your prenatal care and the delivery.”

“It’s a deal!”

“Great! Now lets get that blood drawn. I don’t want to keep you waiting for your news any longer then absolutely necessary. Are you going to tell Walker that you’ve been tested?”

“No way. I’m not letting the cat out of the bag until I’m absolutely sure. I’d hate to get his hopes up, then have the test come back negative. How long before the results are back?”

“Tomorrow afternoon. Can you wait that long?”

“That would be perfect! If I am pregnant, I can tell him tomorrow night, over our anniversary dinner. It would be the most amazing gift I could ever give him. Let’s see him top this one!”

“Do I detect a little competition betwixt the blissful man and wife?” “Just a smidgen!” Alex confessed with a playful expression, while holding her two fingers together for an added visual effect.

Dr. Ramos couldn’t help but notice Alex’s endless smile.

 

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

Walker and Trivette headed back to Ranger Headquarters around 6:30 PM. They had driven twenty miles south of the wildflower display, searching every abandoned farm and barn along the way.  There was no sign of Nipo’s drug camp.  The Rangers would resume their search first thing in the morning, but they would shift their exploration to the countless side-roads that fed into Highway 42.   As they made the 90-minute ride back to the office, Walker took pleasure in the fact that his stomach had settled down and his headache had miraculously disappeared.  He had been so immersed in the search for Nipo’s hideout that he couldn’t recall when the pain had subsided.  Whenever it was, he was thankful.

Had anyone bothered to synchronize their watches, the uncanny truth would tell that both Walker and Alex’s pain had disappeared at the same exact moment: The moment that Alex learned that she might be expecting their first child.  For the record, it was 6: 22PM.

The Rangers returned to their desks just long enough to log the negative results of their day’s profitless work into Kurt Nipo’s thickening file before they headed to their respective homes at 8:30PM. 

“See you back here bright and early tomorrow morning, partner?  Say 7:00 o’clock?”  Trivette asked Walker, figuring his relentless comrade would be anxious to get back to it once the sun came up.

“Not tomorrow, Trivette.  It’s Alex’s and my seven-month wedding anniversary.   I don’t want to undo all the good those flowers are going to do by bailing out on her before breakfast.  8:00 o’clock will be soon enough.  We’ll check in with Gage and Sydney, then hit the road right away,” Walker concluded.

“You’re not gonna get any arguments from me, man.   Who am I to turn down an extra hour’s sleep?  8:00 o’clock it is.  See you then, Walker, and happy anniversary.  Tell Alex for me too, will you?”

“I will. Thanks, Trivette. Goodnight.”

Walker called Alex from his cell phone to tell her that he was finally on his way home.  It was nearly 9:00 o’clock and he was expecting a cool greeting from his wife for coming home late two nights in a row.  To the contrary, she answered the phone with a warm tone and an inviting disposition.

“Hurry home, honey.  I’ve got dinner warming in the oven,” Alex enticed him with a perky, upward inflection in her voice.

“You sound like you’re feeling better,” he carefully pointed out to her.

“I’m feeling wonderful. How about you?”

“Well I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’m feeling wonderful after driving around all day without gaining any ground on Nipo, but my headache’s gone and my stomach seems to have settled down. I’m actually looking forward to some solid food.”

“Great. I’ll have dinner ready when you get in.”

“How did you make out at the doctor's today?” Walker asked.

“Katherine doesn’t think there’s anything serious going on with me, but she’s running some tests just to be sure,” Alex answered vaguely.  “Oh, and Walker…” she interjected, wanting to change the subject before he asked what kinds of tests were being done.

“Yeh, honey?”

“I would really love to take the horses out for a ride in the back fields after dinner. Are you up to it?”

Walker glanced up through his windshield at the stirring sky to evaluate the progress of the storm clouds moving in.

“Alex, the weather report said we were in for some thunder storms tonight.  From the looks of these clouds forming above me, I don’t think we’ll have time to squeeze in a ride.” 

“Come on, Walker. I just watched the news.  They said it’d be hours before the rain starts. Please…” she whimpered in a begging voice that she used only when she desperately wanted something.

“We’ll see how things look after we finish eating, okay?”

“Great! I love you, Walker,” she pledged with a spike of excitement in her voice.  She knew when Walker used the words ‘we’ll see’ with her, what he really meant was ‘I’m not going to win anyway’.

“I love you too, honey.”

 Walker pulled into his driveway at 9:05PM.  He found his wife in the kitchen bent over the stove in her snuggest, most revealing pair of faded blue jeans. He caught a glimpse of her shapely rear-end through a tattered rip that ran clear across the back of her pant leg. Had she been standing up straight, the tear would have hovered just below her left cheek. But in her current arched position, the worn material obligingly crept up over the arc of her buttocks, giving her husband a liberal eye full. Even though he knew firsthand what was hidden underneath, the mere sight of the taut denim clinging to each and every tempting curve of her buttocks, hips and thighs made her just as desirable to him as she would have been if she were standing there naked.  Well, maybe not just as desirable, but it definitely ran a close second.

 What an appetizing sight, he noted to himself before he shared his arousing thoughts with his wife.  “Dinner looks great. When do we eat?” Walker teased her as he moved across the kitchen to where she was advantageously leaning over.

“Very funny, Walker. I haven’t even taken it out of the oven yet,” Alex answered innocently without turning away from her work to see the lustful look on her husband’s face.

Alex set the hot casserole dish on top of the stove and carefully removed the lid. A mist of steam billowed up from the dish, carrying its delicious aroma with it.

“It smells good, too,” Walker said as he circled his arms around her waist from behind while nestling his nose into the nape of her neck to draw in her seductively familiar scent.

Alex looked down and saw the breathtaking flowers he was holding in his arms that were locked around her waist.

“Are these for me?” Alex plucked the oversized bouquet from his grasp and she drew them up to her face so she could sample their pungent, sweet-smelling odor.

“Walker, they’re absolutely stunning. Where on earth did you ever find them?”

“I hand picked them myself along highway 42 while we were looking for Nipo’s camp.  Do you like them?”

“I love them. They’re amazing. Did you really pick them yourself?” Alex asked sentimentally as she turned around in his arms to look into his eyes.

“Every last one of ‘em.  Well, I guess this means my day spent in the middle of nowhere wasn’t a total waste of time.  I didn’t find Nipo, but I managed to put a smile on your face with these flowers.”

“Yes you did. A great big one,” Alex beamed as she leaned in to give him a spirited kiss to show her appreciation.  When they finally eased away from each other’s lips, Alex couldn’t help but notice the unmistakable look of desire in his eyes.

“Umm.  Looks great smells great, and it taste great, too. Let’s eat!” Walker lunged back into the curve of her neck, leaving a trail of kisses and nibbles from her ear to her shoulder.  His hand roamed down to the small of her back, then over the arch of her bottom to find the tattered hole that gave him easy access to a silky, yet wonderfully firm cheek. Alex laughed and tensed up from the tickling sensation he was causing her with his busy mouth and hand.

“Stop it, Walker,” Alex pleaded through a gentle giggle.  “You’re tickling me.  And don’t you dare make that hole any bigger then it already is.  You know these are my favorite jeans and I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be able to fit into them.”

“Why? You never gain an ounce of weight, and I don’t think you need to worry about them shrinking in the laundry. They’ve already been washed about 200 times.”

Alex bit her tongue as soon as the implicating words fell out of her mouth.  She had chosen to put on her favorite, tightest pair of jeans after she showered to help convince her that she was in fact pregnant.  I’d better wear these while I can, because they probably wont fit me in another month or two, she had told herself.  She toyed with the thought of telling her husband her secret right then and there, but she decided that she should wait until she was absolutely positive.  If the test came back negative, she wasn’t sure how she was going to deal with it. Never mind having to tell Walker.  

“I know, but Christmas is only a few days away and you know how the girls at work love to bake.  My office will be wall-to-wall food from now until New Years, and I plan on sampling each and every dish. If I pour one more pound into these old worn out jeans, they’re going to disintegrate and fall off my body.”

“Can I watch?”  Walker asked with a playful twinkle in his eye.

“You’re impossible, Walker.”

“Thank you!”

Alex shook her head at her incorrigible husband as she struggled to force a stern expression towards his boyish, yet somehow charming behavior.

“You’d better get upstairs and shower before you say something that will get you into trouble.”

“Sorry, hon. I’ll be good. I promise,” he pledged as he pulled her close for another kiss.  As their lips parted, Walker noticed a succumbing smile on Alex’s face. 

“Get going, Cowboy,” she told him as she patted his solid chest with her free hand.  “I’m going to put these flowers in water before I set the table for dinner, so that gives you about ten minutes. Do you think you can handle that?”

“Piece of cake.  I’ll be back before you know it.”

Walker leaned in to give her one last kiss on her cheek.  Before he released her from his embrace, he made a point of sliding his hand back down to the tear in her jeans.  With one swift motion, he managed to enlarge the hole by a good inch or two.  As soon as the deed was done, he turned and ran out of the kitchen and up the stairs to escape his deserved scolding.

“WALKER!!!”

During dinner, Alex had finally convinced Walker to go for a late night ride.  She used the fact that he had deliberately enlarged the tear in her favorite jeans as extra leverage to clinch his surrender. “You owe me one, Walker,” she reminded him before he finally folded.

After dinner, Walker saddled up Amigo and Little Ranger while Alex changed into a pair of jeans that didn’t have built in air conditioning.  She then hunted for a soft blanket for them to sit on, should they decide to dismount the horses and rest along the way. When Alex joined Walker in the barn, the expectant mother Angel stood in her stall sulking and whinnying as she watched her mistress guide Little Ranger out of the stable.

“My poor girl,” Alex consoled her as she walked back into the barn to give her horse a reassuring pat.  “I’m not abandoning you.  We can ride together after you have your new baby. Or if I’m lucky, after we both have our babies,” Alex whispered privately to her mare, making sure her husband was out of earshot.  She stroked Angel’s back and fed her a few carrots from the feeding box before leaving her behind.

“I don’t like the looks of that sky, Alex,” Walker commented as he prepared to give her a boost up to mount her horse.  “We’re going to have to keep this ride short if we want to stay dry.”

“Don’t be such a pessimist, Walker.  It’s only 9:45.  The weatherman said the rains wouldn’t start until well after midnight.  We’ll be back in less then an hour.”  Alex took the reigns and signaled Littler Ranger to get moving.  She refused to give in to her husband’s ever-practical words, and she was sure he would shut up about it and follow her once he realized that she wasn’t going to listen.  Tonight, she wanted to be anything but practical.  The idea that she might be expecting their first child filled her with a feeling of absolute exhilaration, and she wanted to follow it for as long as it could last. Her cautious excitement energized her beyond compare and she felt the need to be carefree and spontaneous.  She was practicing the power of positive thinking.  If she believed that they could beat the rain, then they would beat it. And if she allowed herself to believe that she was pregnant, then her test would surely come back positive.

“Since when do you trust what the weathermen say?  You know they’re hardly ever right,” Walker called after her before he gave up and eased his heels into the muscular sides of his trusted horse.  “We’d better follow her, Amigo.  That woman is as stubborn as a mule.”

Walker and Amigo moved out in front of Alex and Little Ranger to lead the way.  Without the aid of the natural light from the moon and stars that were hidden behind the storm clouds, the riders would have to rely on their flashlights and Amigo’s sure footing to guide them.  Luckily the path to the backfield was well worn and far away from any woods or brush.  It was an easy ride that Amigo had made a hundred times over, and Walker figured he could maneuver it blindfolded.

Fifteen minutes into their ride, Alex told Walker that she was ready to stop.  Deep down, she knew her husband was right about the impending bad weather and she didn’t want to push her luck.  She wanted to have time to snuggle with him on their warm blanket and savor the liberation of the great outdoors before they had to head back to the ranch.

Just as they dismounted their horses, the sky echoed out an angry rumble of thunder that was immediately followed by scattering droplets of rain.

“Uh-oh,” Alex said, stopping in her tracks to wait and see what was going to happen next.  In a matter of seconds, the sky released another furious crack with a reverberating boom that was three times louder and longer then the first.  The rains instantly became steady and heavy and Alex knew that she had used poor judgment when she persuaded her reluctant husband to join her on their ride.

“Looks like you were right, Walker,” she said in a discouraged voice. “We’d better get the horses back to the barn.  They’re going to have trouble seeing in this heavy rain.”

“I won’t say I told you so, Alex,” Walker automatically commented as he helped her back into the saddle.

“You just did.”

The storm intensified without mercy as they made the laborious ride back to the barn.  Amigo kept his head lowered towards the ground to protect his eyes from the driving rain, forcing the usually agile horse to slow his pace considerably.  Little Ranger stayed close behind the seasoned animal, unable to maneuver the trail on his own in the minimal visibility. Walker and Alex could feel the sting of the pelting rain on their faces as they struggled to keep their eyes open. Amigo took charge of the situation as he led them closer to the shelter of the barn.

When they were only 200 yards from their safe haven, a bolt of lightening illuminated the sky, seemingly severing it down the middle with a jagged current of lethal electricity. Startled by the resonating sound, Little Ranger bucked his front legs upward towards the noise, nearly jolting Alex out of her saddle.  Another crack of thunder landed on the air and Walker knew that they had to reach shelter quickly or they would be vulnerable targets for the next powerful lightning bolt that would surely be coming soon.

Walker slowed his horse long enough to allow Alex to move in beside him. He grabbed Little Ranger’s reins to guide him the rest of the way.

“Let’s go, Amigo. We’ve got to get to the barn.”  Walker twisted his heels into Amigo’s sides and tugged on the reins, coaxing his horse to transition his cautious step into a conservative canter.  Amigo sensed his master’s alarm, and even though he couldn’t see more two feet in front of him, he obeyed Walker’s command without hesitation.  Moving forward on faultless instinct and sheer adrenaline, the dependable mammal was determined to lead his group to their mark.

As they neared their destination, the motion-activated spotlight on the outside of the barn beamed brightly. With the aid of the floodlight, Amigo managed to pick up his pace on the final stretch.  Just as they prepared to dismount, another streak of lightning shot from the turbulent sky, making contact with the ground only a few hundred feet away from the barn.  The earth shook beneath Walker and Alex’s feet as they struggled to calm the spooked horses.

 “Open the door, Alex. We’ve got to get inside,” Walker shouted.

Alex frantically struggled with the latch on the barn door.  Her hands were shaking from the uninvited excitement, and she fumbled with the latch for a few moments before she finally thought to remove her wet gloves to make the task a little easier.  The door finally flew open with the aid of the forceful wind, and Walker quickly led both horses inside.  Alex yanked the door closed behind them and secured it from the inside.  Walker turned on the lights and guided the horses to the middle of the barn. He removed Amigo’s saddle while Alex worked on unfastening Little Ranger’s.  Once both horses were free of their trappings, Walker headed for the coal-stove to start a fire.

“Grab some towels out of the storage closet, Alex.  Start drying them off while I get a fire going,” he told her.

Alex did as Walker asked without speaking a word.  She was feeling guilty and sorry for herself all at the same time.  Her selfishness had put all of them in unnecessary danger, including the tiny baby that she prayed she might be carrying.  If she had fallen or been thrown from Little Ranger, she could have lost their baby before she was even sure if he or she existed.  She had wanted this night to be so special, but as she stood there in the middle of the cold barn soaked through to her skin, struggling to dry the drenched horses, she was painfully aware that it had turned into a total disaster.  Silent tears streamed down her cheeks, blending in with the droplets of rainwater that were already there.

 “I’ll take over, Alex.” Walker unintentionally startled her as he touched her shoulder and interrupted her woeful reverie with his soft-spoken words. “It’s going to be a while before the storms lets up, so we’ll have to stay in here until we can make it to the house safely. I want you to go and get out of those wet clothes before you catch a cold,” Walker insisted as he reached into her leather saddlebag for the blanket she had packed.  It was still dry.  “Wrap up in this and sit by the stove.  It’ll warm up in here soon.”

Walker removed his dripping jacket and shirt before he went to work on the waterlogged horses.  Alex left him to his task and headed over to the bales of hay that were stacked in front of the airtight coal-stove. She sat down on one of the bales and yanked off her soggy boots.  She stripped down to her bra and panties then hung her drenched clothes over the railing of an empty stall before she quickly wrapped herself in the dry blanket.

Walker finished up with the horses and returned them to the comfort of their stalls. He fed and watered them before he joined his wife in front of the warmth of the old potbelly stove.

Alex was staring aimlessly into the bright orange coals of the fire that flickered through the narrow air vents on the front of the stove door. Walker knew she was beating herself up over the way things had turned out and it broke his heart to see her so dispirited when she had been so happy just a few hours earlier.   He sat down behind her and began to dry her wet hair with a clean towel.  She was about to tell him not to bother when a sudden outburst of thunder roared from the sky and jarred the ground below. Startled by the earsplitting noise and the potent vibration, Alex gasped for air as her body tensed up beneath his gentle touch.

“Hey, take it easy, honey. We’re safe in here,” Walker comforted her as he wrapped his arms around her from behind.  Her eyes filled with tears again, but this time she couldn’t hide them from her husband with her silence.  Painful sobs forced their way out of her throat and Walker could feel the turbulent rising and falling in her chest as he held onto her.

“Oh, Walker. I really messed things up this time.  I can’t believe how stupid I was to suggest that we go for a ride tonight.  I knew what the weather report was showing, but I was so determined to have my way that I thought I could just will things to work out the way I wanted them to.  I wanted tonight to be romantic and special.  Now it’s turned into a complete disaster.  I’m sorry for dragging you into this,” she cried.

 “It doesn’t have to be a disaster, Alex.  We can readjust the plan to fit the circumstances,” Walker commented in an encouraging voice.

“Oh sure, Walker. How do you propose we do that?  I’m sitting in a barn on a bale of hay in my wet underwear, looking like a drowned rat and freezing my butt off.  I don’t see anything even remotely romantic about that.”

“Come on, Alex.  Where’s that sense of adventure that I saw in your eyes earlier tonight? When life gives you lemons, you make lemonade!  Wait here,” he told her, kissing her wet hair before he stood up and headed for the loft above the stalls.

Walker returned with two sleeping bags, some riding blankets and a large battery operated light that he used to make his way around the barn when the power was out. He hung the light on a nearby beam and pointed it towards the bales of hay before he turned it on.  Noticing that the stove needed re-stoking, he energetically trotted over to it and filled it to capacity with the clean-burning coals. Alex said nothing as she watched him bounce around the barn to set the mood for his plan. Walker turned off the rest of the lights in the barn, leaving only the battery operated one, which cast a warm glow onto the golden bales of hay.

“Stand up,” Walker instructed his wife, as he took her by her hands and guided her away from the bales of hay. He straightened the bales into a single layer using an interlocking block pattern.  When he was finished adding, turning, and patting them, he figured it to be just about the same size as their queen-size bed.  The riding blankets were layered over the hay to smooth and pad the surface.  Walker opened the two-man sleeping bag and placed it on top of the blankets.  The other sleeping bag was then unrolled and folded in half to serve as a pillow for their bed. When it was finally finished, Walker unzipped the sleeping bag and turned back the flap so they could easily climb inside of it. 

“Come here,” he called to Alex with his arms outstretched.  Her tears had subsided while she had watched him cleverly create a makeshift place for them to snuggle in. A shy smile finally graced her lips, as she willingly obliged his request.  She stood before his open arms, expecting him to wrap her inside of them.  Instead, he used them to remove the blanket that she had draped around herself to keep warm.

 “Walker, what are you doing? I’m freezing.” Alex complained as she folded her arms across her chest in a futile attempt to protect herself from the rush of cold air that collided with her naked skin.

“You said your underclothes were wet. I’m just helping you to get them off before you climb into bed.”  He reached for the waistband of her panties and with one swift pull; they were at her ankles.  She reluctantly stepped out of them and tiny goose bumps instantly formed on her bottom as the cold air came in contact with her damp skin. Walker took her in his arms and leaned over her shoulder to get a clear view of the tricky hooks on her bra.  As he leaned in closer to quickly unfasten them, Alex let out a startled scream.  She jumped backward reflexively as the front of his cold, wet jeans pressed against her bare stomach and pelvis.

“Walker, your pants are soaking wet. You’re peeling off all of my clothes: What about yours?” She complained, as she scurried to the sleeping bag, letting her bra fall to the floor along the way.

“I was getting to that,” he answered as he shucked the wet denim away from his damp skin.  Not caring about hanging them up to dry, he tossed his pants and underwear behind him as he dove under the covers beside his shivering wife.

Ahh, you’re freezing, Walker.”

“I hate to tell you this, Alex, but you’re not exactly hot water-bottle material yourself.”

They both laughed as they lay in each other’s trembling arms while their teeth chattered from the cold contact of their damp skin.

Before long, their body temperatures had regulated to normal and they were able to relax into the comforting warmth of their intimate embrace.  Alex moved her head up from the fold in Walker’s arm to her favorite spot atop his chest where she could listen to his heartbeat. She pulled the sleeping bag higher, snuggling it up to her neck.  Walker tightened his hold around her waist and leaned down to kiss her forehead.

“See, this isn’t so bad, is it?” Walker asked her.

“No. It’s not bad at all,” Alex agreed through a warm smile. “It’s kind of nice, actually. Even though we’re always alone in the house, this somehow feels like we’ve escaped to a secluded little piece of nature where no one can find us. I guess this is as close as we can get to being outdoors without actually being outdoors. Thank you for salvaging our romantic evening, Walker,” Alex confessed as she tilted her head upward to look into his eyes.

“You don’t need to thank me, Alex. This is your doing, not mine,” Walker assured her.

Alex looked up at him with a puzzled expression.

“What are you talking about, Walker? I never would have thought of making a bed out of a few sleeping bags and a bunch of coarse hay.  I was ready to chalk this evening up to a natural disaster, remember?”

“Sweetheart, if you hadn’t gotten that farfetched notion to go out riding just before an intense storm in that beautiful head of yours, we never would have ended up here.  So you see?  You made this happen.”

Walker guided her chin up to his so he could administer a gentle kiss to her tempting mouth.  As soon as their lips met, Alex detected Walker’s instant arousal that was enthusiastically pressing against her thigh.

“You’re really getting warmed up, aren’t you?” She couldn’t resist the opportunity to tease him as soon as their kiss ended.

“I can’t help myself, Alex,” Walker admitted with a lustful grimace on his face.  “I’m lying here fused together with the most beautiful woman in the world: not to mention, a completely naked woman.  How much self-control do you expect a guy to have?”

“Oh, I’m sure I look really beautiful.  My hair is a mess and my makeup is probably running down my face.”

“I hate to tell you this honey, but you’re not wearing makeup anymore.  The driving rain took care of that. And your hair doesn’t look any different then it does when you’ve just stepped out of the shower. You’re as beautiful as always; maybe even more beautiful, if that’s possible,” He added with an undeniable tone of sincerity.

