(Author's note:  This story is very special to me because the idea came from a friend who has since  "crossed the river".  Though she never got to read it, I think she would've been pleased with the final result.  This story was published in OUCH #5, a multi-media zine published by Neon RainBOW Press and won the Fan-Quality award at this year's Media West fan convention for best WTR story.)

SHADES OF GRAY

by Londa Pfeffer

(NiteOwl721@aol.com)

          C.D.'s Bar and Grill had a boisterous crowd even for a Friday night.  Alexandra Cahill sat alone at the bar, letting the noise and music flow around her.  She'd barely touched her drink.  She supposed she'd be better off at home, she just hadn't gotten around to leaving yet.

          "Hey, Alex.  Wanna dance?"  Texas Ranger Jimmy Trivette appeared at her elbow.

          "Hi, Jimmy."  The blonde smiled apologetically.  "Not really."

          "C'mon," the black man urged.  "It'll make Walker jealous."

          "Jimmy!" she protested, trying to appear scandalized.  Then she relented.  "It wouldn't work.  Besides, he just left.  You know how he loves this music," she said sarcastically.

          Trivette nodded.  How well he knew!  "Hey, don't give up on him yet!  We got him country dancing, right?"

          The blonde laughed, nodding.  "I think it would take a miracle to get him out on the dance floor with this music, though."

          "Well, that's why I asked you.  C'mon, whaddya say?  I know you love this stuff, too."

          He made it difficult to refuse, and she gave in gracefully.  "Okay."

          "Thatta girl!"

          Jimmy moved with an easy grace and style and Alex enjoyed partnering him on the dance floor.  Especially nights like this when C.D. played a mixture of country and popular music.  It gave her a chance to forget everything and just enjoy the physical sensations.

          They returned to Alex's table on a break between songs, laughing and breathless.

          "Whew!" Jimmy said, wiping his brow.

          "I agree!"  Alex took a sip of her drink then leaned over, kissing Trivette on the cheek.

          "What's that for?" he asked, surprised.

          She shrugged.  "For being here.  And for being my friend."

          "Hey, that's no hardship!"  He took a closer look.  "Is everything okay, Alex?"

          "Rough day in court," the woman shrugged, toying with the straw in her drink.  "I had to plea-bargain a case that should have gone to trial."

          "Which one?"

          "The Nolan case," she slowly answered, dreading his reaction.

          The Ranger choked on his drink.  "The neo-Nazi arsonist?!  Alex, tell me you're not serious.  That guy should have gone away for murder."

          She nodded.  "I know.  I'm not any happier about it than you are, trust me.  But we didn't have enough solid evidence.  It was either plea-bargain or risk having the case dismissed outright."

          "Damn!"  Jimmy cut off saying anything else, not wanting to upset Alex further.  The miserable look on her face spoke for itself.  He reached out, cupping her face in an uncharacteristic gesture.  "Hey, don't punish yourself.  You did what you could, Counselor."

          "I know.  But when I think of that animal being eligible for parole in five to ten years, instead of serving life--" 

          "Yeah, well maybe we'll get lucky and he'll cross the wrong people inside,"  the Ranger replied sourly.

          "James!" Alex chided, torn between echoing the sentiment and scolding him for voicing it. 

          He looked chastened but didn't apologize for the statement.  A ruckus over in the corner by the men's room spared him having to make a reply.  Jimmy caught C.D.'s eye to see if his help was needed.  The older man shook his head and Trivette relaxed.  The ex-Ranger turned bartender headed for the men in question.

          As the introduction to the next song started, Alex grabbed Jimmy's hand.  "C'mon, let's find another way to get rid of our frustration!"

          Trivette followed with a boyish grin.  He never could resist dancing to Earth, Wind and Fire's "Let's Groove".  Watching Alex move in time to the music, Jimmy wondered how life might have turned out if she'd met him first instead of Walker.

          Don't go there, Jimmy!  There were too many reasons why it never would've worked.  Besides, he knew that deep down his partner really cared for Alex.  If anyone could get his reticent friend to open up, she could.

          Halfway through the song, Jimmy noted the group in the back dispersing.  As they headed for the door, one of the guys lurched drunkenly, nearly knocking the Ranger off his feet.  He caught his balance, stepping aside to let the men pass.

          One of them stopped short, glaring at the black man.  The youngest of the three, barely out of his teens, noticed the look.  "C'mon, Vern.  Let's just get outta here, huh?"

          "No way, kid.  I'm gonna have me some fun here."  Turning to Jimmy, he said, "It's good you know your place, boy."

          Trivette winced at the man's beer-laden breath but didn't respond beyond the tightening of his jaw muscles.

          Vern looked at Alex, continuing, "But you disappoint me, sugah.  I'd have thought a pretty filly like you coulda done better than the likes of him.  If you wanna know what a real man can do for you, give me a call some day."

          "Why you--"  Alex took two steps forward only to find Jimmy blocking her way. 

          "Forget it, Al.  Just let it go, okay?"  He tried catching her eyes, but she remained focused on the men behind him.

          "What's the matter, mud boy?  Cat gotcher tongue so the bitch has to speak for you?" one of the other men jeered.

          "You don't even know the meaning of 'real man'," Alex hissed, her eyes glittering with anger.  "A real man doesn't judge by the color of someone’s skin or their appearance, he considers what's inside."  Her statement met with more laughs and jeers from the two men.  Their younger friend shifted uncomfortably.

          "Alex--" Jimmy warned tensely.

          "Hah!  Bet if we cut him we'd find his blood runs yellah," the second man growled, nodding at Trivette.

          The distinctive sound of a shotgun being loaded cut through the noise.  C.D. now stood behind the bar, holding a rifle in his hands, face red with anger. "I told you boys to get out of here and I meant it.  If you're not gone by the time I count to three you'll regret the day you were born.  Go on.  Get!"

          They left, muttering curses and threats as they walked out the door.  Vern turned back to Jimmy, pointing an imaginary gun and pulling the trigger. "Bang," he mouthed.

          Trivette spread his arms.  "Go for it."

          When it looked like the man might, his friends hauled him out into the street.  Their laughter could be heard as the door shut behind them.

          "Whew, I'm glad they're gone," Alex breathed, looking over at C.D.  "Who were those guys?"

          "Just some punks from the stockyard," the ex-Ranger responded, unloading and storing his shotgun.  "Everything's okay now, folks!  Next round's on the house."

          As the crowd flocked to the bar to take the owner up on his offer, Alex turned back to her companion.  He hadn't said a word since the group had left.

          Jimmy's expression stopped Alex cold.  She'd never seen him so angry, no . . . furious.  Swallowing hard, she whispered, "Jimmy?"

          Grabbing her arm, he hauled her to the back of the bar where the crowd was thinnest.  "I told you to stay out of it.  Why didn't you listen to me?"

          "You're hurting me!" she cried, pulling away from him.  He let her go as if burned by the contact.  "And how could I stay out of it?  You're my friend!  I couldn't just stand by and listen to them--"

          "Why not, Counselor?" he challenged. "Feeling guilty?  It was just words, Alex.  They would've walked away if we'd ignored them.  They're no worse than what I've dealt with all my life."

          "Guilty?"  Alex gaped at him.  She'd never seen this side of Jimmy Trivette before.  It scared her just a bit.  "You think this is about the Nolan case!"

          "You tell me," he shot back. 

          "Jimmy. . ."  The attorney shook her head in confusion.  "I thought I was helping you.  I couldn't stand to hear them talking to you that way.  I didn't mean--"

          "Helping me?"  He took a deep breath, trying to hang onto his temper.  "Helping me.  Alex, what you did just made it worse.  Those guys love nothing more than to draw attention to themselves, to make a spectacle.  That's why ignoring them is the best way to shut them up.  It takes away their power."

          Alex covered her mouth, shocked.  A sick feeling in the pit of her stomach told her he was right.  "Oh, Jimmy, I'm sorry."

          "Did you get a sense of power out of it?" he wondered.

          C.D. had come up behind Trivette, and hearing his last question, said, "Jimmy, that ain't fair and you know it.  Your quarrel isn't with Alex!"

          "Stay out of this,"  the younger man growled.  Turning back to the attorney, he said, "How about it, Alex?  The white woman defending the poor black--"  A slap across the face cut him off. 

          Without another word he turned and stalked out of the bar.

          "Oh my God, what just happened here?"  Alex cried, burying her face in her hands. 

          Gesturing for Tonya to take over the bar, C.D. hustled Alex into the back room.  Pulling her into a firm embrace, he held her tight until the sobs quieted. "Easy, sweetheart.  I know you're upset.  Just take it easy."

          Minutes later, she whispered, "How did this get so out of hand, C.D.?"

          "I'm not sure, darlin'," the ex-Ranger admitted.  Guiding her to a crate, he urged her to sit, joining her.  "Why don't you tell me what happened.  From the beginning."

          Hesitantly the attorney told of the Nolan plea-bargain and Jimmy's reaction.  ". . .and then those guys started in on him.  I guess he tried to get me to keep quiet but I just had to fire my mouth off.  God, C.D., why didn't I listen to him?  He's dealt with this all his life, he knows how to handle it.  I just made it worse for him."

          "Don't beat yourself up about this, darlin'," C.D. advised.  "It'll blow over, you'll see."

          "But what if it doesn't?  I hit him, C.D.!"

          To her surprise the man chuckled. "Yeah, I saw that!  Remind me not to get you mad at me, Alex.  Listen, he deserved that.  And when he's had a chance to calm down, I'm sure he'll realize it.  Jimmy's a fair man, and he doesn't stay mad long."

          "God, I hope you're right."  She pushed to her feet, wiping her eyes carefully. "Maybe I should go see him?  Apologize for what I said."

          C.D. shook his head.  "No, I don't think that's a good idea, darlin'.  Let him cool off tonight.  He'll see things different in the morning."

          "You're probably right."  Alex sank back onto the crate.  "C.D., would you mind if I stayed back here for awhile?  I need some time alone."

          "D'you want me to call Cordell?  Have him come get you?"

          "No!" she objected quickly.  "No.  That's okay.  No need to bother him with this."  He'll find out soon enough anyway, she knew.  And she didn't want to think of his reaction to all this.

          "Take as much time as you need, Alex.  I'll be out front if you want anything."

          "Thanks, C.D.."  She gave the old man a hug.