“It’s the poor lighting,” Alex informed him, as she nodded her head towards the dusky light that was shining down on them.

“No…” he argued. “There’s a definite change in the brightness of your eyes, Alex.  They’re more brilliant then I’ve ever seen them before. I guess it would be selfish of me to hope that I had something to do with the change in them,” Walker asked as he swept a wet, silky curl away from her brow.

Alex wondered if he could really see a change in her eyes. She had heard that woman sometimes looked different when they were expecting; radiant in some way.  Maybe she really was pregnant! Walker’s comment added another piece of supporting proof to what she prayed would end up being true, and it took all of her willpower to keep from blurting out her smoldering secret.

“Darling, I don’t know what you think you’re seeing, but whatever it is, I assure you, you had everything to do with it,” she promised him as her emotion-filled tears swelled in the corners of her mesmeric baby-blues.

The softest side of her vulnerability for him had been laid bare and it made Walker want to take her in his arms and make love to her like never before.  He turned onto his side and leaned in to give her a kiss that would demonstrate his boundless love and passion for her.  As his capable hands roamed beneath the bedcovers, enticing the graceful curves of her body with his touch, Alex had a cursory flashback of the day in the attic when she found Ellen’s diary.  Making love in the barn was one of the things Ellen had done with Walker that Alex hadn’t, and by some uncanny means, it was happening without ever being planned.

Maybe Walker was right. Maybe this is the way things were supposed to happen tonight.  I didn’t plan to seduce him into making love to me on these scratchy bales of hay, but under the extreme circumstances of this crazy evening, it just sort of happened naturally.  I guess I can cross this one off my list, Alex told herself, as she returned her undivided attentions to her husband’s enthusiastic efforts to arouse her.

As they gave themselves to each other, Alex became aware that the once menacing storm had somehow transitioned into some sort of earthy comfort to her.  The hypnotizing sound of the rain hitting the roof, the low rumbles of thunder that cracked and echoed through the air: all of it came together in a natural medley of sounds, embodying every possible emotion. The spontaneous orchestra comprised of nature’s primal elements seemed to be practicing their magnificent symphony just for the two of them.  

Walker had woken several times during the night to stoke the fire. The storm had subsided shortly after one o’clock, but he didn’t have the heart to wake Alex so they could move inside to the comfort of the house.  Just before dawn, he propped his elbow up on the bed and rested his head in his hand so he could watch his wife sleep.  After all these years, he was still mesmerized by the mere sight of her.  When he couldn’t wait for another second to pass, he leaned down and brushed her lips with his own.

“Happy anniversary, sweetheart,” he whispered to her.

Alex’s eyes fluttered open and she could see his handsome face only inches from her own.

“Happy anniversary. Have you been staring at me again while I was sleeping?”  She asked in a drowsy voice.

“Yup. It’s a bad habit that I just can’t seem to break.”

“I guess it’s a good thing that I don’t snore then, or you’d get an earful as well as an eyeful.”

“I never said you didn’t snore, Alex.”

“You’re a rat, Cordell Walker. I can’t believe we slept in here all night. What time is it?” She asked him as she struggled to open her eyes to meet the daylight that was seeping in through the windows of the barn.

“Almost five o’clock. You seemed to sleep pretty well on this lumpy bed of hay.”

“We’ll see how my back feels once I stand up.  Can you get me my clothes, honey?”

Walker got up and slipped on his own soggy jeans that were still lying in a pile on the floor before he went over to where Alex’s neatly hung clothes were left to dry out.  He returned to the bed with her clothes in hand.  She dressed quickly and they headed for the house to start the coffee before they jumped into the shower.

Alex and Walker lingered together under the hot water for a long while; savoring the soothing warmth that penetrated their skin, which had been brutally chilled by the cold rain the night before.  They washed and caressed each other until the water began to turn cold.   After putting on their robes, they hurried to their bed, reenergized by their heavy petting session in the shower, and they were more then ready to snuggle closely under the warm covers.

“Last night in the barn was amazing, sweetheart, but I must admit, there’s nothing like the comfort of our own bed,” Alex avowed as she burrowed herself under the soft covers, deeper into the loving sanctuary of her husbands arms. 

He kissed her damp hair before he removed a small box from the pocket of his robe.

“Here’s my next installment,” Walker announced dryly as he placed the small box into her hand that was draped across his chest.

“Stop it, Walker. You make it sound like some kind of debt to be married to me for seven months.”

“We all have our crosses to bear, Alex,’” he continued to egg her on.

“ST-OP,” she demanded if a half-serious voice, as she lifted the cover away to see her newest gem.  Once again, it was exquisitely unique, yet intrinsically similar to the rest of her growing collection.

“Oh Walker, it’s beautiful!  It looks like it has a tiny teardrop in the middle of it.  How romantic!  I can’t wait until I have enough for my necklace.”

“Well I’m glad you like it. Now can I have my present?” He asked with a Cheshire grin on his face.

“Oh, honey.  I hope you don’t mind, but I actually have two presents to choose from for you, and I haven’t decided which one I’m going to give you yet. Do you think you can wait until tonight?”  She pleaded, wanting to deliver the results of her pregnancy test as her big surprise, should it come back positive.

“You don’t have to decide, Alex. Just give me both presents.”

“Believe me, that’s exactly what I’m hoping for, but I won’t be ready to do that until tonight.  Can I get a grace period, just this once?” She begged him through a pouting expression.

“Well, I guess so. But it’d better be good if you’re going to make me wait all day for it,” he loosely demanded in a kidding voice. “So what have you got to hold me over until tonight?”

The twisted smile on his face told her that he was looking to get lucky again.  Even though they had technically already made love on their anniversary in the early hours of the morning in the barn with a second near miss in the shower, he wasn’t about to pass on the engaging tradition that his wife had started by serving him up an invigorating ‘breakfast in bed.’

“Honey… if things work out the way I’d like them to, your present will be incomparable to anything I’ve ever given you. As for granting you a good faith binder as collateral for your gift, I think I have something that might catch your eye,” she purred seductively as she traced the opening of his lips with her soft fingertip before she stood up from the bed to unfasten her robe.  She let it slip off her shoulders onto the floor then she stood there for a long moment in a provocative pose, allowing her husband to ogle his prize. He wiped a tiny bead of drool from his mouth before he sprang off of his side of the bed so he could quickly shed his own terry robe.  Not wanting to waste any valuable time, Walker hopped up onto the bed and walked boldly across it to seize the captivating source of his temptation that was waiting for him on the other side.  He swept Alex up in his arms then he carried her back to their bed where he proceeded to drop her into the center of it before he climbed atop of her.  The covers sailed up over their heads before the room was brim-full with echoes of playful giggles and the soft, sensuous moans of undeniable pleasure.

The relentless continuance of time offered no mercy to the all- consumed couple while they lingered beneath the bedcovers until seven o’clock. They quickly showered again before throwing on their clothes and readying themselves for work as they raced against the clock.  It was actually becoming a routine for them after practicing it six times before on their preceding monthly anniversaries, only this time, they didn’t have the luxury of eating their cold breakfast that Alex usually prepared beforehand.  A quick cup of coffee and a mouth-watering kiss would be all the nourishment they would have to sustain them until lunchtime. Alex remembered the ‘baby thing’ and she decided to grab a yogurt and a banana before they raced out the door to head to the office.

When Walker arrived at work, Trivette was sitting at his computer looking through property tax records on the land areas surrounding Highway 42. Gage and Sydney were standing by the fax machine reading a report that had just come over from the Clerk of Courts in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Walker stopped to fuel up at the coffeepot before checking in with his team.

“What’s going on, Trivette?”

“Not a whole heck of a lot.  I’m just looking through the tax records on the area we’ve been searching.  I was hoping to find out if there are any properties hidden out there that might have been foreclosed on recently, or behind enough on their taxes to suggest abandonment.  Nipo’s got to be hiding out in some place that’s vacant.  I didn’t have any luck with finding any real estate that was for sale, so I figured it might be a back-tax situation that would tie things up in court for a while before the property could be put on the market for sale.”

“Good thinking, Trivette. Any luck?”

“Nope. The only properties out there with tax issues are a couple of private homes and a mobile home: Nothing big enough to handle Nipo’s operation.”

“Here’s some interesting reading,” Sydney began as she and Gage joined their co-workers.

“What is it, Sydney?” Walker asked.

“It’s a fax that just came over from the Clerk of Courts in Albuquerque.  They’ve completed their preliminary investigation on Banks’ missing body at the Estancia Prison Cemetery. It states that the regular prison doctor was on vacation when Banks’ death was recorded.  Warden Paredes brought in an interim doctor to cover during that time, and that doctor just happened to be his own personal physician. The doc’s not talking, but the New Mexico government did manage to find out that two days after Banks’ death certificate was signed, a million dollar deposit showed up in a Swiss bank account with the good doctor’s name on it.”

“So Paredes was in on it!  I knew it,” Trivette exclaimed, still infuriated by the mere mention of the man’s name.

“What does the report say about the burial, Sydney? I want to know how Paredes managed to get an empty coffin in the ground without anyone finding out about it,” Walker enjoined.

“Is says here that three people of authority must sign the burial authorization before a casket can be sealed off, tagged and released. Paredes and his doctor signed it, and the third signature was just some lackey guard who was given incidental authority, but he’s no longer employed by the prison.   They haven’t been able to locate him yet.”

“So what does Warden Paredes have to say about all of this?” Trivette asks.

“Oh, he’s still swearing up and down that he’s innocent and he’s being framed, but their government finally smartened up and removed him as Warden of the prison about two weeks ago.  He’s being held in a small holding center outside of Albuquerque until the investigation is complete,” Sydney concluded.

“It figures,” Trivette commented smugly.  “They have to keep him in one of their private country clubs because they know if they put him in a state prison, he’d be dead in less then 24 hours.”

“Oh, there’s one more thing,” Sydney mentioned as she read the closing statement on the report with an obvious measure of sarcasm in her voice.  “It says here that due to newfound evidence, it is strongly suspected that prisoner Arthur Banks is still alive and at large, and the New Mexico government is requesting the assistance and cooperation of the Texas Rangers to help in determining his whereabouts.”

“Well, what do you know?  They think he’s alive!” Gage said in a patronizing voice. “It only took them a month to figure out what we’ve known all along.”

“Lets get to work on filling their order everyone.  I’ll hand Banks over, but Nipo’s all mine,” Walker pledged.  “Gage and Sydney, I want you to get out there and cover as many of the campuses as you can.  Today is the last day of classes before the Christmas break, and Nipo’s men are going to try and drum up one last wave of sales.  Talk to the kids and see what you can find out.  Remember that we’re looking for a fresh face.  We’ve taken down all of Nipo’s regular delivery boys, so any stranger lurking around the schools is suspect.  Make sure the students understand that. Trivette and I are headed back out to Highway 42.  We’ll touch base with you later.”

“You got it, Boss,” Gage said, as they all headed out for another day of uncertainty.

Trivette and Walker weren’t in the cab of the truck for more then twenty minutes when Walker’s cell phone rang.

“Walker...”

“Hi there, Cowboy.  Are you up for another roll in the hay?” Alex propositioned playfully over the private phone line. 

“Hi, honey. What’s up?” Walker blushed, as he intentionally avoided her suggestive question while in the company of his nosy partner.

“Phil’s out sick today so I’ve got to cover his deposition in Ft. Worth. I’m headed out now, but I wanted to remind you that you promised to be home on time today. Dinner will be on the table at six and I have no intention of eating alone on our anniversary.”

“I'm a man of my word, Alex.  I’ll be home on time. Don’t worry.”

“I do worry, Walker. You mean well, but you always seem to get carried away with your work, and before you even think to check the time, it’s almost sundown.  Please try and pay attention to the time today.  I want tonight to be special,” Alex pleaded to her husband.

“Okay, okay.  I’ll make sure I’m home before six.  I’ll even have Trivette remind me.  Did you hear that, Trivette?” Walker looked to his partner who was sitting in the passenger seat eagerly listening to Walker’s half of the conversation.  “It’s your job to make sure I’m home by six, or we’re both dog-meat.  Got it?”

“Don’t worry, Alex. I’ll drag his sorry butt back to the office in plenty of time to get him home for six,” Jimmy yelled loud enough for Alex to hear his promise.

“Good.  I feel better now that I know Jimmy is keeping track of the time. At least he wears a watch. Well, Id better get going. You be careful out there.  I love you, darling.”

“I love you too, hon. Good luck with your deposition. Oh, and don’t forget about my present,” he reminded her in a teasing voice.

“I could never forget, honey.  It’s the most important item on my list of things to do for today,” Alex answered honestly as she cupped her belly with a tender, wishful hand.

Just as Walker ended his call with Alex, Trivette’s phone jiggled inside the pocket of his sports jacket.

“Trivette…”

“Hey, Trivette. What’s your 20?”  Gage asked without delay.

“We’re about ten miles outside of town, heading south on the freeway. Why? What’s up, Gage?”

“All hell’s breaking loose here. The phone’s been ringing off the hook since you left.  I got a call from Angel Vasquez: One of our students at Southern Dallas University.  He was approached by a man who offered to sell him some mind-blowing snow.  He didn’t have his assigned pager on him, so he made up a story about having to go to the ATM to get some cash to pay for the goods.  He called me from a payphone and he’s meeting this character back at the campus in twenty minutes.  I figured you and Walker might be closer, so I thought I’d give you a call to see if you can cover it.”

“Sure, Gage. Are you and Sydney going to meet us out there?”

“I’m afraid not, Trivette. We’re headed over to an off-campus apartment near Greenfield College. A group of kids got their hands on some X-DREAM last night. It sounds like they decided to start their holiday celebrating a little early.  We’ve got three dead, two in I.C.U, and the last kid got away with just a nagging hangover.  He’s okay: physically, anyway. His name is Reese Fielder. He’s the one who called the police when he found his friends. Apparently, Reese got tanked up on beer before the real party got started. He said he passed out about 11:00 o’clock last night, and when he woke up this morning, there were bodies everywhere. All of these kids were suppose to be heading home for the holidays today,” Gage added somberly.

“Merry Christmas!” Trivette mumbled in a discouraged voice.  “Alright, Gage, we’ll handle South Dallas University. Check in with us later, okay buddy?”

“We’ll get back to you as soon as we can,” Gage promised.

The senior Ranger Team eased into the parking lot of the South Dallas Community College at 9:20AM.   Everything seemed quiet on the home front when Walker parked the Ram behind a dumpster in the employee lot, and set out to investigate their latest lead.  As they circled around to the front of the building, Trivette caught a glimpse of a broad-shouldered black man who was engaging in an obvious business transaction with a scrawny, Hispanic College boy.

“That must be Angel Vasquez,” Trivette announced as he watched the nervous student shuffling back and forth in his high-top sneakers.

“Let’s circle around through the visitors parking lot so we can get closer to them.  When he hands over the drugs, we move in,” Walker said.

Angel looked around anxiously, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Texas Rangers.

“What you lookin’ for, boy? You afraid your momma gonna catch you buying the DREAM?  I’ve been waitin’ on you for 25 minutes.  Now hand over the green so I can get back to work. I don’t have all day,” the dealer blasted out impatiently.

Angel bit his bottom lip as he reached into his shirt pocket to retrieve the money his mother had given him for his bus fare home.  He handed it to the man and prayed that he had stalled long enough for the Rangers to arrive.  Mr. X-DREAM quickly pocketed the cash before he completed the transaction with a crushing shake to the slight boys’ hand.  Sandwiched between their mismatched palms was a small packet, which contained a seemingly harmless amount of white toxic powder.  Walker and Trivette acknowledged the transfer and quickly moved in.

“Texas Rangers. FREEZE!” Walker bellowed as he and Trivette raced out from behind a parked car with their revolvers drawn.. The startled criminal reached reflexively into his jacket pocket and drew his gun.  

“Drop the gun,” Walker advised through a deadpan expression. 

The foolish drug dealer jerked his firearm forward and quickly fingered the trigger, but he was no match for the likes of Cordell Walker.  Before the thug’s bullet could spark through the chamber of his gun, the Ranger’s slug sank deep into the man’s chest and he fell fast and hard onto the cement.  Walker quickly raced to Angel’s side while Trivette confirmed the instant death of yet another one of Nipo’s lackeys.

“Are you alright, Angel?” Walker asked in a concerned voice.

“Yes, sir. I am now.  I was worried that you wouldn’t make it in time.  Is he … dead?”  Angel inquired through a shaken tone.

“I’m afraid so, Angel.  This bad boy had no intentions of going to jail.  He chose to die instead. He’s probably got a criminal record as long as my arm,” Trivette commented before he reached for his cell phone to call for backup.

“I sure am glad that you showed up, Ranger,” Angel pledged as Walker led him away from the lifeless lump of a man that was lying at his partner’s feet. “If I had to tell my mom that I gave my bus fare to get home for Christmas to a drug dealer, she’d tan my hide from here to Houston.”

“Don’t worry about your bus fare home, Angel,” Walker chuckled at the young man’s innocent comment.  “After what you did today, I think the Ranger’s can scrape up enough money from their expense account to send you home first class. ”

“First class? You mean fly? On an airplane?  Thanks anyway, Ranger, but I don’t like to fly.  Home is only a three-hour bus ride.  If you can just get me my money back, I think I’ll stick with my original plan if you don’t mind,” Angel politely, yet adamantly refused Walker’s generous offer.

“Sorry, Angel, but your money is state’s evidence now. You’ll get it back eventually, but that might take a while.  How about a nice comfortable limo with a stereo, a TV, and a refrigerator filled with Coca-Cola?”

“Can I have Mountain Dew instead?” The naive youth asked.

“Sure you can,” Walker chuckled once again as he led Angel to the Ram where he could wait for the backup officers who would be taking his statement.

Trivette checked the body of Walker’s latest victim and found a wallet with an expired driver’s license.  Troy Dobbs was his name, and Trivette didn’t waste any time calling into headquarters to have them start digging up his past. The Rangers remained at the crime scene until everything was under control before they left the final clean up to the DPD officers.  They were determined to meet up with Sydney and Gage at the off-campus apartment near Greenfield College to see if they could squeak out a glimmer of a lead on Kurt Nipo. 

While Walker and Trivette made the thirty-five minute ride from South Dallas College to the student’s apartment near Greenfield, the news- papers and television stations had managed to catch wind of the latest activities of both Ranger teams.  Curious onlookers, bloodthirsty reporters, and ever-ready cameramen were flanking the swarmed curbside outside the ill-fated students' apartment building when the Ranger duo arrived at 11:25AM.

Walker and Trivette pushed through the microphones and cameras, making their way through the slack police blockade.  Muffled assumptions and rehearsed questions spewed out of the reporter’s mouths, but they fell on deaf ears as the Rangers moved with rhythmic determination through the dense crowd.

When they entered the apartment, they immediately found Gage and Sydney who were talking with a visibly shaken young man. The boy was wrapped in a blanket on the sofa, yet his body still trembled from the shock.   Sydney was close to his side with a consoling arm draped around his shoulder while an EMT continuously monitored his blood pressure and heart rate.  Gage was sitting in front of them on an ottoman that he had dragged over to the couch.  Walker and Trivette made eye contact.  They didn’t need to speak. They were both thinking the same thing. This young man was severely traumatized, and he would carry the weight of this tragedy with him for the rest of his life…. IF… he could live with it!

“This is all so senseless, Walker. When’s it all gonna stop?”  Trivette whispered.

“Today, Trivette. It stops today,” Walker resolved.

Trivette looked into his partner’s glazed eyes and the all-too-familiar rage and determination brewing in them told him that Walker was serious about his declaration. Trivette didn’t have a clue how Cordell Walker was going to finally take down the likes of Kurt Nipo, but he believed what he said.  Sensing that Walker’s judgment might be clouded by his fury, Trivette decided to keep a cool mind about him and a steady hand on his partner’s back for the rest of the day.   He had promised Alex that he would get Walker home by six, and he had to keep that promise for both of their sakes.  Walker needed a strong dose of well-deserved downtime to clear his head, and Trivette was going to make sure he took it.

“Hey, boss,” Gage said softly, breaking Walker and Trivette’s trance-like stupors.  The senior Rangers moved closer to the sofa. Both men instinctively removed their Stetsons out of respect for the grieving young man. 

“Reese, this is Ranger Walker and Ranger Trivette.  They’re here to help,” Sydney reassured the dazed student as she tightened her grip around his shoulder.  Walker knelt down on one knee in front of Reese Fielder, trying to make eye contact with the listless youth.

“Reese, a terrible thing has happened here, and I promise you, we’re going to stop the man who did this to your friends.  Can you tell us anything that might help us catch him?”  Walker appealed.

Reese struggled to raise his head up to look at the man who was speaking to him.  It was heavy from the sedative administered by the EMT and his heart was even heavier from the horrifying ordeal he had suffered through.  It took all of his strength to pull his shoulders back so he could sit up straight. As he leaned back against the support of the couch, Walker could finally see the young man’s troubled eyes.  They were glossed over and swollen. Partly from the medication, but mostly from the geyser of pain-filled tears he had obviously cried for his friends.

“Jana bought the X-DREAM,” Reese whispered almost inaudibly.  “Jana is….was my girlfriend.”  His soft voice broke as he corrected himself. Pausing for a moment to recompose, Reese took a deep breath and continued with his painful statement.  “I tried to talk her out of it, but she wanted to have this great party for all of our friends before the Christmas break.  I told her that beer and pot was enough to get everyone buzzing, but she’d heard about X-DREAM from one of her roommates and she said she wanted to experience the ultimate high that everyone was talking about. She wanted it to be her Christmas present to our friends.”

“Do you know who she bought it from, Reese?” Walker prompted him.

“I was with her when she bought it.  I told her that if she was so determined to buy it, I wasn’t going to let her go alone. We met a man in the student parking lot yesterday at 3:00 O’clock.  He called himself “The Candy Man.””

“Can you describe the man for us?” Trivette asked.

 “He was a tall, heavyset black man, about thirty or so. I don’t know, maybe thirty-five? I’m not too good with guessing ages.”

"That’s okay, you’re doing fine. Go on,” Sydney encouraged him.

“He had short braided hair and a goatee and he was wearing a brown leather jacket with a serpent on the back of it.  That’s all I can remember.”

Trivette and Walker gave each other an acknowledging nod.  Reese had just described Troy Dobbs, the cagey drug dealer that they had taken out of service earlier in the day.

“You did great, Reese.  Can you tell us anything else? Like how Jana made contact with the man in the first place?” Walker asked.

“She never spoke to him before we hooked up to buy the drugs.  Her roommate was buying some the day before yesterday and she was the one who set up the meeting for Jana and me.  I guess this guy shows up out of the nowhere and he uses the students who buy to put the word out about when he’s gonna be back,” Reese finished as he allowed his weary body to sink deeper into the support of the sofa.

“Okay, Reese, we’re through for now. Sydney and Gage will stay with you until your parents come.  We’ll contact you if we have any more questions. You hang in there, okay?”  Walker encouraged him as he patted the young man’s arm.

Reese forced a slight nod of his head as his freshly aged eyes fell back to the floor. 

“We’ll see you back at headquarters as soon as we’re through here,” Gage assured his colleagues as they prepared to leave the apartment. Walker never looked back to acknowledge Gage’s comment, but Trivette’s uneasy expression told the younger Ranger that Walker had no intentions of wasting time sitting behind his desk.  He would be out on the streets hunting his elusive prey, and he wouldn’t stop until the job was finished.

Trivette pushed through the crowd outside, paving the way for his preoccupied partner. He was sure that Walker would pop a cork if the reporters tried to detain him from his mission by trying to secure a juicy statement for the six o’clock news.  When he finally reached the curbside, he realized that Walker wasn’t behind him.  When he turned to look for him in the thick hodgepodge of people, he was baffled by what he saw.  Walker was standing in a cleared area speaking into the microphone of channel 10’s news reporter Kimberly Osterman.  He was looking straight into the camera that was waiting to record his remarks.  Trivette forced his way back through the crowd to get closer to his partner.

“This is channel 10’s Kimberly Osterman and we’re reporting live from an off-campus apartment near Greenfield College where three students were found dead this morning while two others remain in critical condition at Methodist Hospital.  It appears that these young students had taken the fatal drug X-DREAM, which has been readily available to Dallas’ youth for the past few months despite the efforts of a prodigal task force headed up by Texas Ranger Cordell Walker.   Ranger Walker is here at the scene and he’s willing to give us a statement.  Ranger, all of the terrified parents out there need to know what is being done to stop the people who are feeding this lethal drug to their children.   Has your task force made any progress at all?”

 “We’ve made progress, but we’re not going to stop until we catch the man behind all of this, and I’m going to make sure that today is the last day of his freedom,” Walker guaranteed.

Meanwhile, in a cozy farmhouse buried in the backwoods of highway 42, a graying man sits in an overstuffed armchair smoking a Cuban cigar while he sips on a double mixture of Bloody Mary’s. The starred Ranger on the television screen causes his eyebrows to rise up in interest.

“Nipo, get your ass in here.  Seems you’ve made the 12:00 o’clock news,” the man barked.

Kurt Nipo entered the den with a bottle of Molson's in one hand and a road map in the other.  He had aged drastically since the last time he’d tangled with Ranger Cordell Walker.  Prison had taken its toll on him and the hard drugs and alcohol that he constantly poured into his body merely accelerated his aging, making him look much older then forty-three.

“What’s the problem, Banks?” He questioned in an irritated voice.  He was busy planning their escape route when Arthur Banks’ bellowing broke his concentration.

“Your old pal Walker is talking about you on the news. Thought you might be interested in what he has to say,” Banks responded sarcastically as he swallowed another liberal gulp of his Bloody Mary.

“We received a report that you and your partner were involved in a shootout this morning at South Dallas University where a suspect was killed when he was caught selling a student drugs. Can you tell us how he was connected to this drug ring, Ranger?” Kimberly questioned him.

“He was a delivery boy for the man behind X-DREAM and now he’s dead, just like most of the others. We’ve taken down seven of his men, and he’s going to be next,” Walker mandated.

“With all due respect, Ranger, you haven’t been able to stop this man thus far. What has changed to make you so sure that you’re going to be successful in catching him now?”  The news reporter pressed him.

“Because I’m challenging him to come forward,” Walker said through a determined expression as he moved closer to the camera and fixed his fire-filled eyes directly into the lens.

“Nipo, I know you’re out there watching. You’ve wanted a piece of me for a long time. Well here’s your chance. You name the time and the place and I’ll be there. I’ll come alone, and we can meet under your terms, or we’ll meet under mine.  There are roadblocks from here to Houston, so your only way out of here is through me. If I don’t hear from you by three o’clock today, I’m coming after you.  And believe me… I’ll find you. And when I do…there won’t be any rules,” Walker guaranteed as he finished his pledge.

Kurt Nipo crushed the half-full bottle of beer in his bare hand. Fresh blood oozed between his fingers: The alcohol stinging his open wounds before he let the shards of blunt glass fall to the floor. “I’m gonna kill that son of a bitch,” Nipo shouted angrily.

“Well, I think it’s about time that you stopped talking about it. Just get the goddamn job done, once and for all.  You screwed it up twice.  Three strikes…you’re out, Nipo!  This Ranger has been in our way for months. Now he’s killed Dobbs, and we’re fresh out of stoups to do our collecting. If you don’t take him down, we’ll never get out of here. Either you take care of Walker or I’ll deliver your head to him myself,” Banks threatened as he stood up and left the room to mix a fresh batch of desperately needed Bloody Mary's.

Walker left Kimberly Osterman standing alone in front of the live camera as he headed for the Ram.  Kimberly stood there with her mouth open for a moment, not sure of what she was going to say.  Her interviewee had taken over her camera and her broadcast, and then simply walked away before she could ask any more questions. Walker was never one to do what was considered politically correct, and he wasn’t about to start now just to appease a showy news reporter and her sensationalizing television station.  He had a job to do. Kimberly stammered through a closing statement and signaled the cameraman to cut to a commercial.

“What in Sam Hill do you think you’re doing, Walker?” Trivette called out to his partner as he struggled to catch up with him.

“Just extending a little friendly business proposition to Nipo.”

“A business proposition?   You just threatened him on national television.  He’s not gonna contact you.  This jerks’ been able to keep himself hidden from us for the past two months.  Your personal invite is only going to make him run,” Trivette protested.

“He’ll call, Trivette. He knows about the roadblocks, and his inflated ego won’t let him stay away.  He’ll call, you’ll see,” Walker repeated confidently as he slid into the cab of his truck.  Trivette paused for a moment outside the Ram and just shook his head in disbelief before he climbed into the passenger seat beside his tenacious partner.

Alex buttoned up the final details of the deposition at 1:30PM.  She anxiously raced back to the privacy of her car so she could make the suspense-filled call to her doctor, Katherine Ramos.  When she turned on her cell phone, she ignored the melodic chime that signaled waiting messages.  They would have to wait until she got her answer.

Katherine’s office line was busy, but Alex kept pushing the redial button anxiously until the receptionist answered her desperate call.

“Dr. Ramos’ office. This is Nina…”

“Nina, this is Mrs. Walker. Is Dr. Ramos available?” She asked immediately, sounding out of breath from her building excitement.

“She’s taking a short lunch break, Mrs. Walker. I expect her back any minute. Can I take a message?”

“No. No message. I’ll call back shortly. Thank you, Nina”, Alex replied in a disappointed voice.  She slammed her phone shut and threw her head back against the seat, frustrated beyond words.

Ugh.  I can’t stand this!” She exclaimed.  After taking a few cleansing breaths, her resourceful instincts kicked in and a victorious smiled graced her lips.  She picked her cell phone up off the seat and searched through her extensive list of saved numbers.  Within seconds, Katherine Ramos’ private cell phone number flashed like a beacon across the display screen.  Alex pressed the ‘call number’ button and held her breath as she waited to see if Katherine would pick up.

“Katherine Ramos.”

“Katherine…Thank God you answered. I can’t stand the suspense anymore. Please tell me.  Am I pregnant or not?”  Alex rattled out without even announcing herself.

“Well, Mrs. Alex Cahill-Walker I presume?” Katherine replied calmly with a slight chuckle in her voice.

“You know who this is, Katherine. Did you get my results yet? I pray to God that you did, because if you didn’t, I’m probably going to spontaneously combust any second and it will be your fault!”

“Relax, Alex,” Katherine assured her through a full-blown laugh. "Have you checked your voicemail recently?  I tried to call you an hour ago, but your cell phone wasn’t on.  Listen to your messages, honey,” Katherine teased her before she ended the call without saying anything more.

“Katherine?  Kath-RINE???  Dammit! Does she think this is amusing?”  Alex ranted, as she struggled with the buttons on her cell phone to retrieve her messages.  She skipped through four messages left by DA Moody, Phil, her secretary, and her dentist before she found the one that she couldn’t wait to listen to.

Alex, this is Katherine Ramos.  I just got your lab results back and I thought you might want to hear them as soon as possible. At the risk of sounding antiquated and corny… I’m afraid the rabbit died councilor.  It appears that you and that handsome Ranger of yours have gone and made yourselves a baby. You’re about five weeks pregnant, so you can expect your special delivery in about thirty-five weeks.  Congratulations, Alex. You deserve this special news more than anyone else I know.  Give me a call after the holidays and we’ll set up your first prenatal appointment.  Merry Christmas, mommy!  God bless… Oh and by the way, you owe me dinner, remember?”

Tears of unfathomable joy raced down Alex’s cheeks as she replayed the message three times, just to hear Katherine’s beautiful, life-changing words.  She was really going to have a baby.  After taking a few moments to adjust to her new reality, Alex wiped her happy tears away and dialed her husband’s cell phone.

“Walker…,” her husband answered anxiously from the cab of his truck.  He was expecting Nipo to contact him, but he didn’t think it would happen this quickly.  If Nipo had even half a brain, he would take more than an hour to plan their showdown.

“Hi, honey. It’s me,” Alex announced in a warm, emotion-filled voice.

The eveready Ranger’s tensed shoulders eased back into the seat when he heard his wife’s soft, familiar voice.

“Oh...hi, sweetheart. Sorry if I sounded a little short when I answered. I was expecting someone else.  What’s up? Are you through with your deposition?”

“All through. I’m on my way back to the office to file the paperwork with the Clerk of Courts, then I’m off to an early start on preparing our special dinner.”

“Great. I’ll see you around six then,” he responded in a preoccupied voice.

“Yes you will, and you’d better be on time because I finally decided on your present. I can’t wait to give it to you,” she exclaimed through a radiant smile that he could somehow hear through the phone line. It was all she could do to keep from shouting out her news. She was bursting at the seams, but she wanted to see the look in her husband’s eyes when she told him that he was finally going to be a daddy.

“That’s great, hon, but you’d better make sure that you wrap it creatively this time. You know how much you hate it when I guess what it is before I even open it,” he replied in a softened tone of voice.  Just a brief phone conversation with his wife had an unexplainable therapeutic effect on his previously rigid demeanor.  He decided not to bother trying to figure out how she pulled it off time after time.  

“Oh it’s wrapped creatively all right,” Alex boasted as she looked down at her still flat abdomen and gave his well-hidden surprise a loving pat.  “I’ve got you this time, Cowboy,” she bragged.

“We’ll just see about that,” Walker challenged her. “I’ve got to go now honey. I’m expecting an important call.  I’ll catch up with you later, okay?”

“All right, but DON’T be late or I’m going to hold back on your bonus present,” she teased him.

“Oh really?  A bonus? Maybe if you tell me what it is, it will give me that extra incentive I need to be on time; maybe even early!”

“It’s silky, sexy, and see-through and it’s small enough to fit in my change purse.  Is that enough incentive for you?” She answered provocatively.

“It’s down-right inspiring.  You can leave that one unwrapped; if you know what I mean?” Walker answered playfully through a blushing grin.

“I know what you mean, honey,” she answered with a seductive chuckle.  “It will be on display for you when you get home.”

“Perfect. I can’t wait.  Bye, Alex.”

“Goodbye, handsome.”

“Walker?”  She interrupted before he could hang up.

“Yeh, hon?”

“I absolutely love you,” she promised him through a pacific whisper; her voice breaking from the flood of emotions that suddenly consumed her beyond compare. It had finally hit her.  She and this glorious man had made something so unbelievably awesome from the love that they shared, and their child would be the most incredible symbol of their boundless love.  Alex felt more fulfilled then she had ever felt before.  She couldn’t explain it, but this was more real then anything else that she had ever experienced in her life.

“Ditto for me too,” he responded softly, passing off her swelling emotions as a sentimental reflection over their seven-month anniversary.

Walker hung up the phone and glanced to his right.  Trivette was staring at him with a goatish grin on his face.  For a brief moment, Walker had once again forgotten that he wasn’t alone in the cab of his truck, and he knew he was going to take some ribbing from his partner over his mushy interplay with his wife.

“What?” Walker snapped.

“Nothing.  I just want to know how come Alex can turn you into Mr. Calm, Cool and Collected with just a three minute phone call, but when I bust my butt day in and day out to try and bring your blood pressure down, you just get crankier,” Trivette appealed.

“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings, Trivette, but you’ve seen my wife.  She’s a hell of a lot prettier then you are, and those hairy chicken legs of yours wouldn’t stand a chance next to hers. It’s that simple,” Walker stated with a telling smile.

After an hour of driving north towards their destination, Walker pulled the Ram into the Shell Station at the base of the off ramp for Highway 42.  He eased it into the slip beside the gas pump and got out to fill his tank.  Trivette hopped out of the passenger seat and headed into the store.

“I’m gonna grab a spring water. Do you want anything?” Trivette called out to his partner.

“No. I’m fine. Just pay for the gas. Twenty on pump seven,” Walker told him.

Just as Walker was finishing up, he could hear his cell phone ringing from the front seat of the truck.  He quickly capped the tank and reached through the open window for his phone.

“Walker...”

“Ranger Walker, this is dispatch 765. We received a phone call from an unidentified man who insisted that you were awaiting his call. He left a payphone number for you to call. Can I give you that number Ranger?”

“Go ahead dispatch,” Walker said anxiously as he grabbed a pen from above the visor.

“The number is 654-6565.  The man said he would only be there for the next five minutes.”

“Thanks,” Walker said shortly as he ended the call and quickly began to dial the phone number.  After five menacing rings, the connection was made.

“Well, well, well, if it isn’t the TV star.  You’re gonna regret this day for the rest of your short life, Walker,” Nipo began.

“We’ll see who has the regrets, Nipo.  Where do you want to meet?”

“The abandoned warehouse on Jackson Street. You remember the place, don’t you, Walker? Be there in one hour, and come alone.  I’ll be able to see you, but you won’t be able to see me.  If I smell so much as a plain- clothes creep hanging out on the street corner, I’ll be using you for target practice.”

The phone line went dead before Walker could speak.  He quickly climbed into his truck and started the ignition.  It would take him nearly an hour to get back to the warehouse in Dallas. He didn’t have time to waste.  Trivette exited the store and started towards the truck when he realized that Walker was preparing to leave without him.

“Sorry, Trivette,” Walker mumbled to his partner who had since broken into a full sprint towards the moving truck. The Dodge Ram screeched out of the gas station’s parking lot and turned back towards Dallas.

Trivette immediately dialed his partner’s private number on his cell phone, but Walker wouldn’t answer.  He cleared the phone line and called headquarters.   Sydney picked up on the first ring. 

“Ranger Cooke…”

“Sydney, it’s Trivette. I need you and Gage to come and pick me up right away. I’m at the Shell station at the off-ramp for highway 42.  Walker just blew me off.  He must have gotten his call from Nipo while I was in the store,” Trivette rambled out while pacing back and forth.

“Do you know where he’s headed?” Sydney asked.

“No, I don’t know where he’s headed. He splattered dust in my face before I could ask him,” Trivette snapped.  “The agreement was that he would go in alone with backup close by.   I don’t know what the HELL he’s trying to prove except that he’s a stubborn, pig-headed jerk who’s going to get himself killed if he doesn’t cool off,” Trivette ranted.

“Sit tight, Trivette. We’re on our way,” Sydney assured him.

Jimmy folded up his phone and kicked the cement curb in a futile attempt to release some of his boiling anger provoked by his partner’s careless actions.  All he managed to get out of it was a fractured toe and a scuffed boot.  He was furious with Walker for breaking their agreement, but more importantly, he couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that his usually prevailing partner and best friend was in grave danger.

 

CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Walker shoved the accelerator of his Ram pickup to the floor as he watched his speedometer needle twitch past the 90 mile-per-hour mark.  He wanted to get to the warehouse as quickly as possible, just in case Nipo wasn’t already in position awaiting his arrival.  He knew that this was highly unlikely, but he was bound by his intrinsic instincts that unceasingly pushed him into playing against the odds in an attempt to keep the upper hand with any and all opponents.  Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn’t.  This time, he was almost positive that his valiant efforts were being rendered in vain. Taking all things into consideration, he pressed the gas pedal harder, forcing the inevitable meeting with Nipo to come sooner then his rival had expected.  If he couldn’t arrive first, he was determined to catch Nipo off guard by arriving early.

Knowing his partner as well as he did, Walker was sure that Trivette would call Sydney and Gage to his rescue, so he had chosen to stay clear of the main highway. If the younger Rangers spotted him while en route to the gas station, they would surely make a valiant effort to catch up with him.  Route 102 was a secondary road that ran parallel to the freeway and it would get him to his destination without being seen.  He was determined to exterminate Nipo and his heinous operation and nothing was going to stop him; not even his friends.

Gage's Mustang squealed into the gas station parking lot at 3:15PM. Trivette was impatiently pacing back and forth in front of the store entrance. The rubber of the car's steel-belted radials smoldered from the concentrated friction as Gage brought the fast moving automobile to an abrupt stop. Sydney opened the passenger door before she slid over on the front seat to make room for Trivette.  "He's heading south," Trivette told Gage without delay as he quickly jumped in beside Sydney. Gage shoved the gearshift into second, and then third before they reached the main road that would take them back to Dallas.

Walker parked his truck behind a laundry-mat a few blocks away from the warehouse on Jackson Street.  As he made his way on foot towards his destination, he contemplated Nipo's choice of location for their imminent showdown.   The warehouse on Jackson Street had been Nipo's first front in Dallas for the manufacturing of X-DREAM.  'Why would he return to a place that had been combed clean by the police?'  The Tel-Tron Electronics cover operation had been busted wide open, and the Dallas P.D. had staked out the grounds for weeks after the bust.  

As Walker jogged through the concealing alleyways that would take him to his mark, Nipo's logic for choosing Jackson Street became crystal clear to him.  The surveillance on the warehouse had long since been stopped and Nipo and his men surely knew every square inch of the four-story building.  The property was roped off to keep the on-lookers away, and the electricity had been cut shortly after the investigation was complete.  The police and the Rangers alike had taken their watchful eyes off of the building, giving Nipo the perfect opportunity to go back there without having to worry about being seen.  This was Nipo's turf, and Walker knew that he would have to be careful as he turned every corner or opened any door.  Nipo would have a plan, and it wouldn't include the possibility that Walker might make it out alive.

Trivette shifted his weight anxiously in the tight confines of the front seat of Gage's small sports car.  He knew that they were going in the right direction, but he didn't have a clue as to where Walker was headed.   He needed to get inside his partner's head, and he needed to do it fast. Walker was nearly an hour ahead of them, and Trivette feared that it might already be too late.

"Walker wouldn't have ditched me at the gas station unless he got the call from Nipo while I was inside.  Ranger cell-phone numbers are secured lines. Even if Nipo could hack into the database of numbers, which I don't think he's smart enough to do, it would take some serious time that he didn't have.  Nipo had to call someone else who could get his message to Walker," Trivette reasoned, sharing his thoughts with Gage and Sydney.

"Do you think he'd be stupid enough to call Alex?" Gage speculated.

"I don't think so Gage.  Alex is his wife. Nipo would know that she would try to discourage Walker from going in alone.  He wouldn't risk calling Alex because he knows she'd tip us off to his whereabouts.  It had to be someone who doesn't know what's been going down; someone who couldn't ID Nipo's voice," Trivette decided.

"Dispatch!" Sydney and Gage intuitively shouted in unison. Trivette quickly dialed headquarters to check out their theory.

"Dispatch 765. How can I direct your call?"  Said the nasally, monotone operator.

"765 this is Ranger Trivette, badge 6524 - security code 56734.  I need to find out if anyone at headquarters has patched a call through to Ranger Walker in the past hour or so."

"No call was patched through to Ranger Walker, but I did receive a message for him, which I delivered immediately," The operator confirmed.

"What was the message 765?" Trivette pressed anxiously.

"What was your security code Ranger?  Protocol says I can't give out this sort of information without security verification first," the operator recited in a programmed voice.

"Code 56734, dammit!  Look it up and make it fast.  A Ranger's life is a stake, and if anything happens to him, I'm holding you personally responsible," Trivette shouted.

"It was a phone number. A …a pay phone number actually," The dispatch operator stammered out after the verbal bullying from the impatient Ranger. "The caller insisted that Ranger Walker was waiting for his call and he asked that I give him the number with the instructions that he would only be reachable for the next five minutes."

 "Give me the number," Trivette demanded as he pulled his pen from his shirt pocket.  He scrambled for something within reach that he could write on, but for the first time that he could remember - Gage's car was remarkably clean. Not so much as a candy wrapper or a polluted napkin could be found.  He was sure that it was Sydney’s doing. Trivette grabbed Sydney's right hand just in time to jot down the numbers as they were dictated to him. "Got it! Go back to sleep 765. I'll take it from here," he assured the inattentive operator before he cleared his phone and dialed another number.

"Who are you calling now?" Sydney asked.

"Diane Kelley in communications. She can track the location of this pay phone booth in less then 60 seconds," said Trivette.

Before Trivette could finish his explanation, Diane's voice came through her private line at Ranger Headquarters.

"Communications…this is Specialist Kelley," she announced.

"Hey, Diane…glad you're at your desk. This is Trivette. I need a location on a payphone, and I need it yesterday. Can you hook me up girl?" Trivette implored in an urgent but pleasant tone of voice.   He and Diane had dated briefly when he first joined the Rangers. Things didn't click between them, but they remained good friends and he would always hold a soft spot in his heart for the bright and beautiful lady with the best set of legs he'd ever laid eyes on.

"For you darlin', I'll have it done in two shakes.  What's the number sweetheart?" Diane prompted.

Trivette fumbled for Sydney’s branded hand and read off the number. "It's 654-6565."

"Sit tight Trivette.  I'll have a lock on that number in just a second," Diane promised.

After a brief pause, Trivette heard the two magic words he needed to hear.

"Got it!  Your payphone is on grid C5; corner of Preston and Centennial Streets.  There are four phone booths in a row. Your phone is the third from the left.  Go get'im Ranger," Diane encouraged him.

"Thanks beautiful. You're the best!" Trivette responded appreciatively.

"And don't you forget it," Diane said through a flattered smile before she ended the call.

"Head for the corner of Preston and Centennial," Trivette told Gage.

"You got it Trivette," Gage responded. With newfound direction, he pushed the gas pedal down to the floor and headed for downtown Dallas.