          Remorse hit Jimmy before the door closed behind him.  He stood on the sidewalk, taking a deep breath of the cool evening air.  For a moment he debated going back in, apologizing to Alex.  But he knew they both needed time to sort out what happened.

          You're an ass, Trivette, he decided, slowly walking down the sidewalk to his car.  Somewhere along the way you forgot that she's no stranger to discrimination either.  Being a woman ADA isn't just something that's handed to you.  And when you're a beautiful woman you usually have to work twice as hard to earn the kind of respect Alex commands.

          Pulling out his key ring he hit the remote, unlocking his car door.  Slipping inside, he started the engine then threw the car into gear, spinning rubber as he pulled away.

          After a couple blocks he noticed headlights following close behind.  Too close.  Keeping an eye on them, he took several turns to see if he could shake them.  No luck.  Realizing he'd ended up in the warehouse district, he knew he'd made a mistake.  If anything happened here, no one would know.

          Shifting gears, he increased speed but the powerful truck passed him, cutting in front.  He slammed on the brakes, but not in time to avoid a collision.  His head smacked the steering wheel, stunning him.

          Three men hopped out of the truck.  The first, Vern Danzig, stood at least six foot three and weighed 250 pounds.  His brother, Arnie, and the third man, Kyle Thompson were just slightly smaller. 

          Vern smacked Kyle, the younger of his two companions, who'd been driving.  "I told you I wanted the car, kid!  You'd better hope we can drive it away from here."

          "Well, what was I supposed to do?" Kyle argued. "You wanted him stopped.  He's stopped!"

          "No kidding," Arnie said, leaning over the car and staring at the driver.  "He's out of it."

          "Good," Vern said, grinning.  "At least he won't put up much of a fuss, will he?  C'mon, boys.  Let's get him out."

          Arnie opened the door, reaching in to grab Trivette's shirt front.  "C'mon, you--out of there!"

          His brother joined him, helping to pull the man out.

          "Um--"  Jimmy shook his head once before realizing his mistake.  His stomach threatened to rebel and his knees buckled.  "What . . . happened?"

          "Hah.  You crossed the wrong folks, that's what happened!" Vern snarled, hauling the man to his feet once more.  His hand brushed against a familiar object.  "What the hell. . .  Hey, he's got a gun!"  He took it out and handed it to Kyle, who nervously stood watching.

          Some small part of Trivette's brain recognized the voices as belonging to the men at C.D.'s.  Oh shit.  This is not good.  He wisely kept his mouth shut as they searched him.  He had a good idea of what they had planned for him.

          Vern pulled out Trivette's billfold, looking through it and pocketing the healthy amount of cash he'd found.  Meanwhile Arnie searched for any other items of interest.  Finding a thin leather wallet in an inside jacket pocket, he pulled it out and opened it, whistling as he read.  "Hot damn, Vern!  We got ourselves a cop!" he yelled. "And not just any cop, but a living, breathing Texas Ranger!"

          "A cop?  Sonofabitch!"  With amazing speed, Vern punched Trivette hard in the stomach, winding him and sending him to

his knees.  "Goddamned nigger pig!"

          Arnie backhanded the downed man across the face. "Looks like the cat's still got his tongue, Vern."

          "That's the least of his troubles," the man growled, hauling Trivette to his feet once more.  "Someone shoulda taught you your place a long time ago, boy."

          "Let me guess," Jimmy wheezed, beyond caring. "You're going to be the one to educate me, right?"

          Releasing him, Vern hauled back for another punch.  This time Jimmy blocked it, aiming one of his own at Vern's face.

          Vern howled as the Ranger's fist connected solidly with his nose.  Blood spewed forth.  "Ah!  'e broke it!  Damned sonofabitch!  Molly's gonna kill me!"

          Jimmy didn't move quick enough to avoid the punch to his right eye.  He staggered back but didn't go down.

          "Whoo-hah!" Arnie yelled.  "He's still got some spunk left."

          "Let's see how much," his brother growled, advancing on the black man.

          Concentrating on the more obvious threat, Jimmy couldn't block against Arnie.  Taking advantage of his brother's movement the younger man punched Trivette in the ribs.

          Jimmy fell hard, but as he did he kicked out, sweeping Arnie off his feet as well.  A well-placed boot to the jaw left the other man laying stunned where he'd landed.  Breathing hard, the Ranger struggled to his feet, looking for something he could use as a weapon.  Nothing . . . damn!

          Vern ran to check his brother, brushing Kyle aside as the other man bent to see to his friend.  When Arnie didn't immediately respond, Vern climbed to his feet, rushing Trivette and slamming him against the truck with brutal force. "You'll die for that, boy."

          Trivette grunted at the impact.  The bigger man had him pinned solidly, beefy hands slowly squeezing Jimmy's throat.  Knowing he only had one chance, the Ranger aimed a jab at Vern's already broken nose.  The man howled again, stepping back.

          Face twisted with anger, Jimmy grabbed Vern's nearest arm and wrenched it behind his back.  "Y'know, I've had about enough of you--"

          Arnie had climbed to his feet behind Trivette and Vern.  Seeing his brother in trouble, the younger man smacked Kyle.  "Why didn't you stop 'em?"

          "What the hell was I supposed to do?"  Kyle snapped in return.  Shit, I shoulda never started hangin' around these guys.  Shoulda walked after that first fight.

          "Get away from my brother!" Arnie yelled.  Taking two steps toward Trivette, he punched the Ranger low in the back with all the force he could muster.

          An explosion of pain sent Jimmy crashing to the ground.  Nausea climbed his throat.  Oh God, what the hell was that?  He tried to move but found to his horror he couldn't.  His body just wouldn't respond.

          Arnie pulled Vern to his feet.  Both men stared at the downed Ranger. 

          "Piece'a shit," the older brother growled, wiping blood from his freshly bleeding nose.  "You ain't fit to be breathing the same air as us."

          "What're you thinkin', Vern?" wondered Arnie, knowing the look on his brother's face meant business.

          "Kyle, give me the gun."

          "No way," the young man said. "You're not gonna waste him here?"

          "Just give me the damned gun!" Vern ordered.

          Jimmy heard the command through a fog of pain.  He struggled to move, to get his body to do something.  But his overloaded nerves still wouldn't respond.

          Kyle reluctantly handed over the weapon.  Aiming at Trivette, Vern pulled the trigger.  His companions jumped, expecting to see blood coming from a wound.  But instead they heard the ping of the bullet hitting pavement then striking metal.  Vern laughed at their expressions.

          "You damned fool!" Arnie yelled. "That coulda hit one of us!"

          "But it didn't.  Quit your snivellin'," Vern ordered.  Looking at Jimmy, he clucked in sympathy.  "Look, boys.  That bullet musta creased him after all."

          A trickle of blood could be seen on the downed man's left cheek.  Vern nudged him with his foot, eliciting a groan.

          Trivette opened his good eye.  Focusing on Vern, he croaked, "Rot in hell, you sonofabitch.  'Cause that's where you're going."

          "Shut up!" the big man yelled.  Without hesitation he kicked Trivette in the stomach.  Arnie joined him, aiming kicks at the black man's ribs. 

          This can't be happening, Jimmy thought, trying to block out the pain.  Anger swept through him, clearing some of the haze.  He discovered he could once again move.  Reaching out for the nearest leg he held on tight, pulling the man off-balance and sending him crashing to the ground.

          "That does it," Vern snarled.  Drawing back his foot, he aimed one last kick at Trivette, catching him in the temple.

          The blow sent Jimmy spiraling toward unconsciousness.  His last thought was of Alex.  She'd take this very hard.

          Staring at the now-unconscious Ranger, Vern pulled out the handcuffs.  Yanking Jimmy's arms behind his back, the older brother secured the cuffs.  Patting Trivette, he sneered, "You have the right to remain unconscious, pig."

          Arnie climbed to his feet, staring at their prisoner.  "So what do we do with him now, Vern?"

          "We go have some fun, that's what!"  Waving at Kyle, he snapped, "Do somethin' useful, why don't ya!  Open the trunk."

          The young man grabbed Trivette's keys from the ignition and did as he'd been told.  He kept hoping this would end, like some nightmare, but it just kept getting worse.  That Ranger looked bad off, in his opinion.

          Together Arnie and Vern got the unconscious man into the trunk.  Shutting it tight, Vern turned to his companions.  "I say we go have a drink to celebrate!  Kyle, you drive the truck to our place.  We'll follow in our new car."

          Forty-five minutes later found the friends pulling into the dirt parking lot of The Trade Zone, a bar they often frequented.  A few of the men milling around outside called jeers as they piled out of the slightly dented red TransAm.

          "Moving up in the world, aren't ya, Vern?" one called.

          "Nah, it's a friend's," he replied casually. "My truck's out of commission tonight."

          The three friends headed into the bar, ordered beers and settled in for a game of pool.  They traded tall tales with some of the other regulars to pass the time but none of the three mentioned their run-in with a particular Texas Ranger.

          Pain.  It blocked out awareness of almost anything else in Trivette's mind.  And he couldn't pinpoint it, couldn't place just what hurt.  Everything did. 

          He couldn't tell where he was, other than confined in a dark, cramped space.  Groaning, he tried to get his hands to move, to check it out.  They wouldn't respond; he'd been restrained somehow.  Moving his arms slightly, he heard the jangle of metal and felt cold steel bite at his wrists.  His handcuffs.  The bastards had used his own handcuffs on him.  Humiliation and anger filled him.

          The throbbing pain in his ribs convinced him to try shifting position.  It didn't work, and the resulting nausea made him retch.  He vomited, rolling over to escape the stench.  The dizziness and disorientation sent him spinning back into welcome oblivion.

          The friendly pool game ended abruptly when someone accused Arnie of cheating.  The fight that followed soon spilled out into the parking lot.  When the bartender came out and fired his shotgun into the air, most of the combatants separated.

          "Get outta here, Vern!" warned the bartender, an ex-military man known only as Blade.  He aimed the gun at Vern and his companions.  "I don't need your trouble around here tonight."

          "Sure!  We can take a hint, can't we, boys?" Vern laughed, throwing his beer bottle against the side of the building and watching it shatter.  "Let's go someplace more fun."

          "Lemme drive, Vern," Arnie said, holding out his hand for the keys. 

          The older man considered a moment. "Ah, what the hell."  He threw the key ring to his brother.

          Unused to the powerful sports car, Arnie kicked up gravel and dirt as he put the car and gear.  With a honk of the horn and spinning tires, he sped out of the parking lot.