Walker moved closer to the vacant warehouse through adjoining side streets and alleyways.  He needed to stay out of Nipo's view for as long as he could.  He was sure that Nipo would have men strategically positioned with binoculars on nearby rooftops and in windows to announce his coming.  Walker had kept his word. He would go in alone, but he didn't trust Nipo for a second. Playing fair would not be in the vocabulary of a man who fed lethal drugs to innocent kids.  Walker knew that Nipo would have ample reinforcements, and he needed to minimize his exposure. He racked his memory, trying to recall the specifics of the building and a possible discreet point of entry that would allow him to remain invisible until he got inside.  As he belly-crawled through the overgrown shrubs that framed the parking lot of a computer company set behind the Jackson Street warehouse, he spotted something out of the corner of his eye that sparked an idea. Contemplating his farfetched notion, he decided that it was a long shot, but it was the best shot he had.

Alex arrived home at 3:30PM. She was pleased with herself for wrapping things up so quickly at the office.  Now she would have more then two hours to prepare for their anniversary dinner and her big surprise.  She prepped the Cornish hens and set the oven to temperature before she headed upstairs for a long moisturizing bath.  She wanted to be soft and smooth to her husband's touch: A touch that she could never resist.  Her heart raced with excitement as she thought about telling him that she was pregnant.  Six o'clock couldn't come quick enough, but she had plenty to keep her busy until then.  She wanted everything to be absolutely perfect.

Trivette stared out of the passenger window of Gage's Mustang.  He glanced at his watch and silently cursed at the fact that in spite of Gage's gainful speed, they were still a good thirty minutes from the payphone location. Something kept telling him that time was running out, and so was Walker's luck.  After all of fifteen seconds, he caught himself checking his watch again.  Sitting idle in a car made him feel anxious and trapped. A quick call to DPD, and a cruiser could check out the payphone location in less then five minutes, but that would be too risky.  If Nipo or one of his men were close by, that would only instigate further danger for Walker, though Trivette figured that Nipo wouldn't be stupid enough to hang around.  Checking out the payphone was just a formality.  Figuring out Nipo's strategy and his location was the tough part.  Frustrated and feeling helpless, Trivette rifled through Gage's glove compartment for the Metroplex street map that was standard issue for all Rangers.  He folded it in half, exposing the location they were headed for and began to scrutinize the surrounding area for a clue as to where Nipo could be holding up.        

Walker pried the temporary cap away from a massive 30" in diameter drainpipe that was lying on top of the ground.  The city had begun to re-pipe the main water lines in the area only a few weeks before he and Trivette had taken down Nipo's goons in the Jackson Street warehouse.  After the bust, the grounds had been sealed off and the city was ordered to stop all activities until the investigation was complete.  From the looks of things, the department of public works hadn't rescheduled the installation.  All of the piping was lined up to each building, but no digging had been started. Walker figured that the workers had moved on to a different location and Jackson Street had gotten pushed to the bottom of the list.  He peered through the shrubbery one last time to make sure that he had chosen the correct line of piping.  He had.  It led right to the back of the Jackson Street warehouse, stopping only a few feet from a basement window.  Walker squeezed his upper body into the tight fit of the piping and began the two hundred-foot crawl towards the building.   His movements were slow and precise.  If Nipo saw the pipes shifting even slightly, Walker’s cover would be blown.

Gage took the downtown exit of the freeway and headed south towards Preston and Centennial Streets. When they were within a few blocks of their destination, Trivette instructed Gage to pull over.  Gage pulled into the parking lot of a liquor store and turned off the engine.

“Gage, you go and check out the phone booth on foot.  Dust it for prints and ask if anyone has seen a man fitting Nipo’s description. Syd and I are going take a good look at the map.  We’ve got to figure out where Nipo is meeting Walker. It’s been almost two hours. We’ve got to move fast,” Trivette mandated.

“I’ll be back in a flash,” Gage guaranteed his comrades as he jumped out of the driver’s seat and jogged off without delay to quickly carry out his task.  Sydney slid over into the driver’s seat so Trivette could unfold the map between them.

“Now, Walker was heading south back towards Dallas when he ditched me at the gas station,” Trivette began. “We’re pretty confidant that Nipo’s been holding up somewhere off of highway 42, so if he was coming from his hideout, that means he would have more than likely taken the same route as Walker to get to the meeting place.  If he took the downtown exit and continued south down Main, That would mean he would have taken a left onto Preston to hit the intersection of Centennial where the pay phone is.”

“So you think he’s headed towards the eastside?” Sydney questioned him.

“More than likely Sydney. I don’t think Nipo would have come this way just to use a payphone then doubled back in a different direction.  My guess is he stopped along the way, made his call, than kept on going in the same direction.  If I were Nipo, I’d stop to call when I got close enough to my mark to make sure I’d beat Walker to it, but far enough away so I couldn’t be found quickly if the cops traced the call,” Trivette theorized.

“Sounds logical.  Let’s find out what’s east of here,” Sydney agreed as they both redirected their attentions to the street map.

Walker could only see glimmers of daylight through the narrow cracks where the lengthy pipes butted up against each other.  Dirt and leaves had filled some of them, making his progress slow and tedious.  Each piece of piping appeared to be about twenty feet in length.  He counted the pipes as he moved through them.  “About eighty feet to go,” he told himself as he continued scratching through the mounds of dirt and debris.

Alex dried her body and glanced down at the lace teddy lying on her bed.  She softened her skin with a sweet smelling lavender lotion before she slid it on.  It was a perfect fit, and she knew that Walker’s eyes would pop out of his head when he saw her in it.  She grazed her hands down the sides of her body and over the symmetrical arch of her hips.  Her hourglass figure would be taking a sabbatical for a while, and she didn’t mind in the least.  She hoped her husband wouldn’t mind either.  It was a small price to pay for what they would receive in return.  She slipped into a simple yet elegant black sleeveless dress and let the soft silk find all of the right places to cling to.  She would wait until her husband got home to unveil his prize.  She had to tease him just a little before she flaunted his bonus gift, as she had called it.  Not to mention, it was too cool to be walking around in her underwear – at least until he was there to heat things up.  An adoring smile decorated her glowing face as she thought of the remarkable way that Walker loved her - in and out of bed.   She dried her hair and put on a hint of makeup before she grabbed her black heels in her hand and bounced barefoot down the stairs to check on dinner.  It was almost 5:00 O’clock: “Only one more hour,” she sang out loud.

Trivette and Sydney marked Nipo’s presumed route on the map with a yellow highlighter pen. When they reached the intersection where the payphone was, the pen-mark stopped and they switched gears to speculating the continuation of his course.

“It looks like he came right down Main and took a left onto Preston.  Preston isn’t a major crossroad to any other main roads that run parallel to Main, so he must have been cutting across towards the river where the industrial parks are located,” Sydney said, thinking out loud.

“And what kinds of mousetraps are located in the industrial area?”  Trivette questioned as his finger methodically followed each secondary road that fed off of Preston Street. 

“Bingo! Why didn’t I think of this before?” Trivette chastised himself as he sprang from the passenger seat and circled around to the driver’s side of the car.

“Think of what?”  Sydney asked as she slid across the seat to make room for Trivette.

“What goes around comes around, Sydney.  Nipo is setting Walker up at the Jackson Street warehouse.  We’ve got to grab Gage and get over there.” 

Trivette steered Gage’s Mustang out of the liquor store lot and headed for Preston Street. As he turned the corner, Gage bolted out in front of the car.  Trivette stopped it on a dime and Gage jumped into the passenger seat through the open window before the engine squealed into gear, forcing the car back into drive.

“Pretty impressive, Ranger boy!”  Sydney flattered him, as she intentionally leaned closer to the passenger then the driver, making their seating arrangements a little snugger than it needed to be.  Gage sent a wink her way and settled into his seat, instinctively catching onto the fact that his comrades had figured out Nipo’s plan while he was busy checking out the payphone.  Gage didn’t need to know the specifics.  The adrenaline was pumping and he would be ready for action whenever and wherever Trivette stopped the car.  This was what they did.  Details weren’t always necessary, but responsiveness and results were crucial. 

Years of corrosion from the acid rain, fortified by lack of use made it difficult for Walker to pry open the basement window.  After ten minutes of diligent effort, he heard a victorious pop as the airtight seal of the windowpane gave way to his considerable strength and his insurmountable resolve.  In spite of the early evening light filtering in through the small shallow window, the basement was dark and its odor was pungent and dank from years of preserved moisture intrusion.  He squeezed his shoulders through the narrow framework before he reached into the darkness to gain a rudimentary lay of the land.  Stacks of cardboard cartons met his touch in all directions.  Walker grabbed hold of one, pushed on it to test its sturdiness, than leveraged himself between it and the wall as he cleared the window encasement.  With his body blocking the slight evening light, he had no idea how high he was from the safety of the floor.  Based on the typical basements in Dallas, he figured the topside of the foundation was within 4 to 6 feet from the window.  Texas basements were usually shallow and definitely a rarity, even in large buildings.  The risk of dropping himself aimlessly to a far off floor was minimal, and he figured it was a better option than his present awkward position where he was straining to form a human horizontal bridge between the wall and the stacks of shaky cartons.

Walker turned himself upright, allowing gravity to force his body downward.  He breathed a sigh of relief when he heard the gracious thump of his feet hitting solid ground.   A mild sting surged through his lower limbs as he met the concrete surface.  A dime store lighter gave him a limited perspective on the cluttered space he had intentionally infiltrated.  Unstable columns of cardboard cartons overtook the stone basement.  There didn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to their order.  Walker weaved through them looking for a passageway to the main building above.   After several twists and turns through the mazes of boxes, he found a narrow wooden staircase that led up to a solid door.  The old stair planks groaned and squeaked beneath him in spite of his guarded steps.  The doorknob felt slippery and moist when he turned it counterclockwise to force it open.  It stuck at first: resisting the natural motion.  But after a few jiggles – light seeped through the narrow crack in the door and Walker let go of the heated igniter wheel on his lighter, allowing the tiny flame to fade out.

Trivette maneuvered the Mustang through one-lane roads and labyrinth-like construction sites along the riverside.  He didn’t have time to gripe about the inconvenience of the obstacles that seemed hell-bent on slowing him down.  He simply forged forward with the greatest amount of speed he could engender without squashing a pedestrian or taking out a guardrail.  Turning on the police lights and sirens wouldn’t speed things up in these kinds of situations and their influence would surely act as a forewarning for Nipo as they got closer to Jackson Street.  This mission would have to be handled the old fashion way: With patience, skill, intuition, and unswerving determination.  Trivette was stoked with all of the above.

Walker drew his revolver and primed it for business before pushing the basement door open the rest of the way. Streams of murky light gushed into the dim vault of the basement as he slipped inside the ground-level room.  He found himself in a contained garage with massive weights and pulleys dangling from the high ceiling.  They were most likely used to maneuver large pieces of equipment.  There was only one exit besides the basement door. It was a garage door with four small panes of glass along the top of it situated to his left.  The light from the outdoors was diluted by the heavy grime on the windows that had built up over years of neglect. Another small window looked out of place on the sprawling back wall of the room; most likely added as an afterthought to aid in proper ventilation.  While maneuvering through the bulky pieces of equipment, Walker heard the first sounds of life lurking in the confines of the garage.

“Did you hear that?” A male voice questioned aloud.

“Hear what Grunt?  I didn’t hear anything. Are you gettin’ gun-shy man?”  The second voice harassed.

“No Pake. I’m not gun-shy. I’m just keeping my eyes and ears open like the boss said.  This Walker cop is supposed to be some kind of martial arts superhero or something.  Nipo wouldn’t have brought us on board at the last minute if he thought that he and his men could handle this Ranger on their own,” the man bragged.

“You’re an idiot Grunt. Nipo’s got us doing his dirty work. That’s why he brought us in.  He’s out there with state of the art weapons while we wait in this stinking garage surrounded by enough explosives to blow us into Canada.  If Banks didn’t have dirt on us, I’d a told Nipo to pound sand.  So when Nipo’s boys bring this Ranger in here, we set the explosives and you wait for my signal to hit the timers: you here me? We’re only gonna have 60 seconds to bail and I ain’t gettin’ my ass blown off because of your itchy trigger finger.  Let’s get this done, get our money, and get the hell out of Dallas for good.  You read me?”  Pake dictated to his simple-minded partner.

“I’ve got your back, brother. Don’t worry. You can count on me,” Grunt promised in an obeying voice as he eased back into his usual role as second in command.

Walker’s eavesdropping had paid off. Knowing Nipo’s method of exterminating him gave him the gainful edge he was hoping for.  Now he just had to come up with a plan to beat Nipo at his own game.  Walker waited until the men sat back down on a waist high workbench before he made his move.  Pake folded his arms, leaned his back against the wall and closed his eyes. The man called Grunt fiddled with some tools that were strewn across the bench.  They had let their guard down.  Neither man thought for one second that Walker could infiltrate the building without being seen by Nipo and his sharks.  They were the lackeys and their ‘sit and wait’ attitude made them well deserving of their titles.  Their false trust in Nipo’s ability and their underestimation of Walker’s would be the cause of their own demise.

Walker scanned the outer perimeter of the two walls that were within his sight.   He could see one bomb strategically placed against each wall and he was pretty confident that the two remaining walls each had their own as well.  Nipo had laced the garage with so much explosives that it would be nearly impossible to find anything close to resembling a body part if anyone was trapped inside when they blew. 

Walker stayed low, shrouding himself behind the stacked boxes and bulky equipment as he moved closer to the two men.  Hanging directly above his head was a steel pulley with a large hook dangling from its end.  Walker grabbed the hook and steadied it in his hands.  Using the wall behind him as a launching pad - Walker was airborne and heading straight for the unexpecting thugs who were casually perched on the workbench.  The sturdy soles of Walker’s surefooted boots kicked the startled looks off of each of their faces before they could move a muscle.  Grunt toppled over onto the floor while Pake’s skull bounced hard against the concrete wall behind him.  Walker was all over Pake before he could clear his head.   They fell to the floor where Pake’s survival instincts finally kicked in and he shook off the pain that was raging through his head and his broken jaw.   He sent a quick jab towards the vital artery in Walker’s neck, but Walker’s reflexes were twice as quick.  He stopped Pake’s powerful fist with his bare hand before forcing his arm above his head in an unnatural position.  A gruesome crunch was heard simultaneous to Pake’s piercing screams of pain.  While Walker wiped the floor with Pake, Grunt scurried into a corner to call Nipo on his two-way radio.           

“Nipo, this is Grunt. We got Walker.  He’s here…in the garage. Get us some help down here,” Grunt panted out in a shaken voice.

“Excellent. We’re on our way.  Good work Grunt. Tell your brother that they’ll be something extra in your pay-outs,” Nipo answered in a calm and pacifying voice.

“Well you can’t pay us if we’re dead so hurry it up, will yah?”  Grunt pleaded before he threw the radio across the room and set out to help his older brother.

“My thoughts exactly. Dead men work for free,” Nipo said through an evil smirk after ending the call.

“It doesn’t get any better than this gentlemen. Walker’s in the garage with Pake and Grunt. Let’s move out. Those two jerks should be able to keep Walker busy long enough for us to bail.  Rock, you activated the remote switches on all of the bombs, right?”  Nipo asked the man as he stopped cold in his tracks for a second, fearing something might go wrong.

“I took care of it personally, Mr. Nipo.  Once our van is rolling away from this dump, I’ll hit the switch and in 60 seconds this building and everyone in it will be angle dust,” The Rock assured him with a confidant smile.  Nipo had recruited the two dim witted men to hit the timers once he and his regular men were a safe distance away from the building, but he knew that would only work if he could kill Walker beforehand; or at least restrain him.  Nipo made sure that he had a backup plan in case the crafty Ranger refused to cooperate. The Rock had rigged a remote control sensor to each of the bombs that could be activated from as much as two hundred yards away.

“This is too damn easy,” Nipo boasted as he strutted out the door and headed down the staircase towards the exit of the warehouse.

Pake slipped into a state of unconsciousness induced by Walker’s unfailing headlock.   Grunt came from behind and mounted Walker’s back just as he dropped Pake’s limp body to the floor.  With one forceful swoop of his powerful elbows to the man’s ribs, Walker rose up from the floor into a standing position with Grunts full weight on his back and launched him backwards into the garage door.  Grunt’s head shattered one of the panes of glass before he hit the concrete below.  Stunned but still conscious, the foolish oaf struggled to stand up and continue his fight with his overpowering opponent.  Walker helped him to his feet and slammed him against the garage door. 

“Where’s Nipo and his men?”  Walker demanded.

Grunt flashed a stubborn smirk before he blurted out his taunting response.  “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

“Yah, I would,” Walker replied before tightening his squeeze on the man’s right hand that he had pinned against the door behind him.  Grunt’s fingers fractured beneath the vice-like force of Walker’s grip.  He screamed in pain, but Walker held tight to the man’s broken hand. Just as he was going to give Grunt’s left hand an encouraging squeeze, Walker looked out of the broken window and saw Nipo retreating from the building in a white van.

“Dammit!  He’s getting away,” Walker snarled.

While Walker momentarily preoccupied himself with Nipo’s escape, grunt took advantage of the situation and rammed his left knee into Walker’s abdomen. Walker curled into the jolt only slightly, but it was enough to free Grunt from his firm hold.  Grunt charged him like a bull and the two men hit the floor.  Muffled by the sounds of their scuffling and heavy breathing, the activation signals on each of the bombs went unnoticed as they beeped and blinked in unison.  The counters flashed their final countdown: 60 seconds…59 seconds, 58….

Trivette, Gage and Sydney had abandoned Gage’s car three blocks away from the Jackson Street warehouse.  Police officers were directing the congested traffic into single lane detours that would have taken forever to inch through.  The anxious team of Rangers jogged down Martin Street where they spotted Walker’s truck parked in a store lot. They didn’t stop to check it out. They knew he wouldn’t be inside. Instead, they doubled their pace and turned left onto Jackson.  The warehouse was finally in their sights.

Walker had pinned Grunt to the floor with his knees and he held the man’s arms tight above his head.  Grunt knew he was beaten.  He couldn’t break free if his life depended on it.  He writhed in pain beneath Walker’s firm hold. His splintered fingers throbbed and his bleeding head pounded right straight through to his eyes.

“Now, you’re going to tell me where Nipo is headed and I’ll promise that I won’t break your neck.  Do we understand each other?”  Walker scowled.

“I don’t know where he’s going. I know they were getting ready to leave town in a couple of days.  Nipo’s men were talking about meeting at some place called Mustang Ridge.  I don’t know where it is or what it is.  Maybe it’s a bar or something.  Can you get off of me now man?”  Grunt pleaded in a defeated voice.

Walker eased off of the boyish con and reached down to help him stand.  A flashing red light caught the corner of his eye. 8 seconds!  All of the bombs were going to detonate in 8, now 7 seconds.

“The bombs!”  Walker shouted.  “They’re going to blow.”

Walker ran towards the window at the back of the garage.  5 seconds … four… three….  With a running start, he launched himself through the closed window.  It was his only chance.  2 seconds...

Grunt just stood in the middle of the garage, frozen by fear and acceptance to the fact that he and his brother Pake were going to die.  His last thoughts were of his dead mother and he prayed for the first time in his life; hoping that God would forgive him and his brother so they could be together again with their sweet mother in heaven.

The Rangers stepped into the parking lot of the Jackson Street building and prepared to surround it.  Before they could split up, a reverberating explosion rocked the building and the ground surrounding it. The force of the blast hurled the Rangers into the street.  Covered with debris, and gasping for fresh air, they could do nothing but stare helplessly into the tremendous clouds of smoke that ominously hovered over the pile of rubble where the warehouse once stood.

Alex felt a cold rush of air pass through her as she checked on dinner. She rubbed her arms briskly in an attempt to warm herself.  As she turned to leave the kitchen, she watched the candles on the dining room table go out.  It was almost as if a gust of wind had blown through the airtight ranch and extinguished them. Standing over the table, she fought off the feelings of unease that were rising in her stomach.  Carefully, she re-lit the candles and walked back into the kitchen to put the finishing touches on dinner. Pushing the unnerving incident far into the back of her mind, Alex focused on her husband’s return home and how he would react to the glorious news of his impending fatherhood.

 

**********

 

The firemen and the bomb squad experts were repeatedly chastising Trivette, Gage, and Sydney for trespassing onto the explosion site.  The rubble and the earth beneath it were still unstable and the workers didn’t want to see the anxious Ranger’s end up on the roster of casualties. Just as Trivette was preparing to climb back onto the loose rubble, the bomb squad detective in charge of the investigation grabbed him by his forearm.

“Ranger, I don’t know what in the hell you think you’re going to find here, but this is my investigation and I don’t need to worry about babysitting you and your partners.  It’s going to take days to get through this bloody mess. Go back to your office and I’ll call you when we know something,” the detective shouted firmly.

“Look detective, I’m pretty sure that my partner was inside the building when it blew.  We’re searching for anything that might tell us that he made it out of there alive, and if he didn’t make it out…than we’ve got to find him. He may still be alive,” Trivette finished as his voice lowered and cracked with building emotion.

“Ranger Trivette, you know as well as I do that if your partner was in this building when it blew, there isn’t any chance that he’s still alive.  We’ve scanned the entire site with thermal infrared and there aren’t any hotspots, no signs of life. The crew has found traces of human bone, but it will be weeks before the forensics lab can tell us anything.  I feel for you Ranger…believe me.  I lost my partner in a blast a couple of years ago.  He was trapped for hours under solid rock.  We couldn’t get to him fast enough and he suffocated.  If your partner was in this building when it blew, I can promise you that he went quickly.” The detective patted Trivette’s shoulder and turned to head back to his crew.  Before he could walk away, one of his men approached him and handed him something.   With his back to Trivette, he shook his head in discouragement before he turned around to face him again.

“I’m sorry to say that it doesn’t look like your partner made it out of there Ranger.  Go home now.  Go be with your partner’s family or your own family.  This isn’t the place for you to be right now, okay?”  The detective said in a sympathetic voice as he handed Trivette a deformed, but still identifiable Texas Ranger’s badge.

Trivette began to sway back and forth as the sober reality of what had happened rushed through him. 

But Walker was my family; he and Alex.  Alex….” Jimmy whispered almost inaudibly. He walked slowly over to where Gage and Sydney were standing, huddled together. They had witnessed the hand off of Walker’s crippled badge and knew what it meant. Trivette stepped in between them and put his arms around their shoulders. As they walked away, arm in arm, without looking back, all eyes were glossed over with painful tears while Jimmy’s voice broke in bitter emotion as he uttered the most devastating words he would ever have to say.

“We’ve got to go and tell Alex.”

 

***********

 

It was 6:25PM when Alex finally gave in to her urge to call her husband.

“Walker, you promised me that you wouldn’t be late tonight. Dinner is going to be stone cold,” Alex complained out loud as she dialed his cell phone number. After the second unanswered ring, she heard a car door shut from the direction of the driveway.  Breathing a deep sigh of relief, she hung up the phone and ran to the front hallway so she could be ready to pretend to scold her husband for being late when he came through the door. She had to admit, she was a little irritated with him, but she knew that her sourness would melt away the very second he took her in his arms.  This was going to be a magical night, and even Walker’s habitual tardiness couldn’t put a damper on it for her.

The doorbell chimed before she could reach the entryway. 

 “Did you forget your keys at work again Cowboy?” She speculated through a sarcastic yet relieved tone as she pulled the door open.  Expecting to see Walker, she flashed a half-angry look, which was fortified by a strategically placed hand on one hip.

But it wasn’t her husband standing in the doorway.  It was Trivette, Gage, and Sydney.  They were covered in ash, clothes torn, and eyes reddened by the steady flow of unstoppable tears.

“Where’s…Walker?” Alex asked cautiously as she unconsciously began to back away from her dearest friends.  She knew that they weren’t here for a friendly visit, and she was terrified by their mournful expressions.  She wanted to run upstairs and lock her bedroom door behind her.   If she could hide from them, they wouldn’t be able to tell her why they had come…without Walker…without her husband.   Alex’s thoughts of escaping them were abruptly stalled when she backed into the staircase banister.  She deliberately leaned against it – almost grateful for its desperately needed support.

“Alex…” Jimmy pleaded, as he moved towards her with his arms outstretched.  “I don’t know how to say this…” His voice trailed off as his tears came again in full force.  His heart was broken by the loss of his partner and best friend.  Now – having to tell Alex that Walker was gone forever made it fell as if his already battered heart were being crushed beyond repair inside an unsparing vice.  Seeing the look of absolute terror on Alex’s face, Jimmy just couldn’t bring himself to make the words come.

“NOoooooo”, Alex screamed in agony and stark denial as she covered her ears to protect herself and her unborn child from the unmerciless truth that was still left unspoken.

“Alex, I’m so sorry.  I’m so… sorry. I wish I could have gotten there sooner. I should have been there with him,” Jimmy sobbed openly as he tried to slow her anxious and aimless wandering by grabbing hold of her trembling shoulders.

Alex’s bitter anguish cut deep inside her soul as Jimmy’s hands touched her shaking body.  She knew that Jimmy loved Walker as much, or nearly as much as she loved him.  His visible pain forced her heart into a grave reality that she’d forever prayed she would never have to face. Her breathing quickened and her eyes began to flutter, telling Jimmy that unconsciousness would be coming soon.  Too much to bare, the pain of losing Walker was all consuming for her.  Alex fainted the pain away into Jimmy’s readied arms where the tragic truth would lie dormant until she awakened from her restless sleep.

“Call 911,” Jimmy cried, as he held her tight in his protecting embrace. While cradling her in his own trembling arms, he made a silent promise to Walker that he would watch over her and protect her forever.  If Walker couldn’t be here to do it himself, he would do it for him: no matter what.  They would forever be partners, friends, and brothers - to the end.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY

 

Dr. Kathryn Ramos sat vigil at Alex’s side until she regained conscientiousness. The sterile, colorless surroundings of the emergency room abruptly awakened her into a temporary state of disorientation to time and place. For a few short moments, Alex had forgotten the reason why her body had succumbed to the escape of a temporary coma.

Trivette, Sydney and Gage had been waiting anxiously in the waiting room for more than two hours while Kathryn tried her best to calm and console her fragile patient and dear friend.  Alex’s tears of anguish and loss flowed steadily for quite some time before the mild sedative saturated her nervous system and numbed her body into a state of suspended purgatory.  Her chest ached and her eyes were red and swollen.  She had cried the deep well of her emotions bone dry, and the medication was helping to take the edge off of her feelings of desperation. Alas – she welcomed the easing of the sharp spasms in her heart, but the ominous silence of her complete inner aloneness left her hollow and deadened inside.

Kathryn took Alex’s limp hand in her own and gave it a gentle squeeze. It was time to talk, and she wasn’t sure if Alex was coherent or stable enough to deal with the subject matter.  Kathryn held tight to Alex’s hand as her soft and gentle voice broke the bitter silence.

“Alex, I’m very concerned about your physical and emotional health. You’re still in your first trimester of pregnancy and your baby is still very fragile. He needs you to be strong and healthy for him.  Do your friends know that you’re pregnant?” Kathryn asked carefully.

“No…  No one knows except you Kathryn,” Alex answered in a sedate tone as she stared off into space, refusing to make eye contact with her physician and friend. “Walker was supposed to be the first to hear about the baby. He’s the father. Father’s are supposed to be the first to know, aren’t they?  Isn’t it some kind of rule or right or something?  I was going to tell him tonight during dinner. It’s our first anniversary. Our first…and last, “ Alex cried.

“Well, I can tell your friends if you like,” Kathryn offered. “They should know about your condition so they can take care of you and help you through this difficult time.  I don’t want you to be alone for a while. You need to have someone with you.”

“I won’t be alone Kathryn, but I’m not ready to tell them about the baby. If I can’t ever look into my husband’s eyes and tell him that he was going to be a father, how can I betray him by telling anyone else?  I have to find a way to tell Walker first.  I need to believe that he knows about his child; that he’s watching over us and he can somehow hear me. I just need some time Kathryn.” Her quiet sobbing continued.

“I understand. Take all the time you need, but I’m going to be checking up on you daily.  You’re carrying very precious cargo Alex, and it’s my job to make sure that baby Walker is doing well.  Are you ready to see your friends now? They’ve been waiting for a long time and they’re really worried about you.  The nurses said that Ranger Trivette has been pacing like an expectant father.  They must really love you Alex. They just need to know that you’re okay,” Kathryn added without thinking about her choice of words.

“But I’m not okay Kathryn. It will never be okay. Today was our first anniversary. We were given so little time together.  Why did God have to take him from me so soon?  It took so long for Walker and I to get together, now our future has been stolen from us before we even had a chance to get started.  We had so much together and now I’m so alone.  I have nothing.” Alex’s respirations quickened and her tears returned in full force as her unbearable pain overtook the effects of the calming sedative.  

“Alex, I don’t want to hear you talking like that,” Kathryn said in a firm tone. “You have your health and your friends, and most importantly, you have Walker’s baby growing inside of you.  Your baby needs you to be strong for him. I know your heart is breaking and mine is breaking for you, but I promise you – it will get better with time. When you finally hold that little baby in your arms for the very first time you’ll see Walker’s spirit, and you’ll remember all of the joy that he brought into your life.  He’ll always be in your heart Alex, and he’ll always be there in the shining eyes of your child. God decided it was time to bring Walker home, but he didn’t take him without leaving a piece of him behind for you to love.”

Alex fought back her tears as she placed her hands over her abdomen. She was ashamed of herself for forgetting - even for a split second that she had a baby growing inside of her; Walker’s baby.  She couldn’t let anything happen to this child. If he or she didn’t make it – she knew that she wouldn’t either. She had to be strong for baby Walker.

“I’m ready to see my friends now Kathryn.”  Alex whispered as she tried to gain control of her fragile emotions.

“Good. I’ll be right back,” Kathryn promised as she handed Alex a tissue to wipe her tear-laden eyes.

Kathryn fronted the somber group as Jimmy, Sydney, and Gage cautiously entered the hospital room behind her.  Alex took one look at their careworn expressions and the freshly dried tears instantly returned to her weary eyes. She couldn’t stop them even if she tried.  Seeing hers and Walker’s closest friends, their family - brought all of their pain and mourning together and it was too much for any of them to escape or control. No words were spoken.  It wasn’t necessary.  Each of them could feel the others’ suffering. Alex reached her arms out and Jimmy rushed to her side to fill them.  He cradled her to his chest and held on tight.  Sydney moved to the opposite side of the bed and joined their embrace. Gage sat behind Sydney, circling one arm around her waist while taking Alex’s hand in the other.  The tight foursome wept quietly as Kathryn eased her way to the door to give them some time alone.  She knew that they would first have to deal with their grief from this terrible loss before the healing process could begin.

As Kathryn carefully closed the door behind her, her own tears were finally allowed to fall.  Her heart was breaking for Alex and she prayed that she would be able to go on without Walker.  If ever she had seen a couple who couldn’t live without the other – it was the two of them.  She knew that Alex would hold on for the baby’s sake. But the risk of a miscarriage for women over thirty-five had just tripled for Alex. Grief and stress were the leading cause of miscarrying in women of all ages. Kathryn pleaded with God in a silent prayer – asking him to spare this baby.  In her line of work she saw more than her share of tragedy and suffering, but she kept herself going through her firm belief in God and his promise that he would never deliver any more than the human spirit could handle. There was no question in Kathryn’s mind that for Alex, losing Walker was more than her limit.  If this fragile little baby didn’t survive – neither would its mother.

Walker lay chest down on the embankment and submerged his face into the refreshing stream.  He had been traveling on foot at a rapid pace for nearly four hours now; stopping only twice since his close escape from the warehouse explosion.

His first stop had been somewhere around 7:00 O’clock: The Union Street Shelter. With the cold weather moving in – the Shelter was distributing coats, hats, scarves and gloves to the homeless.   Covered with soot and dirt, his expensive torn shirt and blackened designer boots went unnoticed and he fit right in with the crowd of street dwellers as he rifled through a box of clothes for a warm jacket and a simple knit cap. Both were absolutely necessary if he was going to disguise himself from being recognized, and they were even more essential for the warmth they would provide if he was going to be trekking through the woods day and night until he reached Nipo’s hideout. Walker left a small piece of paper inside the box that simply said “I.O.U one winter coat and hat.”

His next stop was a library on the eastside.  It was a small library in the low-income district and he was thankful that there was only a handful of people inside.  He sat down at one of the computers and struggled to remember the steps necessary to log on to the Internet.  He had watched Trivette and Alex do it a thousand times but their fingers moved too fast for him to recall what they did. After a few fruitless attempts, Walker gave the keyboard an angry shove.  A young boy - no more than eleven years old noticed his frustration and came to his rescue.

“What’s wrong mister?  Don’t you know how to surf the net?” He asked with an ‘ I know more than you do’ smile.

“No – not really. Do you think you could give me a hand with this giant paperweight?  I’d really appreciate it. I’m sort of in a hurry,” Walker said honestly.    

“Sure mister. What are you looking for?”

At Walker’s direction, the young computer whiz chronicled through the different business listings in the online yellow pages. Mustang Run wasn’t showing up as any type of business in the greater Metro-Plex area. Walker asked the boy to search for registered farms under the same name, but the results were still lacking.

“Well, I guess that’s it then.  Thanks for your help just the same,” Walker said to the little boy as he shook his hand and prepared to leave.  He had resigned himself to the fact that Grunt was either lying about Mustang Run or had been lied to by Nipo’s boys.

“Wait mister,” The little boy said as he typed something onto the computer keys.  “Whenever I can’t find anything, my library teacher says I should type it in quotations and let it search through the whole Internet.”

The little boy hit the enter key and it took a minute or two before a long list of matches scrolled across the computer terminal.  Walker eased the boy out of the driver’s seat and began reading the summery descriptions for each site. A Dude Ranch in Montana, a mountain climbing favorite in New Hampshire, A gift-shop in Colorado Springs; but no matches in the Dallas / Fort-Worth area.

After reading nearly fifty of the site previews Walker was just about ready to give up.  But he was glad he hadn’t when he saw the headline of the next site. It was an old article from Equestrian Monthly. “Dobbs Ranch outside Dallas renamed Mustang Run: A preserved land trust for wild Mustangs.”

“Kid – you’re a genius!” Walker said in a bigger voice than was allowed in a library. “Now how do I open this article and print it?”

The young boy obliged the Ranger by clicking a few keys and within a minute – a nearby printer was humming with activity as it spit out the article. Walker scanned it for the essentials and found the lead he was praying for.  The article sited Ezra Dobbs as the owner of the near bankrupt estate when it was sanctioned as a land trust in April of 2000.  Dobbs would be entrusted with the care and the preservation of the land trust and in exchange, was allowed to reside on the property free of charge.  Walker remembered the drug dealer at El Centro – Troy Dobbs: The man fingered by the brave student Angel Vasquez.  Troy must have been a relative of Ezra Dobbs. Walker theorized that Troy was Nipo's link to the safe house. Walker’s only question was how Ezra would allow his property to be infiltrated by a ruthless pack of criminals.  Ezra obviously cared about his home and the Mustangs or he wouldn’t have fought to have it sanctioned as a land trust property.

Walker was thinking out loud when he said to the boy “I wonder of Ezra has passed away since this article was written?”

“I know how to search the obituaries mister.  I found my great granddaddy’s once.  Do you want me to try?”  The boy asked.

“Sure kid. Give it a shot. You know, you’ll make a great…” Walker had to hold his tongue as the words ‘Texas Ranger’ danced on the tip of it.  This young boy had already seen his face, though he knew he didn’t look quite the same as the clean cut photos that would be plastered all over the eleven o’clock news.  There was still a chance that the boy would see his photo in some sort of media form and he couldn’t risk the offering up of another link to his true identity. “You'll make a great detective some day. Give it some thought okay?” Walker said through a genuine smile.

The boy grinned proudly as he methodically mashed away on the keyboard – obviously knowing what he was doing.  Within seconds…a record of the birth and death of Ezra Dobbs appeared on the screen.  Date of birth: June 16th 1926. Date of Death: August 22, 2000. The ancestry URL came complete with related links to the parents, children, and grandchildren of the subject.  Troy Dobbs’ named flashed like a charging radar blip across the monitor. He was the grandson of the late Ezra Dobbs.  Walker speculated that Troy had returned to his grandfather’s home once released from Huntsville Prison in July of 2000 where he had bunked with Nipo and his cronies.  When his grandfather passed away, Troy must have turned the peaceful Mustang sanctuary into a hideout for Nipo and his gang. It was a perfect cover.  No one would have been the wiser until the land trust officials visited the ranch for their annual review in April of 2001.

Walker decided that he owed Trivette and Alex an apology for the countless times he’d ribbed them for using the Internet as a crutch to get the job done.  Seeing this young boy search for and conquer his queries in less than ten minutes gave him all of the proof he needed to be a believer.  When this was all over – he would swallow his pride and ask Alex and Trivette to show him the ropes to computer-ease.

“That’s it,” Walker exclaimed.  “You’ve got it. I just need you to show me how to do one more thing before we’re finished.  I need to know how to send an email.”  Walker couldn’t be sure that Nipo hadn’t bugged his home or office phones.  He needed to get a message to Alex and Trivette to let them know he was alive. 

“That’s kids stuff.  Here…” The boy offered as he started the email for the grubby stranger.  “All you have to do is type in the email address here - and the message here - than hit send.”  The child pointed to the areas that required population before he got up to relinquish his seat. He stepped away to give the man privacy.

Walker’s typing was painfully slow as he plunked away at the keys using only two fingers, but he managed to finish the email.

“Alex and Trivette, I escaped from the warehouse before it exploded.  It was a close call, but I’m fine!  Nipo and everyone else believes that I’m dead.   I’d like to keep it that way for now. I know where Nipo is hiding and if I’m going to stop him, he can’t know that I’m alive.  I know it will be difficult, but the two of you can be the only ones who know about this.  You’ve got to play along and pretend that I’m dead.  Don’t discuss this over the phone.  They lines may be tapped. Trivette – I need you to get the word out to the media about the accident.  I want to be sure that Nipo is convinced that he finished the job.

Alex – I’m sorry about backing out on our anniversary dinner. I’ll make it up to you as soon as this is finished. I promise! I’ll be in touch. Walker”

Walker hit the send button on the keyboard than quickly signed off so no one else would be privy to his secretive electronic transaction.  He thanked the young boy and quickly exited the library.  Had he waited just a few more seconds before logging off, he would have learned the most important lesson of competent computer use: Garbage in – Garbage Out!  An ‘undeliverable’ message was automatically posted. Alex’s home email address had been typed correctly, but Trivette’s was missing one single letter. That one character was enough to stop the transmission from ever reaching his laptop. This innocent oversight would later brutally overshadow Walker’s otherwise joyful homecoming once his mission was finished. 

Walker left the library and headed north in the direction of Highway 42. Based on the information he had found on the Internet, he estimated that Mustang Run was close to 100 miles away and he needed to get moving.  He had raveled only a few hundred yards when his conscience and his heart stalled his previously determined gait.

“ALEX”….

His short, businesslike email wasn’t going to be anywhere close to enough of an explanation for her to understand why he had to do this.  He had to let her know how terrible he felt about being away from her on their anniversary: And so close to Christmas too.  Walker stood on the street corner for a moment and looked around for a pay phone.  He thought about calling Alex but he knew better than to risk his newfound invisibility.   Just as he was about to give in to his growing urge, he noticed a young man who was bolting from a print shop with an arm-full of cardboard cylinders.  He looked severely uncomfortable, darned in uniform style khaki slacks and a white button down shirt embroidered with an advertising emblem for Werner Delivery Services, Inc. Walker rushed to his side before he could finish strapping the cylinders to the back of his rickety moped.

“Hi kid. You work for a delivery service, right?”  Walker blurted out.

“Yah. That’s right. You’re a real brain surgeon pal,” the youth retorted sarcastically as he pulled on the breast part of his shirt that darned the name of his employer. “What’s it to you?” He added as he mounted his rusty relic.

“I’ve got an extra delivery for you. It’s really important. Do you think you can handle it?”  Walker asked in a challenging tone.

“Mister – I can handle anything…for a price,” the youth said through a greedy smirk.

Walker fished through his back pockets for his wallet.  It was gone!  Lost in his scuffles in the garage or during his abrupt exit before the explosion: He wasn’t sure where it had fallen out. His keys were gone too.

Walker began to panic, wondering how he was going to persuade this cocky kid to do a presumed street bum a favor without being able to front the cash to tempt him.  Just as he was about to walk away, Walker remembered the money he had hastily stuffed in the front pocket of his jeans earlier that morning.  As he and Alex left for work, she had asked him to pick up her dry-cleaning on his way home.  She had given him the money and the slip and he had stuffed it into his pocket as they raced out the door. Walker eased his hand into the right front pocket of his jeans, making contact with the smooth bills folded tightly inside.

He took out the dry-cleaning slip and counted the money.

“Here…I’ve got fifty dollars. It’s all yours if you’ll promise to deliver a letter to a Dallas address tonight,” Walker bargained.

“Man...for fifty bucks I’ll ride to Fort Worth and back,” the young man sanctioned as he snatched the two twenties and a ten from the stranger’s hand.

“Great. Do you have a piece of paper and a pen that I can borrow? It’ll only take me a second to write my message,” Walker pleaded.

The young man huffed out an anxious sigh and rolled his eyes impatiently as he unfastened his delivery log from the back of his bike.  He opened it to a clean sheet of paper and removed his pen from behind his right ear.

“Make it quick man.  I’ve got a date tonight,” he bragged as he handed the stranger the pad and pen. Walker sat on the curbing and began to write his letter of explanation to his wife.

“Sweetheart,

By the time you get this, you or Trivette will have most likely already read my email telling you that I am alive and on my way to Nipo’s hideout.  I’m writing to you now because I wanted to tell you in private – just how sorry I am for being away from you tonight. You mean more to me than anything else in this mixed up world, but I cannot – in good conscience, allow Nipo to escape to another city where he will surely start the vicious cycle of senseless death all over again.  As long as Nipo thinks I’m dead – I’ve got the upper hand.  I know it will be hard, but I need you to play the grieving widow for me.  I’ll be home to you as soon as Nipo is locked up behind bars where he belongs.  I love you Alex. I know I’m not always very good at telling you so, but I plan to show you when I get home. Happy anniversary sweetheart.  Keep my side of the bed warm for me. I’ll be careful, I promise!

Love,

Walker  xoxo

Walker gave his letter a quick proofing before folding it up. A crooked smile lit up his face as he reread the X’s and O’s that he had automatically added to the closing of his note to his wife.  Never in a million years had he every thought that he would be signing letters to someone with cutesy kisses and hugs. Alex had changed all of that. She had changed him; for the better - and he found himself wishing that he could deliver those kisses and hugs in person. “Soon,” he whispered to himself. “I’ll be home soon.”

“Do you have an envelope?” Walker asked the delivery boy.

The young man let out another irritated sigh as he took the folder from Walker’s hand and opened the back cover.  He reached into the pocket and handed him a legal size envelope with Werner Delivery Service’s return address stamped in the top left corner. Walker tucked his letter inside and sealed it before writing his home address on the front of it.

“Here, take this to the address written on the front.  Go to the front door and drop it through the mail slot.  Don’t ring the bell or knock on the door. Just deliver the letter. Do you understand?” Walker asked.

“Yah, I got it mister.  Don’t ring the bell – just deliver the letter. I’d better get rolling if I’m gonna deliver this before dark. Can I have my pen back?” The boy asked anxiously, wanting to get moving so he could get his date started earlier than planned. He had extra fifty bucks that was already burning a hole in his pocket and he couldn’t wait to spend it.

Walker returned the borrowed pen and grabbed the boys arm as he mounted his moped.

“You have to promise me that you’ll deliver this letter tonight. It’s very, very important.  I’m counting on you.  We’ve got a deal, right?” Walker pleaded.

“I always deliver mister. Don’t you worry about a thing.  It’s been a pleasure doing business with you,” the boy said through a forced smile as he started up his moped and headed south towards Dallas.

When he was out of Walker’s sight, the delivery boy slowed his motor bike just enough to pitch Walker’s letter into a trash bin on the sidewalk.

“Yup. I always deliver! Right into the trash,” the immoral youth laughed as he sped away from the curb.   Entrusting the delivery boy with Alex’s letter would prove to be Walker’s second act of poor judgment that night.

 

*****************

 

As Walker washed his hands and face in the icy stream, he was reminded of the cuts and scrapes that he had suffered during his escape through the thick warehouse window.  The contact of the cold water seemed to awaken the pain he had been able to ignore all afternoon.  Walker savored a long thirst-quenching drink before he lifted himself from the ground.  He figured it was around 10:30pm.  It was time to make a lean-to for shelter, gather some kindling for a fire, pick some berries, and hopefully catch a fish in the stream.  He needed nourishment and a good night’s sleep before he could continue his 100-mile journey to Mustang Run.  

Dr. Ramos released Alex into Trivette’s care at 10:00 AM on Thursday morning. Trivette had thought that it was odd when Kathryn insisted on keeping Alex in the hospital overnight, but he was grateful just the same.  Both he and Sydney had offered to take Alex to their homes for a few days, but she had adamantly refused.  She wanted to go home to her ranch.  Trivette knew that going back to a house without Walker would be extremely difficult for Alex and he was thankful to Dr. Ramos for allowing her to avoid it for a little longer.