          "Damn fools," Blade muttered, eyeing the broken glass before heading back inside.

          Letting herself into her apartment, Alex hung her keys on the usual wall peg before collapsing onto her couch.  Her eyes stung with unshed tears as the events of earlier kept replaying through her mind.  The attorney still couldn't shake the image of Jimmy's angry expression.

          Worse yet, she still didn't understand exactly what she'd done to earn that wrath.  Those pigs had deserved a lot worse for what they'd said to Jimmy.

          Jimmy.

          She'd liked him from the moment they'd met two years ago, when he'd joined the Rangers.  His easy-going, friendly nature had charmed her.  She'd seen the speculative gleam in his eyes at first, but he'd soon realized where her heart lay.  She knew he teased Walker about it, trying to get the other man to admit to his feelings.  Thoughts of Walker made her smile, but her mind soon drifted back to Jimmy.

          She respected him highly on a professional level, too.  He had great instincts and a sharp mind.  His reputation as a force to be reckoned with continued to grow.  In addition to the notoriety of being Walker's partner, he'd solved several difficult cases on his own.  Mostly when Walker had been off on one of his quests.

          The attorney often wondered what she'd have done without Jimmy's companionship during those times.  He worried just as much when Walker took off.  They often killed time at C.D.'s playing pool, dancing or just talking.  She considered Jimmy her brother, worrying over him as she would any family member.

          Alex bit her lip, wondering if she'd thrown away that relationship tonight.  Nothing like this had ever come up between them and she couldn't begin to predict how it would work out.

          Almost instinctively her hand reached for the phone and she caught herself dialing Walker's number.  With a groan she disconnected.  He'd be fast asleep now and she didn't really want to have to explain what had happened just to hear his voice.

          Not giving herself time to think, she punched in Jimmy's number.  It rang twice before she lost her nerve, hanging up before either he picked up or the machine answered.

          Disgusted at herself, Alex decided on a shower before turning in.  Maybe it would help her unwind a bit.  And if nothing else it might ease the sense of being dirty that still clung to her.

          A half-hour later she emerged from the steaming bathroom feeling little better than before she'd entered.  Toweling her hair to remove the excess water, she perched on the edge of the bed.  Checking the alarm clock, she saw it was just past one a.m.

          With a groan she remembered Walker would be here bright and early.  They had arranged to meet so they could begin planning C.D.'s surprise birthday party. 

          Laying the towel over a nearby chair she crawled under the covers.  Sleep claimed her before she could even reach over to set the alarm.

          "Where we goin'?" Vern slurred, looking around at the passing buildings.

          "Thought we'd check out the Wrecking Ball."  Arnie turned left at the next corner. "Haven't been there in awhile.  Hear Tina's still workin' there nights."  He grinned slyly into the rear-view mirror.

          "Bitch," the older man growled.

          "She's not," Kyle denied, speaking for the first time since they'd left the Trade Zone.  "You just don't know her like I do."

          "Yeah, in the biblical sense, I suppose?"

          "Quit pickin' on the boy, Vern," Arnie said. "Besides, he's gotta learn his own lessons."

          The older man subsided, content to look out the window.  Kyle relaxed slightly, leaning back into the seat.  He'd never liked Vern's attitude toward Tina.  Looking around the clean interior of the car, the young man shuddered as images of the owner flashed by his mind's eye.  Wonder if he's still alive?  Never seen a man beat up so bad before. . .  Tina ain't gonna like it, that's sure. 

          As they pulled into the Wrecking Ball Arnie whistled as he recognized several of the other cars.  "Looks like the regular crew is here!  We're gonna have a party tonight, boys."

          The three friends piled out of the car and strode into the bar.  Merv the bartender, a tall, slender man with a shaved head, looked up as they entered. "Well, look who's here, fellas!  Vern, Arnie and their sidekick, Kyle."

          "That's right!" Vern yelled, pulling out his wallet.  Slapping several bills on the bar, he continued, "And the next round's on us.  Drink up!"

          Setting three beers in front of the group, Merv asked, "What's the occasion?"

          Grinning, Arnie said, "We took out another nigger tonight.  What a sweet time!"

          "Looks like he put up a fight," the bartender observed, looking between the brothers.

          "Yeah, but we stomped him good, didn't we, Vern?"

          "We sure did!"  Wrapping an arm around Kyle, the older man pulled him close.  "But we couldn't have done it without Kyle here."

          A pretty young redhead wearing a short skirt and cut-off blouse approached.  "How's that?"

          "Don't pay 'em no mind, Tina," Kyle spoke quietly, glaring at his companions.

          "No!  Now don't be modest, boy," Arnie admonished.  "Tell 'em the story!"

          "You tell it," the young man said, shifting uncomfortably as Tina stared at him.

          "We were at this other bar after the stock show tonight, and there was this nigger dancin' with a pretty white lady.  Looked like they were pretty cozy," Arnie began. 

          "Right!  And he's dancin' around like a puppet and bumps into me as we're headed out.  His lady makes a couple mouthy comments and he just stands by and lets her.  So we figure we gotta teach this sonofabitch a lesson."  Vern paused for breath.

          "So we wait for him to get in his car and then we follow him!" Arnie crows.  "And Kyle . . . man, he did some super driving!  Cut the bastard off with little more'n a scratch."

          "What'd you do to the guy?" Tina asked.

          "What the hell d'ya think we did?" Vern laughed.  "We stomped the shit out of him, that's what."

          The small crowd gathered round joined in the laughter, clapping each other on the back and talking about a good night's work. 

          Sickened, Tina turned and took her empty tray back to the kitchen.  Pressing a hand against her mouth, she fought back tears.  How had she ever gotten mixed up with these people?

          Jimmy stirred, groaning as his body protested the movement.  He tried calling out, but his voice came out in a choked whisper.  Straining his ears, he caught music coming from somewhere near.  Occasional shouts and loud laughing made him wonder if it could be a bar. 

          He was now fairly certain he'd been put in the trunk of his own car.  He'd come to awhile ago, just long enough to realize his prison wasn't stationary.

          Maybe, just maybe, I can kick the trunk open, he thought.  But he soon found he couldn't get enough leverage given the cramped space and his position.

          Okay, think, Trivette.  You're brain's still working.  Figure it out.  Ah hah!  A taillight.  If he could kick out a taillight, the cops might pull the drivers over on a violation.

          It took some doing.  He had to figure out where the taillights were since he couldn't see in the darkness.  After several fruitless tries, anger surged through the injured man.  Goddammit, I am not going to die in the trunk of my own car!  Taking a deep breath, he marshaled all his energy and kicked where he now knew the light to be.  He heard a small crack and spurred on by that knowledge, he kicked harder.  Finally he felt it give.  Moments later fresh air confirmed he'd broken through. 

          The exertion cost him though, and he found himself once more sucked into the black pit of unconsciousness.

          Vern and Arnie ordered another round of drinks for themselves.  They shoved one in Kyle's direction, not looking to see whether he drank it or not.

          As Tina passed by on the way to serve a customer, she whispered, "Why d'you keep hangin' around with them?  They're gonna get you killed one of these days."

          "They're my friends."  But he didn't sound convincing.

          "Hey, honey!  Where's my drink?" a man yelled from the back of the bar.

          "I gotta go," she said.  "We'll talk later."

          "What time's Merv lettin' you off tonight?"

          "Two."  When the customer yelled again, she scurried to take him his drink.

          "Hey, folks!  Gather 'round," Vern called, motioning widely.  "Arnie and me, we decided Kyle deserves some recognition for a fine job tonight."  Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a silver star.  "C'mere, Kyle."

          "What the--?  Are you crazy?" the younger man hissed, half-rising from his barstool.

          Arnie firmly pushed him back down. "C'mon, Kyle.  You don't wanna disappoint these fine folk, do ya?"

          Vern pinned the star to the brim of Kyle's Stetson. "In recog-re-  Ah, hell, for a job well done!"  He clapped the younger man on the shoulder, nearly missing entirely.  Laughing breathlessly he staggered back to his seat.

          "Hey, is that a real Ranger star?" someone called from the crowd.

          The three friends exchanged glances.  Finally Arnie said, "Nah, it's one of them fake ones you can buy."

          "Uh, thanks guys," Kyle said.  He avoided Tina's gaze, afraid of what he'd find in her eyes.  "Thanks a bunch." 

          After serving her next customer, she sidled in close.  "You know he's lyin', doncha?  That's real, Kyle!"

          "Shhh!  Keep your voice down.  You wanna get us both in trouble?" he returned softly.

          "Dammit, Kyle Thompson, I hope you know what you're gettin' yourself into with them.  'Cause it's comin' to a point where you're gonna have to make a choice:  me or them."  She didn't wait for his response, stalking off to serve another customer.

          He watched her walk away, admiring her easy grace.  Her spitfire tongue cut sometimes, but he wouldn't have her any other way.  Even when she nagged him he thought she had to be the most beautiful lady he'd ever met.

          "Gimme a bottle of Jack Daniels to go, Merv!" Vern ordered, pulling out his wallet.  "We got some other stops to make before the night's over."

          "You shouldn't be goin' anywhere, let alone taking anything with you," the bartender growled.

          "So I'll let Arnie drive," the other man returned placidly.  "Just give me my booze, like a good man."

          "Like that's any better," Merv noted.  Still, he handed over the bottle along with change.  "Go on.  Get outta here."

          As the brothers prepared to leave, they remembered Kyle.  Arnie turned to his friend. "Hey, boy!  You comin' with us?"

          Knowing it was now or never, Kyle said, "No.  I'm gonna stay here.  Wait for Tina to get off."

          "That could take a long time," Vern muttered. 

          Before Kyle could do more than climb to his feet, Arnie slammed an elbow into his brother's stomach.  "Shut up, asshole!"  Looking over at Kyle, he said, "We'll catch ya later, then."

          "Yeah.  Later."  Making sure they left without trouble, the young man then hopped back onto his barstool.  Taking off the Stetson, he fingered the silver star now pinned to it. 

          "What're you thinkin'?" Tina's soft voice whispered next to him.

          "How'd you know this was real?" he wondered. "There's lots of companies that make these for folk who wanna impress someone."

          Touching the badge, she said, "I know.  It's a long story.  I'll tell you later, back at my place."  Kissing his cheek gently, she moved off to serve her customers.