Only Dr. Ramos and Alex knew the real reason for Alex’s overnight hospital stay. Kathryn wanted to monitor the baby’s vital signs to make sure he wasn’t in any distress. Only when Dr. Ramos was confident that the baby and its mother were stable, did she allow Alex to be discharged.

Sydney and Gage had gone ahead to the ranch so they could clean up the kitchen before Trivette returned with Alex.  The countertop was still brimming with the food that Alex had prepared for hers and Walkers anniversary dinner, and the dining room table was still romantically set for two.  They didn’t want Alex to see any of this. It was going to be painful enough for her to come home to an empty house without having to be reminded of the agonizing circumstances of the previous fateful night.

Trivette kept a firm hold around Alex’s waist as he helped her to cross over the threshold of the front entrance.  He could feel her body hesitate involuntarily as she reluctantly stepped inside the doorway of her own home.

She stopped for a moment in the entryway and raised her eyes to the stairs that led to hers and Walker’s bedroom.  Feeling suddenly faint, she leaned into Jimmy’s sturdiness and quickly turned her eyes towards the living room.

“I need to sit down,” Alex whispered.

Jimmy helped her to the sofa and sat down beside her.  Sydney and Gage heard them come in and quickly joined them in the living room.

“How are you, Alex?”  Sydney asked in a gentle, caring voice as she sat down beside her opposite Trivette.   Gage handed Alex a glass of water that he had brought from the kitchen before he leaned down to gently kiss her on the cheek.  He sat across from them without speaking. Gage was still at a loss for words over this devastating tragedy and he was afraid to say the wrong thing to Alex, making her feel worse. 

“I’m numb – I guess.  Just…numb,” Alex responded in an unchanging voice.

“Do you want to go upstairs and take a shower or lie down for a little while?” Sydney asked her.

“No. I can’t go upstairs: Not yet.  I’ll shower down here, and I think I’ll sleep in the downstairs guestroom for a few days. Any of you are welcome to the upstairs guestroom,” Alex commented, telling them in no uncertain terms that the master bedroom was off limits. They understood completely. No further clarification was necessary. Hers and Walkers private place would be left untouched until Alex was up to going back there.

Alex’s eyes wandered through her living room for the first time since she had sat down.  The book Walker had been reading was still open on the end table next to his chair. His favorite pen rested on a pad of paper beside it.  He had been working on a list of things that needed to get done before Christmas.  Her eyes turned to the fireplace. Gage and Sydney had started a fire, but the warm glow of the dancing flames brought no comfort. They provoked nothing but painful memories of happier times spent in front of their familiar ambiance with her beloved husband. Alex fixed her gaze on the Christmas tree that they had decorated together only a few days earlier.  She remembered the little spat they had had over the decorations, and the pure pleasure of their spirited making up that came afterwards.  Her eyes filled with tears. Everything looked the same but seemed so empty and meaningless now.  Her life had been turned upside down in just a few tragic minutes. Alex’s body shuttered unintentionally as she closed her eyes and bowed her weary head to her chest.

Silent tears toppled down her cheeks as she took a deep breath before standing up.

“I’m going to lay down now. I’m feeling a little tired after the ride home,” Alex uttered unconvincingly.  Trivette, Sydney and Gage knew that she needed to escape from her too familiar surroundings and the careworn faces of Walker’s closest friends.  Here gaping wounds were still too fresh and she could only tolerate the reality of her pain in small doses.

“I’ll get your nightgown and robe for you Alex,” Sydney offered.  “And I can gather a few of your things from your closet for you if you like. That way you won’t have to bother with running up and down the stairs. Would that be okay?” She tested, knowing that Alex couldn’t bring herself to enter hers and Walker’s bedroom.

“That will be fine Sydney. Thank you,” Alex whispered in a raspy voice as she turned to leave the living room. Her friends waited to break the saddening silence until they heard the door of the guestroom quietly close behind her.

“I’m really worried about Alex, Jimmy,” Sydney said in a low voice. “She seems so distant.  It’s hard to tell if she’s dealing with her grief, or avoiding it.”

“It’s too soon Sydney.  I don’t think Walker’s death has really hit her yet. I know I’m having a hell of a time believing it myself,” Jimmy admitted as he fought back the inescapable tears of his own grief.

“I feel the same way Trivette,” Gage added.  “We can’t even bury him. The M.E. says it will be weeks – maybe even months before they can ID any of the remains that they find.  How can Alex or any of us find closure if we can’t have a funeral?”

“We can’t have a funeral but we can have a memorial service,” Sydney pledged. “If we can’t lay Walker to rest, the least we can do is hold a memorial to honor his life.”

“That’s a good idea Sydney.  I’ll make the arrangements,” Jimmy said while fresh crocodile tears streamed down his cheeks.  He didn’t want to accept the death of his dearest friend and brother anymore than Alex did, but he knew that Walker would want all of them to deal with their pain so they could move on with their lives.

Walker slowed his pace in the shrouding harbor of the woods to take a well-deserved drink from a small stream.  Based on the positioning of the sun, he figured it to be around 5:00PM.  He had been traveling on foot since dawn.

With at least thirty-five miles behind him, his feet were screaming for a break and his stomach was growling for nourishment. With nightfall close at hand, Walker fashioned a small shelter out of tree branches and leaves.  The calm sky was free of any signs of rain. The dense branches would serve him well as protection from the cool night winds. After cooking up a main coarse of herbs and alligator snapping turtle that he easily snatched from the stream, Walker crawled into his den of dry leaves to rest up for another long day of ware and tare on his sure-footed boot leathers.

Even though his body was spent from his long day of hiking through the woods, Walker’s mind was racing.  He was anxious to reach Mustang Run before Christmas Eve. Walker had to stop Nipo from leaving the Dallas area and he was bound and determined to be back home with Alex before Christmas.  That left him three short days to travel more than sixty miles on foot, find Nipo - and bring him to his knees.

Walker could see the vibrant stars peeking through the ceiling of his crafted cloister of dense brush. One single star was shining so brightly that it seemed to be burning a whole through the branches of his shelter.  It was as if that single star was determined to shine down on him with the steadiest and warmest ray of light.

Alex returned to Walker’s thoughts as she had so many times during the day. Being alone in the woods had given him plenty of time to reflect on their life together, and he let his mind wander through a medley of hopeful images of their future.  Reaching into the right pocket of his jeans, he took out the heart-shaped stone that Alex had given him on their five-month anniversary.  “The heart is a symbol of by eternal love for you, and the sun and the moon etched on each side will guide you home when we are apart,” she had told him. He had kept it with him since the day she gave it to him and it had been a great source of comfort as he traveled through the woods alone.  Rubbing the smooth stone between his fingers, Walker closed his eyes and imagined that she was there beside him. He could almost smell her delicate perfume teasing his senses through the crisp night air. On the outside – Alex was a strikingly beautiful woman. But on the inside, she was more beautiful, gentle, and loving than anyone Walker had ever known.  

Alex was a gift from God and Walker reminded himself to take the best of care of his incredible gift. The thought of losing Alex had been a lingering fear that Walker constantly fought since the very beginning of their relationship. Now that they were married, those feelings seemed to intensify rather that subside. He had grown accustom to the lull of her breathing which aided him in sleep. The sound of her voice always lifted his spirits when he was down, and the sensation of her gentle touch instantly calmed his anger without fail.  She had woven herself into every aspect of his life and Walker had welcomed each delicate thread that bound them closer and closer together: Closer than he had ever imagined possible.  He didn’t know how he had managed to win Alex’s heart, but he knew that she had easily stolen his.  As he drifted off to sleep, Walker made a solemn promise to himself.  He would focus on the sheer pleasure of loving Alex completely rather than worrying about the frightening thought of losing her. 

Trivette woke early on Thursday morning, December 22nd. He wanted to be out of the house before Alex awakened so he didn’t have to lie to her about where he was going.  Reverend Hartman agreed to meet him at the church at 7:00 o’clock sharp and he didn’t want to keep him waiting.  Christmas was the busiest time of year for the church and its pastor and Trivette was grateful to Reverend Hartman for his eagerness to help with Walker’s memorial service.  The church was booked solid on Friday so Reverend Hartman suggested that the service be held at 4:00 o’clock on Christmas Eve.  He would still have plenty of time after the service to prepare the sanctuary for midnight mass. Trivette agreed.  He didn’t want to put it off until Monday.  Alex needed closure and so did Walker’s friends. He would tell Alex about the memorial after all the plans were made. She would be angry and upset with him, but he knew that he was doing the right thing.

After finalizing the arrangements with Reverend Hartman, Trivette went to Ranger Headquarters for a few hours. He struggled through the obligatory task of checking his emails while he was in the office, but the only one that would have caught his interest never made it to his in-box.  Back at the ranch, Alex’s computer hadn’t been turned on since the day of the accident. Walker’s message had been sent in vain, and the people that he cared about the most were suffering dearly for it.  

Trivette answered a handful of emails and jotted down a few notes before he began his most urgent task of searching the classified programs on his computer to locate Alex’s father, Gordon Cahill.  Sydney and Gage had tried to track him down by making dozens of calls the day before, but came up empty handed. 

Gordon and his new wife Olivia were on a three-month honeymoon somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Their trip spanned eight countries and thirty-four cities. Trivette knew that they wouldn’t be staying in one place for very long. Finding them wouldn’t be easy, but he had to do just that – and fast.  Alex desperately needed her father by her side, and Trivette knew that Gordon would want to be with his grieving daughter.

Trivette returned to the ranch at one o’clock.  Alex was behind the closed doors of the guestroom where she had spent the majority of the day. Sydney and Gage were in the kitchen making lunch.  Trivette joined them, slumping his weary body into a chair as he propped his elbows on the table so his hands could catch his heavy head as it fell into them. He rubbed his tired eyes and let out a heavy sigh.

“You look beat Trivette. Can I get you a fresh cup of coffee?” Sydney asked.

“Thanks Sydney.  That would be great.”

Gage finished what he was doing and joined Trivette at the kitchen table. Sydney delivered a steamy cup of coffee to both men than returned to the stove to stir whatever she was cooking up for lunch.

“How did it go today?” Gage asked. “Any luck finding Gordon?”

“Not yet, but Commander Briscoe’s assistant is calling customs in every city that was listed on their itinerary.  It may take a day or two, but we’ll find him,” Trivette replied.

“What about the memorial service?” Sydney asked as she joined her friends at the table.

“Everything is all set. The service will be at 4:00 o’clock on Christmas Eve. Everyone at Ranger Headquarters already knows, and Alex’s secretary is taking care of notifying all of Alex and Walker’s friends.  The only person left to tell about Walker’s memorial service… is Alex,” Jimmy stated in a hesitant voice.

“What memorial service, Jimmy?” Alex said in a defensive tone as she stood in the kitchen doorway.

“Alex, honey – why don’t you come and sit down,” Trivette suggested as he rushed to the doorway and reached for her hand to guide her to the empty chair at the table.

“I don’t want to sit down,” Alex snapped, as she pulled her hand away from Trivette’s gentle hold.  “What right do you have to organize a memorial service for my husband? His body hasn’t been found. He may still be alive out there somewhere and you’re ready to put him in his grave and just forget about him? What kind of a friend are you Jimmy?” Alex screamed as she ran off in a tear-filled panic to the guestroom. Trivette, Gage and Sydney followed close behind but the door slammed and locked before they could catch up to her.

“Alex, please come out so we can talk about this. I just wanted to help. We need to face the fact that Walker’s gone honey.  The memorial service will give us all a chance to say our good-byes,” Jimmy pleaded with her through the closed door.  His tears were racing down his cheeks as he took in Alex’s pain on top of his own.  They could hear the shower start from the guest bathroom.  When Alex wouldn’t respond – they assumed she had gotten into the shower to block out the sound of their pleas.  Just as they were about to walk away from the door, a heart-wrenching scream transcended the sound of the running water. Alex’s outcries were filled with pain and mourning beyond description. As they became louder and more desperate, Jimmy kicked the door open with one forceful blow.

“Stay here.  I’ll go,” Sydney told the men as she opened the bathroom door and closed it behind her.  Once inside – she found Alex curled up on the floor of the shower crying and screaming uncontrollably. She turned off the water and wrapped a towel around Alex before guiding her out of the shower. Alex took Sydney’s hand and followed willingly: as if she were a helpless child.

Sydney lowered Alex’s trembling body to the floor and cradled her in her arms. They sat together in a desperate embrace while Alex finally released the agonizing pain and grief that had been lurking inside of her for two days. She didn’t want to face the fact that Walker was gone, but the thought of holding a memorial for him jarred her heart into admitting the truth. Her husband wasn’t coming back and she didn’t know how she was going to live without him.

Walker removed his right boot and stocking then submerged his swelling foot into the cold stream.  He cursed at himself for being so careless. His ankle was getting bigger by the second.  The hole he had stepped in hadn’t been very deep but he was moving so quickly that it instantly broke his stride and his ankle twisted beneath him. With better than fifty miles left on his journey, a lame foot was the last thing he needed. He dried his foot with his jacket than quickly redressed it with his sock and boot. If he waited much longer, the swelling would be too severe and he’d never get his boot over it. A sprained ankle wasn’t going to stop him from reaching Nipo and his thugs before they slithered out of Dallas.  “No pain – no gain,” he muttered to himself as he continued his journey with a fresh, well-defined limp.

It was nearly three o’clock before Alex and Sydney emerged from the bathroom. Trivette and Gage were in the living room sitting in silence. Their faces were careworn and laden with worry when the women joined them.  Alex was visibly exhausted from her emotional collapse and it was obvious that Sydney had carried Alex’s pain on her own shoulders.  Their hearts crumbled as the women entered the room.  Sydney sat on Gage’s lap and took his hand in hers. Alex sat beside Jimmy and looked into his pain-filled eyes.

“I’m sorry Jimmy. I didn’t mean those terrible things I said.  I know you miss him just as much as I do,” she cried, as she fell into his outstretched arms. Soft sobs rose from her throat as a fresh batch of tears fell against his shirt.

“It’s okay Alex. You don’t need to apologize.  I understand,” Jimmy comforted her.

“What am I going to do without him, Jimmy? How am I going to go on?” Alex cried softly.

“We’ll get through this Alex.  You don’t have to do this alone.  I’ll always be here for you. I promise,” Jimmy pledged through his own flowing tears.

The sun was on the verge of settling down for the night when Walker stopped to make camp.  Tomorrow was Christmas Eve and he still had another ten or fifteen miles to travel before he reached Mustang Run.  His decision to follow the flow of the stream had added an additional seven or eight miles to his journey, but it provided him with the sustaining water and nourishment he needed to maintain his strength.  His sprained ankle was numb inside his boot from the miles of walking, but he didn’t even attempt to remove it.

After catching and eating two small fish, Walker washed in the stream before turning in for the night.  The sensation of the cold water was startling, yet refreshing against his dusty skin.  A makeshift bed of leaves would feel like the finest feather bed beneath his weary body tonight.  He would turn in early and rise before dawn.  Tomorrow was judgement day for Kurt Nipo and Walker was determined to be on the top of his game. He quickly drifted off to sleep while he unconsciously turned his wedding ring around on his left hand.  Thoughts of Alex lulled him into a deep sleep, and she stayed with him for the night in the midst of his sweet dreams.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

On Christmas Eve morning, Kurt Nipo puffed on a Cuban cigar as he reviewed his exit plan with the few men that he had left.  Walker and his team had silenced better than seventy percent of the men in Nipo’s operation, making it difficult for the remaining men to render a clean sweep of the farmhouse by nightfall.  Kurt Nipo, being the greedy, self-centered derelict that he was, put a positive twist on the demise of his former cohorts. Fewer men meant fewer payoffs.  His lucrative drug ring had done exceptionally well in Dallas and he would leave with a disgustingly exorbitant amount of cash in his pocket. The sandy beaches of the Caribbean were calling his name and he had every intention on answering that call. In less than forty-eight hours, he would be soaking up the sun on a private beach in Antigua.  

Locating Mustang Run was more difficult than Walker had expected. He lurked in the woods behind countless farms for several hours before he found his mark.  The position of the sun told him that it was high noon.  He would only have seven hours before sunset. If Nipo were going to slip out of the Metroplex area, he would do it after nightfall when the police coverage was at bare minimum. Vacation requests and unexpected call-in’s marked Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as the two leanest days of the year for police coverage, and a lifetime con like Nipo would be well versed on these statistics.

Walker surveyed the land and the buildings set on it before he slipped inside of the barn furthest from the main house and closest to the road. Inside, he would plan his attack against Nipo, Banks, and anyone else who got in his way.  He could see the house and two large utility vans from a small side window. From that window he would watch and prepare.  Kurt Nipo’s time was running out and Walker was hell-bent on being the man to take him down.

Sydney knocked on the door of the guestroom and waited for Alex to invite her in. “Is this the dress and shoes that you wanted Alex?” Sydney asked shyly, feeling slightly embarrassed for going through Alex’s personal things.  She had been delivering all of Alex’s clothes since Trivette brought her home from the hospital. Even though she did so at Alex’s request, Sydney still felt uncomfortable going into the bedroom that Alex and Walker once shared. 

“Yes, that’s fine Sydney. Thank you,” Alex answered without even looking at the articles that Sydney was holding.   Alex was sitting up on the bed; her knees pulled to her chin as she stared out the window.  Sydney hung the dress over the chair by the door and sat down beside Alex.

“They located your dad and Olivia in Argentina, Alex.  All of the flights were booked but Commander Briscoe called in a few favors with one of our senators. They’re boarding a government jet as we speak.  They’ll arrive at DFW tomorrow afternoon,” Sydney told her.

“Thank you Sydney.  I’ll be sure to thank Commander Briscoe when I see him at the memorial service,” Alex replied without breaking her stare.

“How are you Alex?” Sydney asked in a concerned voice as she placed her hand on Alex’s knee.

“I was just thinking about the flower garden that Walker and I planted outside that window.  We planted it a little too late to enjoy it this year, but it should be beautiful in the spring.  I guess the rest of the world will go on as if nothing has happened,” Alex said in a distant voice.

“Alex, I’ve never lost a husband, but I do know how painful it is to lose someone close to you.  I was only sixteen years old when my brother was murdered and I never thought that I would ever stop hurting.  It took a long time, but I eventually moved on with my life and I knew that he was watching over me: guiding me in some strange way.  I have a pretty good feeling that Walker is up there looking out for you too,” Sydney consoled her.

“I’m not so sure about that Sydney.  I’ve been trying to reach him; feel him near me in some way, but at the end of the day – I’m still so alone.  I don’t understand how God could send me a wonderful man like Walker then just take him away from me,” Alex answered in a bewildered voice.

“Alex, what you and Walker shared was so special.  I find myself wishing that I could have a relationship like the two of you had together, but I’m always afraid of getting too close to someone.  When things get too serious, I push men away.  But you took the chance Alex. And the love that you and Walker gave to each other in a few short years was so much more than most people have in a lifetime.  If you could start over again - knowing how it was going to end, would you let yourself fall in love with Walker anyway?”  Sydney asked curiously, thinking of her blossoming relationship with Gage and wondering how far she would allow herself to take it.

“In a heartbeat,” Alex answered honestly as she turned to make eye contact with Sydney.

“That’s what I thought,” Sydney replied through a soft smile. The two women embraced for a long moment before Sydney rose from the bed.  “I’ve got to get ready for the memorial service.  I’ll see you in a little while,” she told Alex before she left her alone with her private thoughts.

Alex stretched her legs across the bed so she could place her hands over her abdomen.  She closed her eyes and gently rubbed her belly. “It’s just you and me now little one.  Mommy will always be here for you, and I’m going to tell you all about your amazing daddy” Alex promised her unborn child through a gentle whisper.

The massive church was overflowing with mourners. Hundreds of Walker’s friends, co-workers, and acquaintances took time away from their hectic holiday schedules to pay their respects to a great man.  White Eagle arrived, accompanied by many of Walker’s tribal brothers and sisters from the Cherokee reservation. Countless students from the local colleges who had come to know Walker while he worked on the X-TREME case returned to Dallas to attend. Some had barely made it home for their Christmas break when they heard the tragic news, but they didn’t think twice about where they should spend their Christmas Eve. Uniformed rangers, marines, policemen, and firefighters bedecked the outer

isles of the sanctuary.  Trivette cleared the lump in his throat as he mentally counted the everyday citizens in the church whose lives had been changed by Walker’s God-given talent and unfailing diligence.  He tallied up fifty familiar faces of victims or unfortunates that Walker had helped over the years before he lost count in the center of the crowd.

Reverend Hartman ended the Christian segment of the memorial with a unison prayer.  Immediately following were heartfelt testimonials delivered by White Eagle, Commander Briscoe, and lastly, Sergeant James Trivette.

Alex relinquished the last thread of composure that she was clinging to when Jimmy stood at the podium.  She looked into his heavyhearted expression and broke down before he even began to speak.  Commander Briscoe and Sydney each took one of Alex’s hands in their own. She bowed her head and sobbed quietly as she held on tightly to her supporters.   Alex couldn’t bear to look at Jimmy. Walker was like a brother to him and Alex hadn’t offered him any comfort.  She had been so consumed with her own grief that she had forgotten about Jimmy’s.  With eyes closed, she hung on each ardent word as the memories of a former life spilled from Jimmy’s lips.

“When Walker and I first became partners – I though he was the biggest pain in the butt that the Texas Rangers had ever turned out. A mutual friend named C.D. Parker thought we’d make a great team and he convinced Commander Briscoe into pairing us up without asking either one of us if we were interested.  Neither of us thought so at the time, but we later came to realize that C.D. was right as usual, and we became perfect partners and the tightest of friends. Walker was tough on me at first.  Brutal – to put it mildly. But I soon realized that once I gained his trust – I, in turn, also gained his friendship and his loyalty for life. Sergeant Cordell Walker was a devoted husband, a valued employee, an allegiant citizen of Dallas, and an irreplaceable friend.

Walker was simply a damn good human being. With a tenacious drive and a boundless faith, Walker lived each and every moment of his life for the greater good of mankind.  He truly didn’t know any other way.  I believe that all of us have a calling from God, but only a select few allow themselves to hear that call. Walker heard it loud and clear and he answered that call each and every day of his life. I pray that we can all learn from his superior example.  I’ll miss you brother. God speed.”

Trivette wiped a fresh batch of tears from his eyes as he descended the altar stairs into the sanctuary.  Commander Briscoe moved over in the pew to make room beside Alex for Walker’s partner and closest friend. Jimmy gathered Alex into his arms and they held tightly to each other.  The two people loved most by Walker needed to be as close as they possibly could be for a few precious moments.  Walker was gone forever and each of them was saddled with the burden of making a new life without him. 

Trivette, Josie and Alex followed Sydney and Gage back to Sydney’s apartment.  Josie had suggested that it might do Alex some good to be away from the ranch for a while. Sydney and Josie prepared a light dinner but the abundant leftovers proved that no one was really in the mood to eat.  Alex was silent yet visibly restless while the small group sipped coffee in the living room.  Josie sat close to Trivette, Sydney was nestled against Gage’s side, but Alex sat alone in Sydney’s rocking chair.  Without Walker by her side, she felt uncomfortable and incomplete.  

“I’m feeling a little tired Jimmy. I’d like to go home now if that’s all right,” Alex announced abruptly.

“Sure honey. I just need to stop by my apartment on the way to get some clean clothes,” Jimmy replied.

“Syd and I will join you after we finish cleaning up,” Gage added.

“No,” Alex quickly interrupted.  “I want to go home alone. I need to be by myself for a while.  I’ll be okay.  Really,” Alex told them in an unconvincing voice.

“Alex, your dad will be here by tomorrow afternoon.  Just let me stay with you at the ranch until then.   I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to be alone right now,” Jimmy argued.

“Jimmy, I’m a grown woman. I think I’m old enough to stay home alone for a few hours before my father arrives.  If it’s out of your way – I can take a cab,” Alex said with a sharp tone in her voice.

A heavy silence fell over the room. Alex’s uncharacteristic outburst reminded them that this usually compassionate woman was going through a personal hell that was tearing her apart inside.  She wasn’t herself, and under normal circumstances, she would never intentionally hurt anyone. Even though Jimmy understood, he couldn’t erase the wounded feeling that was swelling in the pit of his stomach.  Alex’s verbal bruising reawakened his feelings of guilt that lurked just beneath the surface of his conscience. He should have been by his partner’s side when he was in trouble.   He would never forgive himself for not being there for Walker.

“I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean to upset you Alex,” Jimmy responded through an injured voice.  “I’ll take you home.”

Alex reached out for Jimmy’s arm as he walked past her to get his coat. He stopped and turned to look into her pain-filled eyes.

“It’s me who should be saying that they’re sorry Jimmy. I shouldn’t have snapped at you.  It’s just that today was very difficult for me, and I’m so tired. All of you have been so wonderful these past few days, but I’m eventually going to have to deal with being alone at the ranch. It’s time Jimmy,” Alex explained through an emotion-filled voice.

“No apologies necessary Alex,” Jimmy said as he took her into his arms. “I’ll bring you home, but you’ve got to promise me that you’ll call if you need me – okay?”

“Okay Jimmy,” Alex promised through her most recent showering of seemingly unstoppable tears.  She had never cried so much in her entire life, and she was beginning to wonder if the tears would ever stop. She had no control over them. They fell whenever her pain became unbearable, which meant that they feel often.

Alex struggled with her urge to tell her friends about the baby. She knew that her news would bring them comfort, but she just couldn’t make the words come. She had to be sure that Walker knew first. White Eagle had always told her that when a man has an abundant spirit on earth, it can only gain strength after he passes, and the essence of his spirit will be ever-present in the hearts of his loved ones. Alex believed this to be true, yet she couldn’t seem to find him in her heart. She resolved herself to the idea that she would only feel Walker’s presence when she truly accepted that he was gone, and her heart wasn’t yet ready to succumb completely to the thought of life without

Walker. The pain was too unbearable as it was, and she needed to be strong for their unborn child. Alex knew in her mind that Walker was gone forever, but allowing her fragile heart to accept the truth would take time.

Night had finally landed on the remote countryside and Walker was more than ready to make his move.  He opened the barn door and slipped into the darkness. Over his shoulder was an old grain sack filled with a handful of useful articles that he had gathered from the barn.  Staying low to the ground, he crept towards the two vans that were parked in front of the main house.  His plan was to first create a diversion – than move into the house to finish the job.

Walker crouched down low in between the two vans.  Reaching into the darkness, he ran his hands alongside each one to confirm what he had hypothesized from his perch in the barn.  The gas tanks were facing each other. Walker searched through his bag of tricks and took out some twine and a small bottle of lamp oil.  After soaking the twine with the flammable liquid, he opened both gas caps and fed the saturated string into the tanks. Walker doused a second piece of rope and tied it to the middle of the strand that connected

the two tanks.  As he eased away from the cars, he allowed the twine to unravel behind him.  Once he reached a safe distance – Walker took cover behind the barn and struck a match.  He lit the makeshift fuse and waited for the fireworks to start.

In less than sixty seconds, an earsplitting procession of explosions blared through the peaceful silence of the countryside. Large chunks of debris catapulted through the sky then quickly fell back to earth with a resounding thud.

When the riotous light show died down to a blazing roar from the burning vehicles, Walker could hear the loud frenzy of startled voices coming from the farmhouse. The front door flew open and a man stumbled out onto the porch with his gun aimlessly pointed into the darkness.  He took cover behind a supporting beam before he scanned the surrounding yard.   Having lost his own revolver in the warehouse explosion, Walker’s only weapons were a strip of heavy chain that he found in the barn, his own body, and his surefire ingenuity.  They would have to do.  At least until he could silence the thug who was on the porch and filch his gun.

“Don’t just stand there Chico! Get your ass out there and find the son of a bitch who did this,” Nipo shouted from inside the house.

“What if there’s more than one of ‘em?” The man called back to Nipo.

“You’ve got six bullets! Use ‘em,” Nipo barked angrily.

The frightened man reluctantly staggered into the yard. Taking cover behind bushes and trees, he moved cautiously towards the barn.   Walker waited patiently with his back to the wall of the barn. He could hear the faint sound of the light frost on the grass crunching beneath Chico’s feet as he came closer. With precision timing, Walker reached out from behind the barn and circled Chico’s neck with the heavy chain as he turned the corner.   Startled by his attacker, Chico struggled to gain control of his gun.  With a swift jolt from his right knee, Walker effortlessly dislodged it from Chico’s hand.

Gasping for air, Chico made a few futile attempts to pull Walkers hands away from his constricted throat before his body went limp.  Walker released the chain and the fresh corpse fell to the ground.  Now armed with a loaded gun, Walker quickly headed for the house to finish the job.

Walker kept low to the ground as he moved towards the back of the house. Overgrown shrubs along the framework made it easy for him to stay out of view from any of the windows.  He was finally close enough to hear voices inside.  He identified Nipo’s voice, and at least two other men. One of them was most likely Arthur Banks.

“Get out there and saddle up the horses,” Nipo shouted.  “Bank’s and I will pack up the cash and the guns.”

“Horses? I’m not riding out of here on a damn horse, Nipo,” another man argued.

“Fine Banks. Stick around if you want. The vans are fried, and after hearing those explosions, the cops should be here any minute.  I’m sure they’ll give you a lift. Or – you can have a seat on the couch and wait for the mercenary who’s running around outside to knock on the goddamn front door.  I’m getting the hell out of here – with our without you!  Here’s your cut of the cash,” Nipo shouted impatiently.

Walker stopped and took cover behind a fence as he neared the back porch. A large man bolted out of the door and jogged towards the barn set behind the house. Holding his gun out in front of him, the man carefully looked over his shoulder as he slipped inside the building.  Walker could only see his silhouette through the darkness, but there was something familiar about the man.

Making sure that he remained invisible to Nipo and Banks, Walker slithered through the backfield towards the barn. Being quieter than the smallest mouse, Walker capitalized on his uncanny ability to enter and infiltrate without being seen or heard by the sharpest of senses.

The man was outfitting the horses for travel by lamplight when Walker closed in from behind.  Walker touched his shoulder with a bold tap, causing the startled man to spin around.  As he made eye contact with his intruder, Walker’s right boot made full contact with his jaw, driving his head back in the direction that it had come from.

“The Rock,” Walker whispered as he delivered another jolt to his opponent’s skull before he could regain his composure.

“I thought you were dead,” Walker commented offhandedly as he dodged a powerful punch.

“I could say the same about you Walker,” The Rock replied just as casually as his fist finally made contact with Walker’s midriff.  Walker’s body jarred forward for a split second and The Rock seized the moment by sweeping his leg under Walker’s, causing him to fall hard and full onto his back. “I’d like to play this out with you Walker. I think you’d actually be a worthy opponent, but I really don’t have time for this,” The Rock said as he drew his gun from its holster and pointed the barrel into the center of Walker’s widened eyes.

“Than you’ll just have to make time,” Walker retorted sarcastically as he scissored The Rock’s legs with his own, bringing him down to the ground beside him.  With his gun still clutched in his hand, The Rock struggled to take aim.  Walker pounced on top of him and grabbed his shooting hand.  The two men wrestled and rolled around on the floor of the barn, each fighting for control of the weapon and the battle.  Their thrashing bodies jarred the hitching post where The Rock had placed the burning lantern.  It fell to the ground and the hay-covered floor was instantly engulfed in flames.  As the heat from the fire intensified beside them, so did the struggle between Walker and The Rock. The gun was sandwiched between them and neither man would release their steadfast grip on it. As the flames crept closer, the gun went off and the battle was finally over.  Walker pushed The Rock’s lifeless body off of his own before he quickly stood up to escape the burning barn.

Walker opened the doors before he released each horse from its stall. Startled by the fire and the gunshot, the horses quickly and willingly bolted from the barn and raced to the freedom of the backfield where the wild Mustangs grazed.

Nipo and Banks were hold up in the main house frantically struggling to regroup after hearing the gunshot and seeing the barn succumb by flames. The inferno lit the outdoors and Nipo could see Walker running from the blaze.

“Damn you Walker,” He shouted angrily. “How the hell did you make it out of that building.

“Let’s slip out the front and get lost in the woods across the road,” Banks suggested anxiously.  “Walker and the cops will be hard-pressed to find us in the dark and we’ll be miles from here by daylight. Those woods go on for miles Nipo. It’s our only chance.”

“You’re right Banks. It is our only chance. But I’ll be damned if I’m gonna be weighted down by a lazy old geezer like you,” Nipo sanctioned as he unexpectedly drew his gun and fired straight into the center of Banks’ chest. An overstuffed satchel of cash fell from Banks’ shoulder and onto his dead body as it hit the floor. Nipo ripped it from the dead man’s arm - gathered his own satchel of dirty money and headed for the front door.

Nipo figured that Walker would enter the house through the back after hearing the shot from inside.  He slipped out the front door and bolted through the yard without looking back.  There was no time to waste.  Walker was fast on his feet and even quicker on the draw.  Taking on Cordell Walker with a small army of men by his side was one thing. Going head to head with him without backup was another. Nipo knew that money and freedom meant more to him than settling an old score with Ranger Walker. Revenge would have to wait for another time and place.

As always, Walker defied the logical moves and did the complete opposite of what his adversary expected of him.  The element of surprise was a crucial edge that he strived to maintain.  As Nipo raced past the smaller barn in the front yard - Walker lunged out from his hiding place that had serviced him well earlier in the night.  Walker and Nipo fell in a tangled mass, landing on Chico's dead body.  Greenbacks spilled from Nipo’s satchels and the intensifying winds helped to guide them into the devouring flames that were still feeding off of the two burning vans.

Nipo struggled to reach his revolver that had been jolted from his hand when he hit the ground.  Walker kicked it out of reach before grabbing Nipo by his throat. Nipo retaliated with a quick knee to Walker’s chest. Walker released his fatal hold and both men scrambled to their feet.

Nipo was the first to attack with a high sweeping kick towards Walker’s head.  Contact was never made as Walker ducked out to the left of the flying foot. Nipo came at him again with a solid punch that landed square on Walker’s jaw. Walker staggered back for only a split second before he delivered three consecutive spinning kicks to Nipo’s head and chest.  Nipo fell through the open door of the barn and landed on the dirt floor with a ghastly thud.  Walker followed him into the dark barn where Nipo had already recovered to his feet.

Both men could barely see the outline of his opponent through the heavy darkness. The moon and the flames from the fire cast only a glimmer of light through the small window on the side of the barn where Walker had watched from earlier in the day. Nipo charged first, pushing Walker several feet across the floor before they landed in an empty stall.  It was Nipo’s turn to circle Walker’s neck with a vice-like grip.  Nipo squeezed as hard as he could, desperately wanting to force the life out of Walker’s body. He knew that only one of them was going to walk out alive and he was determined that it would be him. Unable to see Walker’s face, Nipo kept the pressure on and he prayed that Walker would succumb to death quickly.

Walker waited for the opportune moment to make his move. When Nipo’s tired hands eased their pressure for just a split second, Walker drew in a quick breath, pulled his knees to his chest, planted both feet against Nipo’s abdomen, then launched him into an airborne toss up and over his head. Walker gasped for air and quickly struggled to his feet. He readied himself for Nipo’s counter attack but it didn’t come.  The shape of Nipo’s body lay still in the back of the stall. Walker moved in with caution to assess Nipo's condition.  Before he could reach him, the door flew open and powerful flashlights flooded the barn.

The local police charged in with their guns drawn and they immediately pointed them at Walker.

“Don’t shoot.  I’m Texas Ranger Cordell Walker,” he announced as he put his hands up to show that he was unarmed.

“Ranger Walker is dead,” the Sheriff stated. “It’s all over the news.”

“My death in the Jackson Street warehouse was staged to make Nipo believe that I was out of the way.  I’m very much alive,” Walker sanctioned with a tired smile on his face.

The Sheriff moved closer as he flashed his light in Walker’s face. He immediately recognized the celebrated Ranger from the endless media coverage that he always managed to attract. The Sheriff instructed his men to stand down.

Walker looked over to where Nipo lay motionless. With the aid of the bright police lights, he saw that Nipo was dead.  He had landed on a pitchfork that must have been carelessly left with the prongs facing upright on the floor of the stall. Five blunt tines protruded through his bloody chest. Kurt Nipo and his lethal drug XTREME were finally extinct.  Walker had kept his promise to the families and the students of Dallas – and to himself.  His work was done here. It was time to go home.

The Sheriff at the scene followed standard operating procedures and notified the law enforcement department who held jurisdiction over the Nipo case. John Briscoe, Commander of the Company B Texas Rangers was reading in bed and answered on the second ring.

“Briscoe.”

“Commander Briscoe, this is Sheriff Waters from Sherman.  I’m calling to inform you that we have just secured the bodies of Kurt Nipo, Arthur Banks, and two accomplices,” The Sheriff informed him.

“Great work, Sheriff Waters,” Briscoe praised him. “This is quite a Christmas present.”

“We’re just here for the cleanup Commander. It was your man Walker who took them out single-handed,” Waters admitted.

“What?” Briscoe shouted as he sat at attention in his bed. “That isn’t possible Sheriff.  Cordell Walker was killed in the Jackson Street explosion. I’m sure you saw it all over the news.  You must be mistaken,” Briscoe said in an adamant voice.

“No. There’s no mistake Commander. I’ve seen Ranger Walker on the news and in the papers more times than I can count and I’m telling you… he’s very much alive. Would you like to speak with him sir?” The Sheriff asked.

“I sure as hell would,” Briscoe replied. “Put him on the phone.”

“Commander Briscoe, the Sheriff tells me that you think I’m dead. I’m sorry sir. I told Alex and Trivette to keep my plans to track down Nipo a secret, but I didn’t think they would keep it from you too,” Walker answered honestly.

“What the hell are you talking about Walker?” Briscoe shouted in a confused yet relieved voice. “I just left your wife and Ranger Trivette a few hours ago. They held a memorial service for you today. There’s no way that either of them knew that you were alive.”

“Oh my God!” Walker blurted out in a panic. “I sent them both an email, and I even followed up with a letter to Alex sent by a private courier. Are you sure they weren’t just playing along so Nipo would truly believe that I was dead?”

“Walker, there wasn’t a dry eye in that church this afternoon – mine included, and your wife was in so much pain that it killed me to even look at her. Trivette had my assistant find Alex’s father. We’re flying him and his wife home tomorrow morning on a goddamn government plane. Nobody was acting Walker. I don’t know what happened to your emails or your letter, but I can guarantee you this. Your wife and all of your friends and co-workers have suffered tremendously for the last four days because they were convinced that

you were killed in that explosion. You’ve got some explaining to do with me, but I suggest you start by telling your wife and your partner that you’ve returned from the dead. I’ll see you in my office first thing Monday morning. Oh – there’s one more thing…”

“Yes sir?” Walker asked – afraid of what other bombshells the Commander might have up his sleeve.

“As always – you do amazing work Walker. Merry Christmas! Go home and talk to your wife. She could use a very special Christmas present right about now,” Briscoe finished through a calmer tone of voice.

“Thank you Commander,” Walker said humbly before ending the call.

“Sheriff – Can I borrow your cell phone? And can I hitch a ride back to Dallas?” Walker asked, as he climbed into the passenger seat of the squad car before the Sheriff could oblige him with a response.  His heart was breaking from the pain he had unintentionally caused everyone: Especially his wife - and he needed to get home to her and end her suffering.

“Sure Ranger Walker. Hop in!” The Sheriff said with a smile as he joined the anxious Ranger in the front seat. He passed Walker his cell phone and started the ignition. The small-town Sheriff had been part of a major drug bust, and now he was given the honor of driving the celebrated Ranger Walker home on Christmas Eve. What a story he would have to tell his children on Christmas morning.

Trivette and Josie had fallen asleep on the sofa after dropping Alex off at home. Trivette's sleep was a restless one. He was plagued with worry over Alex's state of mind after Walker's memorial service. Gordon wouldn't arrive until Christmas Day and he hated leaving Alex alone at the ranch but she had insisted that she needed to be alone. He woke instantly at the sound of the first ring of the telephone.

"Trivette," he answered anxiously.

"Trivette, it's Walker... I'm alive."

"Walker! Brother! - Is it really you?" Jimmy shouted as he sprang from the sofa. His adrenaline level instantly sky rocketed at the sound of his partner's voice, making it physically impossible for him to stay still. Josie woke up at the sound of Jimmy's excitement and she struggled to get his attention so she could find out what the commotion was all about.

“It’s really me, Trivette. I’m fine and I’m on my way home to see Alex. How…how is she?” Walker asked cautiously.  Almost afraid of Trivette’s reply.

“She’s had it rough Walker, but she’s an amazing lady. She really loves you - you big jerk!   What the heck happened to you brother?  How did you manage to get out of that warehouse? And where have you been for the past four days?” Trivette blurted out. Once the relief set in, the unanswered questions came rushing to the surface.

“I’ll fill you in on everything tomorrow. I just want to get home to Alex. Can you call Sydney and Gage for me?”

“It would be my pleasure partner. Merry Christmas Walker. It’s great to have you back.”  Tears of joy and relief glistened in the corner of Trivette’s eyes as he hung up the phone.  Having overheard the wonderful news, Josie came to him and wrapped her arms tightly around him. Crying and laughing at the same time - Trivette lifted Josie up off of the floor and spun her around the room. He gently set her down and gave her a spirited kiss on her cheek.

“This is going to be the best Christmas ever,” He told her.

“It already is,” Josie replied, before delivering a much more intimate kiss to his smiling lips.

Alex cradled her favorite wedding picture against her breast as her seemingly endless tears spilled onto her pillow.  She closed her eyes and tried to imagine that Walker’s arms were wrapped tightly around her body. The memories were easy to retrieve, but the physical sensation was missing. She sobbed uncontrollably as she realized that the beautiful memories were all she had left.  Alex climbed out of the bed in the guestroom and headed for the staircase that led to hers and Walkers bedroom.  She hadn’t stepped foot inside it since she was told that Walker was gone.  It was time to go back.  Back in time, and back to the one place where she could feel his presence.

 

CHAPTER TWENTY-TWO

 

Alex paused at the doorway of her bedroom.  She placed a trembling hand on the doorknob, but couldn’t bring herself to turn it open. This room had been theirs and only theirs. It was their private little world where they had nurtured their love and bared their fundamental souls to one another. Behind this door lay all of the once promising dreams and plans they had made together that were abruptly erased from her future before they were barely even allowed to begin.  Alex rested her weary head against the door and wept quietly. 

After a few moments, she turned the door open, cautiously stepping over the threshold. A rush of familiar aromas filled her senses, nearly causing her weakened legs to give out beneath her drained body.  The scents of their togetherness flooded her nostrils and jolted her heart into a state of numbing shock.  Walker’s after-shave, her perfume, his fine leather boots, her makeup… all mingling together to create the sweet, blended musk of two people sharing one small space.  Alex closed her swollen eyes and inhaled the fragrant air deep into her craving lungs. She needed to make an everlasting memory of this beautiful aroma before it faded away with the relentless realm of time.

Walker’s closet door was still open from his quick exit on their last morning together.  Alex took off her robe and hung it on the back of the door. She reached inside for Walker’s robe and brought it to her face. Though Walker’s essence dominated the fabric, Alex could smell her own shampoo and mild soap mingled delicately into the cloth.  She remembered the morning of their anniversary.  After showering, they’d returned to bed to snuggle for a little

while.  Walker had put on his robe. Her hair was still wet when she’d rested her head on his welcoming chest and nuzzled into her favorite place in the midst of his loving arms.

She wiped her flowing tears on the cloth, adding a little more of herself to its essence before she carefully put in on and tied it securely around her waist.  Soon, the scent of him would be gone and only hers would linger to painfully remind her that he had been taken away without warning.

Alex opened her Jewelry box and took out the tiny case that protected her incomplete collection stones.  She counted them with her finger. “Seven… there were only seven.  She was supposed to have sixty stones -- not seven.  How could he leave her so soon?”  Alex rubbed the stones between her fingers as she thought about all of the times Walker had been brutally faced with death.  When he had fallen off the bridge in the car after rescuing a little girl and her mother; when he had stopped breathing after being buried alive in the underground well while saving a little boy who was trapped inside, and when a homemade bomb exploded in his hands that temporarily robbed him of his vision. All of those times, she was right by his side willing him to live.  This time, she wasn’t given that chance. Alex wondered if she’d been there with him, could she have saved him with her undying love?  All of the “what ifs” kept haunting her.

Alex thought about what she would do with her precious stones. She decided that she would make them into a tiny bracelet for the baby; a bracelet that would symbolize the endless love that created his or her life. She put the loose stones in the pocket of her husband’s robe and slowly turned towards their unmade bed.

Walker’s feather pillow was still creased from the weight of his head that had rested comfortably upon it on that final morning, four endless days beforehand. It looked as if he had just gotten out of bed.  ‘Why had he been taken from her? Why did she have to sacrifice her husband for her unborn child?’

It was as if God had limited the amount of happiness she could have; choosing her fate, without even consulting her heart for an opinion. Alex picked up his pillow and quickly headed for the doorway; unable to stay inside of their bedroom for a second longer.  It broke her heart to look at their empty bed. She couldn’t imagine laying in it without her husband by her side.