          "Whee-hah!" Arnie yelled, hanging a right at the corner.

          "Damn, boy," his brother growled. "Feels like you took that on two wheels!"

          The younger man laughed, chancing a glance at Vern.  "Whassa matter, your head mindin' it?"

          "No, but yours is if'n you don't knock it off."

          "Touchy, touchy."  Arnie swerved to avoid a parked car.  "Geez!  I coulda swore it moved, Vern."

          Peering owlishly at his companion, the older man said, "You're drunk."

          "No shit!  So're you.  That's why I'm drivin', remember?"

          "Oh . . . yeah."  Vern belched.  "I forgot!"

          The brothers drove around for the next hour, drinking from the bottle they'd bought from the Wrecking Ball. 

          "Hey . . . Vern?"  A snore answered him.  "Vern!"

          "Huh?  What!"  The other man startled awake. "Whassup?"

          "I'm tired."

          "Go to sleep!"

          "Can't.  I'm drivin'." 

          "Dammit, Arnie, can't you ever solve a problem on your own?"

          "Feel sick," the younger man muttered.

          "Pull over!" 

          Turning the wheel sharply, Arnie steered the car into a vacant lot.  Fortunately, the driveway accommodated his wide turn.  He stood on the brakes, bringing the car to a hard stop, then shut it off. 

          Opening up the door, he leaned out, vomiting some of the alcohol.  Pulling the door partially closed, he leaned back in the seat.  "Think I'm gonna just rest a spell, Vern.  Vern?"

          His brother had already passed out.

          "So how'd you know that Ranger star was a real one?" Kyle wondered.

          After Tina's shift they'd gone upstairs to the two-room apartment Merv provided as part of the job.  It wasn't much but it kept her off the street where she'd once made her home.  She didn't complain.

          Now they lay entwined on her sofa watching a classic Star Trek repeat.

          Taking a deep breath, she said, "I knew a real Ranger once."

          "What, some kinky old bastard who liked pretty young girls?" Kyle wondered, somewhat jealous.

          "No," she denied.  "He was actually nice.  Reminded me of my grandpa.  What little I remember anyways."

          "So how'd you meet?"

          She shrugged.  "The usual.  Runaway kid fresh off the bus gets mixed in with the wrong crowd and gets into trouble.  He tried to get me off the streets but I was what they politely call 'unplaceable'.  Too old to foster and too young to be on my own."

          "Did he bust you?" the young man asked.

          "No, he never did.  That's the weird part.  He knew where I hung out and came by often.  He could've busted me a hundred different times, I usually had junk on me."

          "How'd you ever meet him?"  Kyle threaded his fingers through her hair, enjoying the heavy feel of it.

          "He saw me sellin' junk one time."  Tina laughed softly.  "I wandered right into the middle of his stakeout."

          "How old were you?"

          "Fifteen.  My Pop had died a few months before.  He was the only family I'd had for a long time.  State put me into care with some young couple who had kids of their own.  It just didn't work out.  We didn't agree on anythin'."

          "More like fifteen and all sure of yourself so no one's gonna tell you how to live your life, right?"  Kyle tipped her face up for a quick kiss.  "That's my girl."

          "Anyway, I ran the streets for awhile, until this guy and his friends took me in.  Said I was their little sister." 

          Her wistful tone ate at Kyle.  "I bet I know what they had on their minds."

          "No!"  She twisted around to look at him.  "It wasn't like that at all, Kyle.  Really!  They treated me real good.  Gave me clothes, fed me, gave me my own room in their house.  I was there about a month before I figured they were runnin' drugs.  And then Davie asked me to do a run."  She shrugged.  "Turns out I was good at it.  No one could believe a sweet, innocent girl like me could be pushin'."

          "And they never asked you for nothin' else?" her lover asked, suspicious.

          "Will you quit it?  Even if they did it was a long time ago, Kyle!"  She settled back into his lap.  "Anyway, that Ranger, he couldn't do anything about me that day 'cause he'd have broke his cover.  But he must have come lookin' for me 'cause a couple days later he turns up at the house I'm stayin' at.  Tries to get me to come with him, says the folks I'm hangin' around are gonna get me killed someday."

          "Did it work?"  Kyle lightly ran his hand up and down her arm, watching the gooseflesh raise.

          "No.  Not at first, anyway."  She smiled as she remembered those times.  "He was nice, though.  Older guy, kinda outta shape.  But you could tell he still had it in him.  And he really cared about people.  He didn't see me as trash just 'cause I was pushin', y'know?"

          "How long did this go on?"

          Tina considered, trying to pin it down. "'Bout a year, I guess?  He didn't visit all the time, every couple weeks at first but then it got to be every other month and then even longer.  I got to the point where I'd look for him, y'know?"

          "I guess.  I just can't imagine ever lookin' for a cop, Tina," Kyle admitted.

          "Yeah, but that's just it!  He weren't a cop, remember?  He was a Ranger!  There's a big difference.  Sure he didn't look like no Lone Ranger I'd ever seen.  But he had the heart of one.  A couple days after I turned sixteen he took me to this ranch outside Dallas.  Introduced me to a friend of his, her name was . . . Kerry, I think.  Her husband had died about a year before and she needed help with some things around the property.  Said she'd give me room and board if it worked out."

          "And so the city girl turned overnight into a country bumpkin?" he teased.

          "No way!" she laughed.  "Took awhile.  It was so quiet out there.  I swear you could hear the bugs thinkin' at night.  But I liked the work.  You started a task and could see at the end you'd gotten somethin' done.  And Kerry, she didn't ask for nothin' from me but an honest day's work.  We were never friends, but we had this understanding, I guess you could call it.  She was the first person, other than the Ranger, who'd treated me with respect since my Pop."

          Kyle took this all in, knowing she wouldn't repeat the tale.  He'd never known her to talk about her past so openly before. 

          "Did you ever see the Ranger again?" he wondered.

          "No," she said, sadness coloring her voice. "But Kerry told me he'd been injured real bad soon after I'd got there.  Had to retire.  I don't know if he's still alive.  Hell, I can't even remember his name, but I know Kerry told me once or twice.  But he's the man responsible for me standin' on my own two feet today.  It may not be much, but I got a job and a place to call my own."

          "And me," the young man grinned.

          She looked at him, totally serious. "Do you really mean it, Kyle?  Or are you just sayin' that.  I need to know, 'cause if you're gonna keep hanging around Vern and Arnie, I'm not sure we belong together anymore."

          He tensed.  "What d'you mean, honey?"

          "I'm sayin' you need to be thinking about who you hang around with.  They're mean and small-minded, Kyle, and you're not like that."

          Kyle found himself glad she couldn't see his face from her current position.  If she really knew what they had done to that Ranger. . .

          Jimmy fought back a yelp of pain as the sudden turn slammed him against the side wall of the trunk.  Over the past couple of hours he'd been thrown around like a rag doll, helpless to anchor himself in any way.  He could feel bruises forming on top of bruises.

          But when the car stopped suddenly stopped, momentum threw him hard against the back wall.  Before losing consciousness he wondered where all the beat cops were tonight.

          "Alex!"  Insistent pounding on the door.  "Alex, are you in there?"

          Inside the apartment, the blonde attorney stirred, rubbing sleep out of her eyes to stare blearily at her clock.  Oh my  God. . . 

          Jumping out of bed, Alex threw on her bathrobe.  As she passed by the mirror over her dresser, she avoided looking at it.  She knew she wouldn't like what she'd see.

          "Alex!"  Walker pounded on the door again. 

          "I'm coming!" she shouted in response.  If he kept this up he'd have all the neighbors complaining soon.

          As she opened the door, she stepped behind it so he wouldn't see her immediately as he walked in.  Closing it behind him, she turned the lock and put the chain back in place.

          "Alex, you okay?" he asked, reaching out and tilting her chin up so he could see her face. 

          "Yeah, I'm fine.  I, uh, overslept."  She pulled the robe tighter around her waist.

          Walker frowned.  That didn't sound like Alex.  "Is everything okay?"

          "I just forgot to set the alarm, that's all."  Gesturing to the couch, she said, "Make yourself at home.  If you don't mind, I'm going to grab a quick shower."

          "Okay."  Setting his hat on a chair, Walker said, "I could start breakfast, if you'd like."

          That won him a small smile.  "Would you?  Thanks.  There's bacon and eggs in the fridge."

          As she turned for the bedroom, Walker called out, "Alex?  You sure you're okay?"

          The blonde nodded, not trusting her voice. "I'll be back in a few minutes."

          Alex pulled open her closet doors, deciding on a faded pair of jeans and a green turtleneck.  She set them aside on the bed.

          Staring at the cordless phone in its stand, she debated calling Jimmy.  No, it could wait until she'd had her shower.  Maybe she'd feel more human then.

          Stepping into the bathroom she turned the water on, setting it hotter than usual.  Slipping out of her robe and nightshirt she climbed in under the hot spray, relaxing as it hit her body.

          Walker pulled out the food from the refrigerator, then searched until he found the cooking pans.  As he cracked the eggs into a bowl, he remembered he hadn't given Trivette the exact location of their planned stakeout this afternoon.

          Reaching for Alex's wall phone, he dialed in his partner's phone number.  After four rings, the machine answered. Probably out jogging, the Ranger figured.  After the beep, he left the information then hung up.  He'd call later to make sure Trivette got his message.

          Turning his attention back to the task at hand, Walker set the pan of bacon on the burner to cook.

          The shower helped, giving Alex time to pull her thoughts together.  Toweling off, she pulled on her clothes, then grabbed a brush and headed back to the bathroom.  Glancing one again at the phone, she picked it up and carried it with her. 

          Closing the door partially, she dialed Jimmy's number.  When the machine answered, she said, "Jimmy, please.  Pick up the phone.  We need to talk this out.  Jimmy--"  Realizing she'd get no response, she disconnected, laying the phone on the counter. 

          Eyeing herself critically in the mirror, she grabbed for her make-up kit.  Nothing too extravagant, just enough to cover the circles under her eyes.

          Satisfied that she looked presentable, she walked over to the bedroom door.  Taking a deep breath, she pulled it open to be greeted with the smell of cooking bacon.

          Walker looked up as she entered the kitchen.  He was just dishing out a plateful for her.  A glance showed he'd set the table for two.

          "Thanks, Walker," she said, giving him a kiss on the cheek. 

          "Hmm, with that kind of thanks I could be convinced to do this more often!" he laughed.