Alex slowly descended the stairs while she tightly gripped onto the railing, afraid that her weary body would plunge to the bottom if she eased up on her severe grasp. As she neared the landing, her body froze on the last step where she lowered herself down before she would surely collapse from the knifelike pain in her heart. The words of a song hauntingly surged through her, temporarily stopping her breathing. The radio had been turned on to keep her company.  Now, instead of comfort, it brutally forced her deepest feelings out of her soul, and then back into her body through a disgustingly sweet melody played over the airwaves. It was as if it was being played to torture her. She slumped her upper body forward into her lap, burying her face against Walker’s pillow. As her tears flooded the soft fabric, the scents of her beloved were released three-fold, overwhelming her with his presence. It was as if he was here with her. Alex clenched the pillow with both hands and sobbed uncontrollably as each and every word of the song cut a deep, tormenting wound into her harshly abandoned heart.

 

If I had only known

It was the last walk in the rain

I’d keep you out for hours in the storm

I would hold your hand like a lifeline to my heart

Underneath the thunder, we’d be warm

If I had only known…

It was the last walk in the rain

 

If I had only known

I’d never hear your voice again

I’d memorize each thing you ever said

And on those lonely nights

I could think of them once more

And keep your words alive inside my head

If I had only known…

I’d never hear your voice again

 

You were the treasure in my hand

You were the one who always stood beside me

I was so unaware….

I foolishly believed that you would always be there

But then there came a day that I turned my head

And you slipped away

 

If I had only known

It was my last night by your side

I’d pray a miracle would stop the dawn

And when you smiled at me

I would look into your eyes

And make sure you know my love for you goes on and on…

If I had only known..

If I had only known………..

All the love I would have shown…

If I had only known………

 

Her ominous sobbing overpowered the sounds of the radio, filling the empty house with her immeasurable pain.  Alex fell into a deep trace, willing her husband back home to her with her entire heart and soul… pretending he would walk through the front door any minute to collect her forlorn body into his powerful arms and tell her that everything would be all right.  She knew that she was only dreaming. She was brutally awake, yet the only way she could endure the intense pain in her chest was to pretend that she had a life to look forward to when she was mercilessly forced to accept tomorrow.

Walker thanked the Sheriff for delivering him home swiftly and safely. He shook his hand, jumped out of the cruiser and sprinted towards the front porch of his ranch.  He scrambled under the windowsill for the spare key before he placed it in the deadbolt. The tumbler clicked into position as Walker held his breath, wondering how he was going to face his emotionally injured wife.  He placed his hand on the doorknob and swallowed hard before turning it open. He couldn’t let her suffer a second longer.

Alex heard the key maneuvering in the lock. Trivette knew where she kept the spare key.  He must have had second thoughts about leaving her alone. If he saw her like this, he would never leave.  She pulled herself up off the step and frantically wiped her tear-sodden eyes on Walker’s pillow.  She tucked it under her arm, trying to appear like she was going to the couch to sleep.

She struggled to take a deep, controlling breath that caused a sharp spasm in her chest cavity.  Still supporting herself with the aid of the railing, she tried to stand tall when the door flung open.

As Walker stepped into the light of the house from the shadowy darkness, Alex blinked her eyes severely in an attempt to clear her obviously vulnerable focus. When she opened them, the mortal image of her husband was still before her, causing her body to give way beneath her. She fell fast onto the stairs as Walker watched all of the color drain from her reddened cheeks.

“Oh my God,” Alex whispered almost inaudibly. The only thing that kept her from plunging forward onto the floor was her vise-like grasp on one of the spindles on the banister.  ‘Was she dreaming? If she were, she would never forgive God for playing such a cruel and unmerciful trick on her fragile emotions.’ Her breathing was overworked and turbulent. She was hyperventilating from the sudden trauma.

“Alex,” Walker called out her name as he raced to her side, leaving the front door wide open.  He sat adjacent to her on the step and immediately gathered her into him supportive arms, fearing she would pass out from the surprise of his apparent return from the dead.  As she surrendered herself into his desperate embrace, she felt the genuine warmth of his familiar touch and the safekeeping pressure of his devoted arms cocooning her securely inside of them. She was sure she wasn’t dreaming. ‘He was alive!‘ Her uncontrolled respiration’s were cruelly prolonged as she found herself in the same state of overwhelming shock that she had been forsaken with when Trivette had told her that Walker was gone forever.

“Honey, take a deep breath. You need to take a deep breath.” Tears of anguish filled Walker’s eyes as he held her upright, allowing the fresh air clear passage into her contracting lungs.  After a little while, the heaving from her chest eased up to where she was only forcing out occasional exchanges of air.  As her breathing regulated, the geyser of tears that had been building up from her tremendous relief were finally allowed to flow freely.  He gently rocked her in his steady arms while his own remorseful tears darkened her gold spun hair.

As Alex began to relax in Walker’s embrace, he could feel her body shiver from the cold air that was filling the house through the open door.  He tried to release her immovable grasp from around his neck so he could get up and close the door. She tightened her hold, not yet ready to let go of him.  He opened his coat, allowing her to snuggle herself inside of it to stay warm.

“Walker”, Alex whispered in a horse voice.  “What happened to you?  We thought you were gone.  These past four days have been so unbearable.  Where have you been? How did you get away?”

Walker held her close as he carefully told her about his plan to finally end Nipo’s crusade.  He told her how he’d felt the only way he could have the upper hand was if Nipo thought he were dead.  He told her about the email and the note he had given to the messenger boy that was intended for her.

Then he told her through his now steady tears, how distraught he felt for handling things the way he did.

“I’m so sorry sweetheart.  The last thing I wanted to do was to hurt you.”

Tears were coursing Walker’s cheeks as Alex sat frozen on the step in front of him. The pain in her eyes tore through him, as she looked up at him in unqualified disbelief. After a moment, she bolted up from the step and held her reeling head in her trembling hands. She panicked once again, as the astonishing reality of her husband’s story sank deep into her heart.

“You mean weren’t being held captive? You weren’t lying unconscious somewhere? You were walking around of your own free will and you couldn’t call and let me know that you were alive?”

“Alex, please listen to me…” Walker stood up and moved towards her, his hands reaching out for her.  She pushed him away and paced aimlessly around the entryway of the ranch.  She stopped in front of the open door and stared out into the blackness. He knew how much he’d hurt her and having her push him away fed burning fuel to the immeasurable torment he was already feeling.  He wanted to hold her and protect her from any more pain, but he knew that she had to sort it all out for herself before she would allow him to be near her.

“I can’t do this anymore, Walker. I can’t be married to you anymore,”

Alex cried.  Her staggering announcement had involuntarily escaped her lips, provoked by her hysteria. She turned to face her thunderstruck husband; though she couldn’t raise her heavy head to meet the injured look in his grieving eyes.

“Sweetheart, please don’t say that. I could never expect you to forgive me for what I’ve done, but I love you more then life, and I could never survive without you.”

“Oh yes you could.”

“Alex...”

Her words ripped through his chest like potent bullets through naked flesh. He couldn’t move or speak another word. Only her name escaped from his trembling lips. All he could do was stand there and listen while his heart fragmented into worthless pieces of once vital tissue.

“The only time that you’re really a part of this marriage is when you’re here with me. When you’re out doing your job, it’s like I don’t even exist. You completely forget about the fact that you have a wife who loves and worries about you every time you step out that door.  You can’t think of anything else but your work, which is why you’re so damned good at it, but I can’t be second anymore. You think you’re indestructible. Well you’re not! And I’m not.  I can’t go through this again, Walker. I can’t loose you ten times over, only to find out at the eleventh hour that you’ve beaten the odds once again.  When will your time run out?  I can’t just sit back and wonder when that day will finally come, and I can’t be the most important thing in your life only when you’re with me.”

“That’s not true, Alex.” Walker’s voice cracked with tremendous emotion as he tried to surrender his true feelings for her.  She interrupted him before he could compose himself to speak again.

“Yes…it is true Walker.  You’re standing here in front of me after being presumed dead for the past four days by the people in the world who love you the most.  If you were really thinking of me or your friends you’d have made sure we knew you were okay.”

“Alex, you and I have just started our lives together as husband and wife. Please, don’t give up on me. I know I get carried away when it comes to my work, but I need to tell you that I’ve decided………”

“It’s not just about you and me anymore, don’t you see?” Alex pleaded through her all-consuming tears of pain.  “What am I suppose to tell our child the next time you’re missing for days on end and we don’t know if you’re dead or alive?”

“Our child? Alex…what are you saying?”

“Oh my God,” Alex gasped for air as she brought her hands to her mouth.  Her once joyous news had been blurted out in a moment of distraught anger.

“This wasn’t the way it was supposed to happen. This wasn’t the way you were supposed to hear this. You were supposed to be home that night. I had a candlelight dinner ready for you and I was going to tell you about the baby. You were supposed to be here with me!”

Her tears escalated as the horrifying memory of that night flooded back into her heart. She remembered her feelings of excitement and joy…then later, her absolute terror. All of those emotions were mixing together to cloud her judgment and shadow her heart from knowing what should come next.

Alex stared into her husband’s shattered expression.  For the first time since she’d known him, he looked defeated and helpless. She was so grateful that he was alive, yet so angry with him for putting her through all of this. Her heart was pounding and her mind was spinning into a state of agonizing confusion.  If she stayed near him for a second longer she knew that she would rush into his arms and hold onto him for dear life. Alex raced out of the front door and ran as fast as she could to hide in the cover of the darkness that cloaked the outside.

The length of Walker’s robe hindered Alex’s frantic stride.  She tripped on the dragging fabric and fell to the ground where she buried her face in her arms beneath her and finally released the inevitable tears that had concealed the essence of her heartache. Her shiny stones fell from her pocket and scattered onto the ground.

Walker turned on the porch light and rushed out of the door after her. He knelt down beside her and placed his hand on her back.

“Alex, are you alright?”

“Please Walker, Leave me alone. I can’t see you right now.”

“I know.” He choked back his response as her impetuous words singed his blameworthy heart.  He deserved all of the sobering pain he was feeling after causing her so much torment.

“No, you don’t know. You don’t know what it feels like to have a part of yourself ripped away without any warning. You don’t know how it feels to suddenly be responsible for another life when you can’t imagine living another day. You don’t know what it’s like waking up after only minutes of sleep, never knowing if the ache in your heart is ever going to ease up so you can breathe without it hurting.” She burrowed her tear-strewn face deeper into her tightly tucked arms.

“I’m so sorry.”  Walker’s voice trailed off into the night as he hung his head to his chest, ashamed of the way things had turned out.  He’d gotten the criminal, but he was seemingly losing the love of his life because of his careless actions. As he stared at the ground, he noticed her glittering stones reflecting off of the light from the porch. Walker gathered them in his hands and brushed his fingers over the cool, polished gems.

“You don’t have to look at me, but I need to ask you to please just hear me out.” After a prolonged, painful moment, he took her silence as acceptance that she would listen.

“Do you remember our one-month anniversary when I gave you your first stone? You gave me a speech about how you could never grow tired of me because you can’t nearly get enough of me.  I couldn’t imagine how that could ever be true, but I knew that I felt exactly the same way about you.  While I was traveling through the woods tracking Nipo, I’d make camp at night and lie awake looking up at the stars.  All I could do was think of you: The graceful way you move across a room, your laugh, and your beautiful face…  I missed the sound of your voice and the warmth of your breath on my neck when I’m holding you in my arms. I missed the smell of your perfume lingering on my shirt for hours after you’ve given me a hug. I know you’ve caught me watching you sleep on a few occasions, but the truth is, I wake up most mornings before the alarm just to look at you sleeping in our bed beside me. Every time I’d stare at you lying there like an angel, I’d ask God what amazing things could I have possibly done to deserve someone like you. Everything I’ve put you through over the years, you stuck with me and you never asked me to change who I am. I figured it would only be a matter of time before it got to be too much for you. I thanked God for everyday that you were still here. I was so busy wondering how I was ever going to hold on to you, that I ignored the obvious. Instead of worrying how I wasn’t worthy of your love, all I had to do was make myself worthy. You’re my world Alex. You’ve become the center of who I am.  You’re my strength and my weakness. I could never go back to my life before you came. You’ve changed me and you’ve changed my priorities in life. I use to live my life to be the best Texas Ranger I could possibly be. I thought my mission was to help people in need and to help bring peace into this world. That’s all admirable and important but it’s not going to sustain me when I’m old and gray and alone because I couldn’t stop long enough love someone completely and unselfishly. It’s all about balance, Alex. And you’re my balance. Everyone wants to make a place in this world and I thought my place was to fight off the universe. Well its not. At least not anymore. My place is with you, and now, our baby. Commander Briscoe is retiring in March and I'm first in line for the job. I've decided to take it Alex. I've had plenty of time on my hands to think about it while I was hiking through the woods. It’s time for me to back away from the rat race and let the younger folks get their knees scuffed up. I think I can do a lot of good overseeing all of the Rangers in the company instead of being one of them.  I just wanted you to know that.”

Alex turned her cheek, uncovering her face from the hollow of her arms as she rested her head to one side, facing away from her husband.  She wasn’t ready to look at him, but he had gotten her full attention. Calmer now, she hung on his every word.

“I’ve always known that I couldn’t be a Texas Ranger forever. I couldn’t imagine what I was going to do when I would have to retire so I just avoided thinking about it.  Now I know exactly what I want to do.  No…what I NEED to do. I need to love you everyday, more then the day before. I need to show our child how to ride horses and make apple pancakes.  I want to teach him what an honor it is to be a Cherokee Indian.  I want him to learn the martial arts and teach him how to fish and how to plant beautiful flowers for his mama …..I want!  I’m being selfish again.  You’ve just told me I’m going to be a father and I’m automatically assuming that you want me to be a part of all of this when I haven’t earned it.  I’m sorry.  Here I go, expecting you to except me as I am, no matter how much I’ve hurt you.  I only have one more thing to say, and then I’ll be quiet. Whatever you want me to do…if you want me to go…I will.”

He meant what he said but it was obvious that it took all of his strength and selflessness to say it. Leaving her was the last thing he could ever imagine doing.

“Just let me finish, and I won’t cause you any more pain, I promise. What I wanted to tell you was that I don’t know how I’ve managed to survive all of the situations I’ve gotten myself into over the years.  I’d like to think that it just wasn’t my time, or maybe God had other things in store for me.  But the one thing I’m sure of is that I would never have survived any of it if you weren’t here with me.  I couldn’t use my Cherokee intuition or my martial arts to pull me up from that fall.  I just got it all figured out, Alex……and now you tell me that we’re going to have a baby.  Now I know I’ve made the right decision. I truly believe that this is where I’m supposed to be from now on. I just hope I haven’t realized it too late. I’m so sorry for everything I’ve put you through these past few days.  I know I don’t deserve your forgiveness, but I’m begging you Alex…….please……..  give me… another chance.” 

His voice trembled as he struggled to get out his final plea. He dropped his chin to his chest and sobbed quietly.

Alex’s heart was filled with him. She’d never heard him weep openly before. He’d always fought so hard to control his emotions, but not this time. They flowed freely and honestly from the basis of his soul. She pulled her body up from the ground and turned towards him.  He looked so vulnerable, so battered.  Alex reached out for him and drew him into to her tender, forgiving embrace. Walker threw his arms around her waist and held on tight, breathing a grateful sigh of relief. Just moments before, he wasn’t sure that he’d ever be given the chance to hold her again. 

“It could never be too late for us Walker. I’m sorry too, for what I said about not being able to be married to you anymore. I didn’t know what I was saying. I was so afraid and confused. I thought I’d lost you forever. All I could think of was how I could never live through that again.  The God’s honest truth is… as long as we’re both walking this earth; I could never stand being apart from you.  I need your love to survive and our baby needs his daddy. We’re a family, and I know our love for one another will carry us through this and anything else that comes our way.”

Alex’s tears returned to her eyes, but this time they were tears of clarity instead of tears of pain.  Walker eased away from her arms to draw her mouth to his for a desperate, passionate kiss.  Both of them needed to be as close as they could possibly be. It was as if they were furiously striving to climb inside of the other’s soul.  As they kissed fiercely, their tears mingled together on their cheeks, sealing their mutual promise of eternal love for one another.  After several moments, Walker reluctantly parted his lips from hers before he lifted Alex up from the cold ground; resting her in his lap to warm her body with his own.  She snuggled her arms around his neck and nestled her face against his heart. They held each other for a long while, savoring their oneness. 

Walker finally broke the stillness by gently removing one of Alex’s hands from his shoulder.  

“Here. These belong to you,” he whispered as he placed her priceless stones into her open hand.  He closed it for her, covering her hand with his own.      

“Take good care of them, okay? We’ve got a lot of things to do together before you’ll have enough to finish your necklace.”

“Then what?” Alex asked cautiously.

“Then…I’ll make you another, and another, and ten more after that. I’m going to do what ever it takes to hold onto you forever. Even if it means weighting you down in your rocking chair with twenty necklaces.”

He brushed her lips ever so gently with his own before rising up to carry her into the house.  They snuggled together on the couch; both fighting off sleep so they could be conscious of the other’s body safely nestled beside them.

“I can’t believe we’re going to have a baby,” Walker said with amazement. “How far along are we?”

“Almost six weeks… It was the roses,” Alex confessed to him with a soft smile as she brushed his handsome face with the back of her hand. “I love you madly Cordell Walker,” she pledged, as she melted under his heart-warming gaze.

“And I will love you with all my heart until the end of time Alexandra Walker...longer if you’ll let me.”    

“Bring it on Cowboy. I’m ready, willing and able.”

They shared a warm laugh together.  Such a tiny gesture carried a lot of weight after all of the sadness and pain they had worked through.  Walker pulled her closer to him and rubbed her back, encouraging her to sleep. She’d been through so much, and she and their tiny baby growing inside of her desperately needed some rest.

Walker glanced at his watch. It was 11:58PM.  “Almost Christmas Day,” he whispered to himself before closing his eyes to offer his silent prayer of thanks to God for the amazing gifts he had been granted.  He looked down at Alex’s peaceful, angelic face.  She was fast asleep, molded perfectly into the defined slopes of his larger frame.  He smiled contentedly as he embraced her sleeping body.  He knew he was holding his entire future in his arms.

Even though he had made himself quite comfortable nuzzled in close to his wife, a hot shower was beckoning him after four long days in the wilderness. He had washed in the rivers and streams, but his tired, aching body craved some relief from the hot water and a proper cleansing before he could rest easily beside her.

Being careful not to wake her, Walker slipped away from her arms and covered her with a warm quilt before he delicately kissed her forehead and headed upstairs.

He stood still in the shower for a long time, allowing the invigorating steam to relieve the tension in his aching muscles. Just as Walker was ready to turn off the water and get out of the shower, he heard the bathroom doors close. He opened the shower door to find Alex standing in front of him with her arms protectively folded across her chest.  Her eyes were filled with sleep, but as he looked closer, he saw that they were also laced with a trace of fear.

“What’s that matter sweetheart? Couldn’t you sleep?”

“I woke up and you weren’t there.  I thought I was dreaming… I thought……you weren’t really here with me.”

“Come here…” Walker reached out to his discomfited wife from the steeping shower and helped her to remove her robe and nightshirt. He took her hand and guided her into the shower with him. “I’m really here Alex. I’m not going anywhere.”

Walker pulled her in close and wrapped his arms securely around her. 

They stood molded together in silence as the hot water cascaded over them, washing away all of the fear and the pain.  After a long while, the water began to turn cooler. Walker could tell by the weight of Alex’s body against his that she was finally relaxed. She was nearly asleep in his supporting arms. He needed to get her to bed so she could finally rest.

“Alex, honey, the water’s getting cold.”

Walker turned the water off and stepped out of the shower. He held his wife’s hands and carefully guided her out. Walker wrapped her in an oversized towel and sat her sleepy body down on her makeup chair while he quickly dried himself and put on his sweatpants.  He then dried her with a tender touch and covered her nakedness with the soft warmth of his terry robe.  Walker lifted his exhausted lady into his arms and carried her back to the sofa where he lay her down before nestling in beside her. He covered them with a quilt and he kissed her sweetly as he brushed a wisp of wet hair away from her tired eyes.

“Merry Christmas sweetheart.  You sleep now.  I’ll be right here with you. I promise… okay?” Walker whispered.

“Okay,” she whispered through an all-consuming yawn.  “I love you Walker.”

“I love you too, Alex.” 

He watched her as she slept until he couldn’t stand the anticipation any longer. He turned back the blanket and cautiously untied the sash of his oversized robe from Alex’s waist.  Being careful not to wake her, he slid the fabric aside, exposing her firm abdomen.  He cupped his curious hand over her tummy, imagining how it would feel when it was round and laden with their growing child. Walker couldn’t wait to watch her belly swell as their tiny miracle developed inside of her nurturing womb. Leaving the robe open and her naked body exposed, he eased her in closer so he could feel her warm velvety flesh against his own bare chest and belly.  “A Baby!” He whispered quietly in amazement.  A single teardrop escaped from the corner of his eye and fell onto his wife’s milk-white cheek.

Walker pulled the covers up over them before locking Alex safely inside of his protective embrace. As sleep overtook him, a truth-telling song played ever so softly on the radio. He strained to hear each word as he settled into a state of affirmed completeness. The lyrics echoed the significant road they had traveled together as lovers, and the passionate words continued on to tell the inevitable, sweet story of their inescapable destiny.

 

These times are troubled,

These times are good.

They’re always gonna be…

They rise and they fall.

We take ‘em all,

The way that we should.

Together you and me…

Forsaking them all.

 

Deep in the night..

And by the light of day,

It always looks the same,

True love always does.

Here by your side…

Or a million miles away,

Nothing’s ever gonna change the way that I feel,

The way it is, is the way that it was…

 

When I said I do,

I meant that I will…

Till the end of all time.

Be faithful and true,

Devoted to you,

That’s what’s I had in mind…

When I said I do.

 

This old world keeps changing,

And the world stays the same,

For all whose come before…

And it goes hand and hand.

Only you and I can undo

All that we became,

That makes us so much more….

Then a woman and a man.

 

And after everything,

That comes and goes around…

Has only passed us by,

Here alone in our dreams…

I know there’s a lonely heart

In every lost and found,

But forever you and I will be the ones…

Who found out what forever means.

 

When I said I do,

I meant that I will,

Till the end of all time…

Be faithful and true,

Devoted to you,

That’s what I had in mind…

When I said I do.

 

Truer then true,

You know that I’ll always be there for you…

 

That’s what I had in mind

That’s what I had in mind

When I said I do.

 

Though the loving couple lay cramped and tangled together in the narrow confines of the small sofa, each would be graced with the most satisfying and restful sleep. They were both where they truly belonged: Safe in the everlasting sanctuary of each other’s comforting arms.

 

The End