          She took a seat at the table, waiting for him to join her before eating.  They ate in silence for awhile, an odd tension between them.

          Finally, Alex had to break it.  "Excuse me, Walker.  I, uh, think I left my curling iron plugged in."  She pushed back from the table and hurried into her bedroom, shutting the door quietly behind her.

          Running for the bathroom, she grabbed the phone and hit re-dial.  Again the machine picked up.  "Jimmy?  Please, can't we just talk this over?"  No response.  Frustrated, she cut the connection.

          Knowing Walker would be concerned if she took any longer, she returned to the kitchen.  Sitting down once more, she kept her eyes averted from Walker.  She knew if she looked at him she'd be done for.

          "Everything okay?" he asked, watching her closely.  Something wasn't right.  He didn't know what, but he damned sure would find out.

          "Fine.  Just fine."  She toyed with her coffee cup. "By the way, have you heard from Jimmy yet today?"

          "No, I haven't.  I left him a message earlier.  Figured he was probably out jogging."  He looked at her curiously.  "Why?"

          Alex blew out a deep breath.  "It's nothing.  Really."

          "C'mon, Alex.  Don't give me that.  You don't usually bring something up unless there's a point."  He paused to see if she'd respond.  When she didn't, he continued, "Something's obviously on your mind, and it has to do with Trivette.  Are you going to tell me?"  To his surprise, tears filled her eyes.  "Alex?"

          "We had. . .  There was . . . an incident . . . last night.  At C.D.'s."  She stared at her plate, unable to meet his eyes.

          "What kind of incident?" he asked, gut tightening.  Couldn't have been too bad or C.D. would've have called me!  Come to think of it, why didn't Trivette?

          "Some rednecks were causing trouble.  C.D. made them leave."

          "And?"  He knew there had to be more.

          "On their way out, one of them bumped into Jimmy.  We'd been dancing together, and he made some comments about my choice of companion. . ."  Her voice trailed off.

          The Ranger closed his eyes, thinking he knew what came next.  His partner had quite a temper.

          "Jimmy just stood there, never said a word to them," the attorney continued softly.  "But I couldn't let it go.  Jimmy's my friend, and no one speaks to my friends that way.  Things could've gotten ugly, but C.D. finally got them out of there."

          "Was anyone hurt?"

          "No!  There weren't even any punches thrown."

          "Talk to me, Alex.  What happened?"

          She finally met his gaze, and Walker's heart went out to her.

          "Walker, he was so mad at me after they left.  I was scared of him for the first time since I've known him."  Tears threatened again.  "I thought I was doing the right thing, y'know?"

          Lost for words, Walker reached across the table to take her hand. 

          "I just don't know what to do to make it right," she said, wiping her eyes.  "I've tried calling, but he won't pick up the phone."

          "Want me to try again?" he offered. "Maybe he'll pick up for me."

          "Would you?  Just to make sure he's okay?"

          Climbing to his feet, the Ranger reached for the phone.  He punched in his partner's number, listening to it ring.  As the machine came on again, he said, "Trivette, it's Walker.  Pick up the phone."  Walker waited a few seconds, then said, "C'mon, partner.  Pick up the danged phone!"  Cutting the connection, he looked at Alex with a slight frown.  "I'll try his cell phone."

          That got no result either.

          "C'mon," he said, heading for the living room.

          "Where are we going?"

          "Trivette's apartment.  I don't like this, something's not right."

          Arnie looked around blearily.  Nudging his brother, he said, "Vern, you hear that?"

          "Unh. . .  Hear what?"

          "Somethin' ringing.  Thought it was my alarm but then I realized we ain't home!"  The younger brother laughed.

          "Ah, man!  My head's killin' me," Vern grouched.  "I need a drink."

          "Let's go back to the Wrecking Ball," Arnie suggested, wiping sleep from his eyes and starting the car's engine.

          "That's the first good idea you've had in days."

          "See?  You knew there was a reason you kept me around," the younger man said smugly.

          "Don't push your luck, boy."

          When they arrived at Trivette's apartment building, Walker automatically checked for his partner's car.  No sign.  Dang. 

          Parking his truck in an empty slot, the Ranger searched through his key ring.  Trivette had once given him a set, figuring they might come in handy one day.  The older man just hoped this turned out to be a false alarm.

          As they entered the small apartment, Walker headed straight for the answering machine.  The blinking light indicated five messages.  Hitting the "play" button, he exchanged glances with Alex as they heard C.D.'s voice first.

          "Jimmy, I know you're angry, son.  But takin' it out on Alex was the wrong thing to do.  I think you owe her a mighty big apology, she was real upset after you left here earlier.  Ah shoot, son, those boys ain't worth a decent friendship.  Whatever Alex said, she did it because she was lookin' out for you.  There ain't nothin' wrong with that.  You take it easy, Jimmy and I'll see ya later.  Think about what I said, huh?"

          The messages that followed were from himself and Alex, as Walker had expected.  Turning to Alex, he found her staring at the phone, her expression one of deep sorrow.

          "Hey," he said gently, going over to her and pulling her into a tight hug.  "It'll be okay, Alex.  You'll see."

          "You don't understand, Walker.  He was so mad.  What if he went and did something--"  She pulled back, covering her mouth as if holding the words in would keep the thought from materializing.

          Walker shook his head.  "No.  I know him better than that, Alex.  Trivette may have a hell of a temper, but he wouldn't go looking for more trouble.  Most likely he's just laying low someplace, thinking things over.  I'm sure he feels just as bad for yelling at you." 

          "God, I hope you're right, Walker.  Because if anything--"

          "Stop right there, Alex," he ordered. "There's no sense borrowing trouble until we know what's going on.  Let's check the rest of the apartment, see if we can find anything."

          What they found gave no encouragement.  The drapes were all pulled as they'd normally be against the hot sun of afternoon.  Trivette's bed was neatly made, which didn't really prove anything, nor did the tidy bathroom.  They found nothing to indicate one way or another whether their friend had come home the night before.

          "I'm going to try his cell phone one more time," Walker said, picking up Trivette's phone and dialing the number.

          "Hey, Vern!  There it is again.  That ringin' sound," Arnie said, trying to look around the car's interior for the source.

          Vern smacked his brother.  "That's a cell phone, ya idiot."

          "Okay, so where's it comin' from?" his brother challenged.

          "I dunno!  Sounds kinda muffled."  On instinct, he checked the glove compartment.  It opened easily, revealing the still-ringing phone.

          "Here, give it to me."  Arnie held out his hand.

          "What the hell for?"

          "C'mon, Vern.  Lemme have a bit of fun?" the younger man asked.

          "Oh all right."  Vern shoved the phone at his brother.

          Grinning, Arnie took his eyes off the road long enough to figure out how to open the phone and answer it.

          "Watch the road!" his brother yelled.

          Arnie ignored him.  Switching on the phone he answered, "Hello," dragging it out.

          "Who's this?"

          "Well, who's this?" Arnie shot back.

          "I asked first."

          "You're no fun.  I'm gonna hang up!"

          "No wait!  My name's Walker.  I'm looking for my partner -- that's his phone you're using.  Have you seen him?"

          "Can't say I have, Ranger.  'Sides, me and my brother don't hang around with his sort."

          "And what sort is that?"

          Hearing the frost in the other man's voice, Arnie stuttered, "I-I think I'd better hang up now."

          "You moron!" Vern yelled, grabbing the phone and throwing it in the backseat.  "Why not just paint a sign?"

          "It's okay, Vern.  We weren't on long enough for him to trace us.  Least I don't think we were.  And we're still moving!" 

          "Well, keep us moving!  I want that drink."

          Walker hung up the phone, frowning.  He had an ominous feeling in the pit of his stomach. 

          "Walker, who was that?  What'd they say?" Alex asked, clutching his arm.

          "They said--" The Ranger broke off as something occurred to him.  "Damn!"

          "What is it?"

          "He called me 'Ranger', Alex.  I never identified myself except as Trivette's partner.  So why'd he call me Ranger?"

          She paled.  "Unless--"

          Nodding, he finished, "Unless they knew Trivette's also a Ranger.  And to know that, they had to have seen him."

          "Oh my God.  Walker, you don't think--  I mean--"  The attorney took a deep breath, trying to calm herself enough to get the words out.  "What if . . . they're the same guys we ran into at C.D.'s last night?"

          "I thought of that, too.  They could be, Alex.  And that could mean Trivette's in real trouble."  Picking up the phone once more, he dialed a new number. "This is Walker, I need a triangulation on a phone call made to a cell phone," and he gave them Trivette's number.  "I need that as soon as possible."

          Officer Bruce Calder yawned.  Man, it was gonna be a hot day.  He just hoped it was quiet.

          Less than fifteen minutes later he saw a red Trans Am speed by carrying two men.  They were going well over the limit and weaving just slightly.  As he automatically noted the license plate he caught a glimpse of a broken tail light. 

          So much for quiet, he mused, pulling out and following.  Switching on his lights, Calder gave a blast of his siren to make sure they got the point.

          To his surprise they pulled over immediately.  Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all.  Picking up his mic, he called in his location and requested a run of the license plate.  Stepping out of the car, he donned his hat and approached the other vehicle slowly.

          "What's the problem, officer?" called the driver.

          "Just routine," Calder assured.  The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end as he approached.  He could swear he heard something coming from the trunk.  "Would you mind stepping out of the car, sir?  And I'll need the keys to the trunk, please."

          He caught the way the driver looked at his passenger and instinct kicked in.  The revving of the car's engine just barely preceded him jumping out of the way as the Trans Am slammed backward into his patrol car.

          "Son of a bitch!" Calder cursed as he rolled to his feet, pulling his gun.  He cursed again, spotting a young woman with three small children standing in the line of fire.  They'd been watching the scene curiously.  Eyeing the escaping car as it rounded a corner he holstered his gun in disgust.  A hissing sound caught his attention and he turned slowly to look at his car.  White steam curled out from his radiator -- no way could he give chase. "Sarge's gonna kill me.  That's the second car this month."

          Limping to the driver's seat, he reached for his mike, calling it in along with a request for a tow.

          Jimmy had no idea of how long they'd been on the road.  Judging by the building heat and the light coming in through the broken tail light he could guess that it was well into morning.

          And they were still on the move.  With a sinking sensation he realized no one would even know he was missing until later today when he failed to show for the stakeout with Walker.

          When he heard the police siren following them, he would've shouted in relief had he any voice to spare.  To his surprise the car slowed to a stop and moments later he heard the driver ask what was the problem.  When the officer responded it was a routine check, Jimmy mustered his energy and tried to yell.  He managed only a hoarse croak he knew couldn't be heard outside the trunk.

          He'd stiffened up through the night, but managed to get his leg to respond at least enough to thump against the floor.  Maybe that would get some attention.

          The cop asked for the keys to the trunk, and Jimmy could've wept in relief.  Thank God

          The feeling didn't last long, replaced by despair as he heard the engine rev and the car lurched backwards.  He tried desperately to brace himself. 

          Too late he realized his mistake as a jolt of pain speared through his left leg, sending him into welcome darkness.

          "So where do we go from here?" Alex wondered, apprehension knotting her stomach.

          "First we put out an APB for Trivette's car," Walker decided, heading for the apartment door.

          They walked out and climbed into the truck.  As Walker pulled his door shut, his police radio squawked to life.

          "All units in the vicinity of Logan Boulevard be on the lookout for a red Tran Am, license number CDG 1224.  Suspects wanted for suspicion of driving under the influence, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, and fleeing the scene of an accident."

          Walker froze momentarily.

          "What is it?" Alex asked as his face paled.

          "That's Trivette's car."  Starting the Ram's engine, Walker sped out of the parking lot.  Once on the street he reached for the mic.  "This is Walker.  Give me the location of the officer involved with the Trans Am."

          As Arnie sped away from the cop, he wailed, "We're in trouble now, Vern!"

          "You stupid shit!  If you'd been driving more careful in the first place this wouldn't a happened!"  Vern smacked his brother.

          "So what do we do now?"

          "Gimme a minute!" the older man snapped.  After a second, he said, "We should dump the nigger before we do anything else."

          "Good idea," Arnie said, looking around. "Where?"

          "How the hell should I know!  Why do I have to make all the decisions, you moron?"

          "'Cause you're the oldest!" his brother shot back. 

          "Dang!  I wish Momma'd never met your Pa."  Checking their location, Vern pointed to an alley.  "Turn here.  I used to work at a restaurant down the block."

          Arnie took the turn sharply. 

          "Pull down further, there should be a dumpster around here somewhere.  We can leave him along with the rest of the trash."

          "I see 'em," Arnie said, peering over the steering wheel.  "Looks like there's a few of 'em."

          "Guess we got our choice then.  Pull up as close as you can."  The car stopped alongside three large dumpsters.  Opening his door, Vern said, "Go check 'em out.  I'll open the trunk."

          Arnie chose the emptiest simply because it had some crates stacked in front that they could use to climb on.  Lifting the lid, he wrinkled his nose in disgust. "Phew!  That's really bad-smelling, Vern."

          "Good," his brother said, opening the trunk. "People'll never notice him, then.  His kind of trash fits right in.  Get over here and give me a hand."

          Checking for any observers, the brothers hauled the Ranger out of the trunk and over to the dumpster.  He struggled feebly, making them laugh.  His groan as they hoisted him in only made them laugh harder.

          "Help me move these crates outta the way," the older man instructed.  "Don't wanna draw attention to it, now do we?"

          "No sirree, Vern!" his brother agreed, helping him shift a couple of the crates to other dumpsters.

          "That should do it.  And it's the last we'll see of him," Vern said, wiping his hands on his jeans.  "Whaddya say we go for that drink now?  The one we were heading for when that other pig pulled us over."

          "Sounds good to me!" his brother agreed, heading for the car.

          Walker pulled up behind the marked police car.  Despite his concern over his partner, he couldn't help grinning at the column of smoke still pouring from the vehicle.

          "Stay here and listen for anything further on Trivette's car," he said to Alex.  "I'll be right back."

          The blonde nodded. 

          Walker hopped out of the driver's seat and approached the uniformed officer.  "Hey, Bruce.  What happened?"

          "Walker!  Good to see you.  They sending Rangers out on routine stops, now?" the man teased, shaking Walker's outstretched hand.

          "Well, actually I'm interested in the car you tangled with.  Could you describe it to me?"

          "Sure."  Calder checked his notebook for the facts.  "Recent model Trans Am. . . fire engine red. . .license CDG 1224.  Two occupants, looked to be male.  Why?  Involved in one of your cases?" 

          "No," Walker answered softly.  "That car belongs to my partner."

          "Your partner?" the cop asked, shocked. "Then why'n the hell did he back into my unit and take off?!"

          "I don't think he was driving, Bruce.  Could you describe the driver?"

          "Well I didn't get a close look, but the man was caucasian, looked kinda scruffy."  Calder squinted at Walker in the bright sun.  "Too scruffy to be a Ranger if you ask me."

          "That's because he wasn't a Ranger, Bruce."  At the other man's uncomprehending look, Walker continued, "My partner's not caucasian, he's African-American.  And no one's seen him since late last night."

          "Damn!" Calder swore.  A worried frown creased his brow.

          "What?"

          "I thought I heard some kinda noise comin' from the trunk.  It was real faint," the officer explained.  "I'd asked the driver to step out and hand me the keys and that's when he slammed the car into reverse and rammed me.  They took off around the corner like bats out of hell."

          "So you think there might've been something, maybe someone, in the trunk?" Walker asked.  Dread settled in his gut.

          "I couldn't swear to it, but it sure seemed that way."  Something else occurred to Calder.  "Oh, and the right tail light was broken, Walker.  Before they slammed into me."

          "How long ago was this?"

          The officer considered.  "Twenty minutes maybe?"

          "Thanks, Bruce.  You've been a big help."  Walker once again shook the other man's hand.

          "Hope you find your partner okay, Walker.  Good luck."

          As Walker climbed back into his truck, Alex asked, "Was it Jimmy's car?"

          "Yeah," the Ranger responded.  He told Alex what Calder had related to him, including the part about the broken tail light and the faint noise coming from the trunk.

          She remained silent for several seconds after he'd finished, trying to digest everything.  Finally she said, "So what now?"

          "I'm not sure," he admitted.  Reaching for his mike, he said, "This is Walker.  I need an APB on a '91 red Trans Am, Texas license number C-D-G 1224.  Approach with caution, there may be a victim trapped in the trunk."  Replacing the mike, he said, "They could be anywhere by now."

          "God, Walker, this can't be happening!  It's like a bad dream," Alex cried.

          Reaching over to take her hand, he assured, "We'll find him, Alex.  I promise."

          She nodded, knowing he was reassuring himself as well as her.

          "Hey Vern. . ."  Arnie looked nervously over at his brother.

          "Arnie, why're you whispering?" the other man snapped.

          "Look, there's a cop car."  Pointing to the oncoming vehicle, Arnie said, "He could be lookin' for us."

          "Turn right," Vern instructed.  "But take it easy.  Don't make 'em suspicious this time."

          "Hey, the other one was gonna look in the trunk!  Tell me that wouldn't have been suspicious?"

          "Shut up and drive," the older man snarled. "Head back to our place.  We'll pick up the truck, find a place to ditch this then head to the Wrecking Ball for that drink."

          They made it to their house without incident.  As they pulled in the dirt driveway, Vern said, "I'll drive the truck, you follow me."

          "Okay, Vern."  Arnie watched his brother climb up into the truck.  Backing up into the street, he waited for Vern to pull out.

          Vern chose to drive straight to the Wrecking Ball.  A few blocks away from the bar he pulled down a side street.  No one would notice a banged-up car in this neighborhood.

          Arnie pulled up behind his brother.  Shutting off the Trans Am's engine, he pocketed the keys and climbed out.  Taking one last regretful look at the car, he hopped into the truck with his brother.  It had been sweet while it lasted.

          Walker chose to drive the streets in an expanding pattern from where Calder had encountered the Trans Am.  He knew it would be a long shot but at this point felt he had no choice.  Until or unless someone spotted Trivette's car.

          Alex remained silent during the search.  Walker knew the disagreement with Trivette weighed heavily on her mind.

          As if reading his mind, she finally said, "Was I so wrong to step in, Walker?  Help me understand this."

          "Well, your heart was in the right place, Alex.  But Trivette was right when he said they were trying to draw attention to themselves.  They thrive on that."  Walker paused a moment.  "Can you imagine what would happen if he reacted the way you did to every racial slur aimed at him?"

          She flushed in shame.  "I hadn't thought of that.  But it's just so hard to ignore, Walker!"

          "I know.  It never gets easy, Alex," he admitted.  "To be honest, I think Trivette's better at it than I am.  He's ignored things that would've pushed me to respond."

          Alex considered this.  "Maybe . . . that's because he's had to deal with it into adulthood, too?"  She stumbled on quickly.  "I mean, you yourself said the prejudice eased as you grew up."

          The Ranger nodded, unoffended.  "That's true, Alex.  Trivette's never had that benefit, so he had to learn to walk away from it."

          "I just hope he can forgive me," she whispered.  "If anything's happened to him--"

          "He'll turn up soon, Alex.  And then you can both apologize to each other," Walker assured, reaching out to grab her hand and squeeze it lightly.

          "What's for breakfast!" Vern yelled as he and Arnie walked back into the Wrecking Ball.

          Dale, the day manager/bartender, looked up from wiping the bar.  As the two men approached, he whistled softly.  "You guys look like something the cat dragged in."

          Arnie squinted at the bartender.  "We're hungry, Dale.  Bring us some pancakes and sausage.  And a coupla beers while you're at it."

          "You don't think you've had enough?" the man asked mildly, avoiding eye contact as he wrote up the order.

          "Hey!"  Vern stalked over and smacked the bar counter, making the other two patrons jump in surprise.  "That's my brother you're talkin' too!  We'll say when we've had enough.  Just pour the drinks and bring the food, dammit!"

          Shrugging, Dale said, "You're the customer.  Have a seat and I'll get it."

          It had been almost two hours since Walker had left Calder's location and still no word on Trivette or his car.  He and Alex kept their eyes open but both knew the chances of them finding the car on their own were slim to none.

          As Walker turned another corner his radio crackled to life.  "Walker, this is Dispatch.  Unit 2312 has found your red Trans Am on Parker Street, cross street Broad."

          "Finally," Alex breathed as Walker reached for the mike.

          "This is Walker, 10-4.  We'll meet them there."  Flipping on his lights and siren, he pulled around the car in front of him, cautiously advancing through the red traffic light.

          For Walker it took an eternity to reach the location but in reality it couldn't have been more than fifteen minutes.  Upon seeing the car he couldn't help thinking his partner wasn't going to be too happy at the damage.

          If he sees it. . .  The thought brought a lump to Walker's throat.  He'll see it, he determined.  Right now he couldn't consider any other possibility.

          Pulling the truck out of the line of traffic, Walker shut off the engine.  Both he and Alex hopped out, running over to the officers on the scene.

          "I'm Ranger Walker.  What've you got?" he said as he approached them.

          The senior partner, Sergeant Tom Wolfe, said, "We found it just like this, Ranger.  Parked here like you see it.  No signs of any passengers.  But whoever they were, they were enjoying themselves last night.  Found a lot of empty beer bottles and a nearly empty bottle of Jack Daniels."

          "Did you check the trunk?" Alex asked.

          "No, ma'am," the younger officer answered.  His name tag read Jerry McGrath. "We figured we'd best wait for you."

          "Let's do it," Walker said.  Turning to Alex, he said, "Wait by the truck."

          She blinked in shock, realizing what he expected to find.  "Oh Walker," she breathed.  "No!"

          "Please, Alex," he asked softly.  His face gave nothing away, but his eyes begged for her cooperation. 

          She nodded, moving off.  But she steeled herself for what the trunk held.  Walker would need her support if Jimmy didn't make it.  Her own feelings she refused to consider.

          McGrath took out his gun, about to shoot out the lock.  His partner got to him first, grabbing his wrist. 

          "We can't shoot it, Jerry.  There may be someone inside, remember?" he said softly.

          The younger man paled, stepping back.

          "Do you have a crowbar?" Walker asked.

          Wolfe nodded, quickly moving to the patrol car to get it.  Handing it over to Walker, they watched as the Ranger wedged it in and put his weight behind it.  The accident with the earlier patrol car stood in his favor and the lid popped without much effort.

          The stench of vomit made them gag and step back.  But there was no body. 

          Walker blinked furiously, not sure if they were tears of relief or just stinging from the smell.  At least it meant there had to be a chance.

          "Walker?"  Alex's voice sounded small, uncertain.

          The Ranger met her gaze.  "He's not here, Alex."

          She closed her eyes, biting her lip to hold back the cry of frustration.  They'd been so close!  Where could he be?

          Walker's own emotions were traveling much the same route.  At least when they'd thought Trivette was in the trunk, he'd had a better chance of surviving.  Now. . .  Now he could be anywhere.  And the odds were stacking up against him.

          McGrath and Wolfe had stepped closer to examine the trunk while Walker had seen to Alex.  Now Wolfe softly cleared his throat to get the Ranger's attention.

          "Walker, I think you'd better look at this."  The officer stepped back to let Walker in closer.

          Alex approached, needing to be part of this.  She gasped softly as she saw they were examining pools of blood on the carpeted floor of the trunk.

          "Get a forensics team here.  Now," the Ranger commanded quietly.  "I want to know whose blood that is."

          "Sure thing, Ranger."  McGrath ran to the squad car to call it in.

          Walker turned to look for Alex, finding her over by the truck, back facing him.  He could tell by her quivering shoulders that she was crying.

          Striding over to her, he gently pulled her around to face him.  "Alex, don't--"

          "Oh Walker," she sobbed.  "This is all my fault!  If he's dead, it's because of me!"

          "Stop it, Alex!" he commanded, shaking her slightly.  "We don't know that's even his blood."

          "Who else could it be?" she questioned. "And where's Jimmy if they didn't have him?"

          "I don't know," he admitted.  It did look bad.  But. . .  "We can't give up on him, Alex.  He's never given up on either of us.  Until we find a body I won't believe he's dead.  Now, are you with me?" 

          She nodded, sniffling a bit.  "I'm sorry, Walker.  I guess it all just got to me."

          "I know."  In an all-too-rare gesture, he pulled her close for a hug and whispered, "It's getting to me, too."

          "Hey Ranger!" McGrath called.  He'd moved to the front seat of the car, checking through the debris the passengers had left behind.

          Walker turned to see the officer holding up a fistful of napkins.  He approached the younger man, wondering what exactly he'd found.

          "These are all from well-known dives," he pointed out, spreading them over the car's hood. 

          "Yeah, they are."  Walker recognized one immediately.  The Wrecking Ball.  He and Trivette had been there on many occasions searching for suspects.  And it wasn't far from here.

          Wolfe seemed to follow his train of thought. "Ranger, we could split these up.  You take the Wrecking Ball and the Cactus and we'll take the other two."

          Walker nodded.  "I appreciate it, Sergeant Wolfe."  Pulling a card from his wallet he passed it over.  "Call me at that number if you find anything."

          "You got it.  C'mon, Jerry, let's go."

          Jimmy stirred weakly, opening his good eye to try to figure out his location.  From the smell alone he'd have to guess he'd been thrown in a dumpster.  His stomach heaved from the smell, sending waves of pain coursing through him. 

          I should've gone back to talk to Alex, he realized numbly.  I may never get the chance now.            Trivette knew his chances of getting out of this alive had been greatly reduced when they'd dumped him from the car.  At least then there'd been a chance the cops would stop them and find him. 

          He closed his eye, giving in to the tears then.  He didn't want to die like this.  And he didn't want his friends to find him this way either, handcuffed and thrown away like trash.  They'd take it hard, he knew.

          It's still not over, the fighter in him pointed out.  Every hour you stay alive is another hour Walker has to find you.

          Taking a shuddering breath, Jimmy fought back the urge to gag again.  He'd stay alive as long as he could.  Find me soon, partner.  Please?

          Kyle walked into the Wrecking Ball wearing his Stetson.  This time without the Ranger Star.  He'd put it in his pocket for safe-keeping.  He still didn't know what he'd do with it.

          "Hey, Dale," he greeted the bartender.  Taking a seat at the bar, he said, "Gimme some ham and eggs, would ya?"

          "Sure."  Nodding to the back of the bar, he said, "Gonna join your pals back there?"

          Heart sinking, the young man looked in the direction indicated.  Sure enough, Arnie and Vern had made their way back.

          "Hey, Lover boy!" Vern called, spotting their young friend.  "Get your sorry ass back here!  We got a story for ya!"

          Kyle turned back to Dale.  "You know where I'll be."

          The other man nodded as he headed back to the kitchen to place the order.

          "Grab a seat," Arnie said, taking a swig from his beer. 

          "You missed a great time."  Vern grinned evilly.  Looking around, he said, "Where's your bitch?"

          Holding on to his temper with effort, Kyle said, "Sleeping."

          "Wore her out, huh?  Good boy!" the older brother said.

          Ignoring the comment, Kyle said, "I didn't see the car.  What'd ya do with it?"

          "Ah, we had to ditch it," Arnie said. "Got in a tussle with the cops, figured they'd be on the lookout for it."  He lifted his bottle to his lips, grimacing as he discovered it empty. "Hey Dale!  Bring me another one!"

          "Me too!" Vern said, finishing off his own.

          Kyle shook his head.  He'd never seen two people hold their liquor like these brothers.  Taking a chance, he said, "What about the Ranger?"

          "You mean the pig?" Vern sneered.  He kept silent until Dale had brought them fresh beers and taken away the old bottles.  "He's done for.  Threw him away with the trash."

          "What d'ya mean?" Kyle asked, apprehension knotting his stomach.

          Drinking half of his beer in a gulp, Vern slurred, "You know the Silver Spur Restaurant?"

          When it looked like the other man wouldn't continue without prompting, Kyle said, "Yeah I know it."

          "Well I used to work there.  Bastards sacked me 'cause I was late a time or two--"

          "Or three or four," Arnie cut in, laughing wildly.

          "Shuddup!  Who asked you, moron?" his brother growled, cuffing him in the back of the head.  Turning back to Kyle, he said, "Anyway, I figured what better way to get rid of the pig than to leave him with the rest of the trash!"  Grinning stupidly, he finished off his beer.

          "I'm tired, Vern," Arnie complained.

          "You're always whinin'.  I don't know why I bother with you."  Shaking his head in disgust, the older man returned to the other conversation.  "They'll never find him, he fits in too well with the rest of the trash!"

          "Was he still alive?"  Kyle tried to keep the apprehension from his voice, knowing he had to be careful here.

          "He squirmed around like a fish," Arnie slurred.  Moving into the corner of the booth, he leaned his head back against the wall.

          "Yeah, moaned a time or two but he won't last long," grinned Vern.

          The young man fought a shiver.  He couldn't help feeling relieved that he'd stayed behind with Tina.

          "Hey, Kyle!" Dale called.  "Gimme a hand, willya?  I got a couple kegs I wanna move in the back."

          Kyle climbed out of the booth.  "Sure, Dale."

          It didn't take long to shift the kegs.  When they returned to the front of the bar they heard snoring from the back booth.

          "Don't tell me," groaned Dale.  "The Brothers Stupid have passed out.  Again!"

          "Hey, at least they're not ripping up the bar this way," the young man pointed out.

          "Yeah, I suppose.  Have a seat, kid.  Your breakfast should be ready any minute.  It's on the house this time."  The bartender walked back to the kitchen to get the meal.

          Returning in a minute, he set the plate and a cup of coffee in front of Kyle.  Watching the young man dig in, he casually said, "I don't know why you got yourself mixed up with those two.  They're nothin' but trouble."

          That slowed down the other man's appetite. "Yeah.  I'm learnin', believe me."

          Eyeing him curiously, Dale asked, "I heard from Merv they got into it with another black guy last night?  That true?"

          Kyle put down his fork, considering how much he could trust the other man.  "He ain't wrong, Dale.  They did a number on 'im.  Took his car even."

          "Did they kill him?" the bartender wondered.

          "I don't know," the young man admitted.  Realizing his appetite had vanished, he hopped off the stool.  "Uh, listen Dale, I gotta wake Tina up.  She's filling in for Carla today.  Be right back."

          "She just got off a couple hours ago!" the other man protested.  "Shit, who's bright idea was that?"

          "Merv's," Kyle answered as he walked out the door.

          Walker pulled into the small lot in front of the Wrecking Ball.  Looking over at Alex, he said, "Wait here.  And make sure you lock the doors."

          The blonde nodded.  She'd regained some of her composure but had kept quiet on the drive here.  So much rested on what they learned.  "Good luck."

          "They'll need it," he said, glad to see a small grin quirk the corners of her mouth.

          Rats.  He could hear them scrambling around but couldn't be sure if they'd gotten inside the container with him or not.  He shuddered, moaning at the pain the movement caused.  He opened his eye, trying in vain to look around.

          God, I hate rats.  Saw too damned many of them when I was a kid.  Promised myself I'd never have to go through this again! Jimmy tried to block out the times he'd woken up to find a rat staring at him across his bedroom in the projects.

          He jumped in surprise as a heavy thud sounded on the lid of his prison.  Moments later he heard a cat snarl and another hiss in response.

          C'mon, Walker.  Get me the hell outta here before I go crazy! Jimmy begged silently, closing his eye again.

          As Walker entered the bar and looked around, he figured this had to be the emptiest he'd ever seen it.  There were no patrons in sight, though he could hear snoring from somewhere. 

          A dark-haired man with a beard stepped out from behind the bar.  "What can I get ya?"

          "Some information."  Walker stepped forward so the bartender could see the badge pinned to his chest. 

          "That all depends," the man said evenly, wiping a spot on the bar.

          "I'm looking for some guys who might have been in here last night.  Trouble is, I don't have a description of them."

          "Then how am I supposed to help?"

          A reasonable question, Walker knew. "There were at least two of them, maybe three.  Driving a red Trans Am."

          "What'd they do?"  The man leaned casually on the bar, looking at Walker.

          "They're wanted in connection with the disappearance of a Texas Ranger," Walker replied.

          Narrowing his eyes suspiciously, the bartender asked, "He wasn't black, was he?"

          "Would it make a difference?"  The Ranger took two steps forward, anger clear in the set lines of his face.

          "Not to me.  But to some, yeah."  Nodding to the back of the bar, the man said, "There's two brothers back there.  Name's are Vern and Arnie Danzig.  Been shootin' their mouths off about havin' some fun with a nigger last night.  Their words, not mine."

          "Much obliged," Walker said.  Unsnapping his holster and keeping his gun hand ready, he walked to the back of the bar.

          They looked and smelled disgusting.  Must've been drinking all night, the Ranger thought.  In addition, both sported impressive bruises on their face.  One looked like his nose had recently been broken.  Grabbing the nearest man, he hauled him to his feet. "Wake up!"

          He soon realized this one wouldn't be of any use.  Lips curled in contempt, he shoved the man into a corner.

          The noise startled the other brother. "Huh?"

          "C'mon, on your feet!" Walker snapped, dragging the second brother out of the booth.

          "Wh-what's goin' on?"  The man looked around terrified.  Seeing his brother in the corner he whimpered, "Vern--"

          "Talk to me," came a low growl from the man holding him up. 

          Arnie trembled as the silver Ranger star pinned on his interrogator's chest registered.  Rangers always took care of their own.  His stomach heaved. 

          Seeing the expression, Walker dropped Arnie next to his brother.  These guys obviously couldn't give their hat size right now. 

          Dale watched the Ranger stalk toward the back of the bar.  He couldn't help grinning.  Finally those idiots had gotten in over their heads.

          A sound from the stockroom caught his attention.  Had to be Tina and Kyle coming down the back stairs.  Knowing the Ranger wouldn't be paying attention to him, he slipped into the back room.

          "Kyle, there's a Ranger out there," he hissed when he saw the couple coming in the door from the upstairs apartments. "He's lookin' for his partner, a black guy."

          "Oh shit," the young man moaned. "Where is he now?"

          "Tryin' to get info out of the Brothers Stupid.  Not havin' much luck, either," grinned Dale.

          "I'm gonna fry for this, I know it," Kyle worried, looking around wildly.

          "Kyle!  Stop and think," Tina urged.  "You told me upstairs they were shootin' off their mouths and told you where he was, right?  Right?"

          "Yeah . . . yeah.  So?"  He raked a hand through his hair.

          "So go out there and tell that Ranger!  Maybe it'll get you a reduced sentence or somethin'!  Cooperatin' has to count for something, right, Dale?"

          "Couldn't hurt," the older man nodded.

          "Oh God, what if it doesn't?"

          "Kyle Thompson, you listen to me," Tina said firmly.  "You know what you need to do so just buck up and do it!  If not for yourself or me, then at least for the baby."

          "Ba-baby?" he stuttered, looking dazed. "You're pr-pregnant?"

          "Yeah," she said, putting a protective hand over her stomach.  "Just got the word yesterday.  I been waiting for the right time to tell you, Kyle."

          Taking a deep breath, the young man looked toward the door to the bar.  "Okay.  I'll go tell him what I know.  For you.  And for our baby."

          Despair washed through Walker as he looked at the two useless forms on the floor.  It would take hours to get them sobered enough to give any information.  Hours he was sure his partner didn't have.

          Looking around, he saw the bartender had disappeared.  Probably hiding in the back until Walker left.

          Striding to the door, he pulled it open and stepped out into the fresh air, taking several deep breaths to calm himself.  He realized his mistake as soon as he saw Alex sitting in the truck.  She could read him like a book and this would only add to her own load.

          He met her gaze, giving a minute shake of his head.  Walking over to the truck, he waited for her to unlock the door.

          "What happened, Walker?" she asked as he opened the door.  When he didn't climb in immediately she scooted across the seat to be closer.

          Leaning against the frame, he looked back at the bar.  Shaking his head, he told her, "They're there, Alex.  But drunk out of their minds.  We won't be able to get anything out of them for hours."

          "We don't have hours," the attorney pointed out.

          "I know that!" Walker snapped.  Disgusted at himself, he whispered, "I'm sorry, Alex."

          She nodded, reaching out to touch him.  Then, "Walker, I think we have company."

          The Ranger turned, seeing a man stepping out from the doorway of the bar.  Young, probably early twenties.  He clutched something in his hand.  He looked so nervous as he approached that Walker might have laughed if the situation hadn't been so desperate.

          "Ranger, I think this belongs to someone you know."  Extending his hand palm up, the man revealed a silver star.

          "Where'd you get this?" Walker asked harshly, taking the badge.

          Faltering in the face in the face of the Ranger's anger, Kyle said, "We, uh, took it off a man last night."

          "You were with them?"  Walker stepped closer.  "Where is he?  What did you do to him?"

          "I-I wasn't with them the wh-whole time," the young man stammered, taking a step back.  Closing his eyes, he said, "It got out of hand.  That man, your partner, accidentally bumped into Vern.  He don't take kindly to black folks.  He saw him with that pretty blonde and figured he'd teach him a lesson."  Swallowing hard, Kyle continued, "I didn't know they were gonna do what they did, Ranger.  Honest."

          "Where is he?" Walker asked again. "Do you know?"

          "Yeah, uh, Vern said something about the dumpsters behind the Silver Spur restaurant.  I don't know where it is, though."

          "I do."  Hopping into the truck, Walker reached for the mike. 

          "Ranger," Kyle called out.  "They said he was still alive when they dumped him."

          The red-bearded man froze.  "How long ago was that?"

          "Couple hours.  No more."

          "Okay, stay put," the Ranger commanded. "Don't make me come looking for you later.  If we find him and he's alive it might go easier on you."

          "Don't worry," Kyle assured.  "I ain't goin' nowhere, Ranger."

          Walker nodded, reaching for the ignition.  As they pulled out of the parking lot he again grabbed the mic.  "This is Walker.  I need units at the Wrecking Ball for transport of three suspects."

          "10-4, Walker," responded the dispatcher.

          Turning on his lights and siren, Walker pulled out into traffic.  They had a chance now.  Hang on, partner.  We're coming.  Just hang on a little longer.

          Alex sat huddled in the far corner of the truck.  Her mood kept swinging between elated that they had a solid clue to despair at what they'd find.

          As they pulled into the alley behind the Silver Spur, Walker fought back a groan.  There were at least a half-dozen bars and restaurants on this block, not to mention all the shops in between.  Each had at least one if not more dumpsters. 

          "Where the hell do we start?" he muttered.

          "Pick one," Alex said philosophically, unbuckling her seatbelt and climbing out.

          "Where do you think you're going?"

          "You didn't think I would just sit back and watch, did you?" she snapped.

          "Alex--"

          She blinked rapidly.  "Look, Walker -- Jimmy's my friend, too.  I can't just sit around anymore!"

          "Okay," he said, hopping out after her. "You take these down here.  I'll go toward the other end.  And watch out for the rats."

          She shuddered but didn't back down.

          Alex had searched through four of the trash bins at her end.  She'd found a way to do it that at least kept her from having to climb inside them.  A rusty crowbar allowed her to move the contents of the dumpsters enough to see if it contained a body.

          No, not a body -- Jimmy, she corrected herself. 

          She and Walker occasionally shouted back and forth when they'd finished inspecting a particular dumpster.  From time to time she'd steal a look down the alley at Walker, keeping an eye on his progress.  Once or twice he'd met her gaze, and the desperate expression in his eyes made her heart ache.  Finally she walked over to him.

          "Walker, what if--"  She found she couldn't finish.

          "Don't think it, Alex," he begged. "He's alive.  I'm sure of it.  Just . . . keep looking."

          Nodding, she returned to the grim task.

          Jimmy knew he must be hallucinating.  After all, how could he possibly be hearing Walker's voice, right?  Even with his Cherokee, the other man couldn't possibly know where to look.

          Don't underestimate him, his other voice cautioned.  You've seen too many times how he does the impossible.  Give him a signal, something concrete to look for just in case.

          The injured Ranger tried calling out but could barely manage a whisper.  Vern's throttling had been bad enough, but dehydration and his earlier attempts at yelling for help had left him without voice.

          He couldn't free his hands to bang on the walls, couldn't even feel his hands anymore, for that matter.  Putting that thought aside, he concentrated on the one avenue left:  his feet.

          Or rather, foot.  Trying to move the left leg sent waves of pain through him.  But the right still cooperated.  Kicking out, he found the wall.  He banged on it a couple times, the effort exhausting him.

          Got to . . . keep going.  Can't give . . . up.  In an effort to marshal his energy he kicked once, waited a second and kicked again.  He continued repeating the cycle, knowing the regularity of it would grab Walker's attention if he came close enough to hear.

          If that really is him, Jimmy's skeptical side taunted.

          It is, the fighter inside him assured.  Walker won't let me down!

          After another ten minutes of searching, movement out of the corner of her eye caught her attention.  Turning toward Walker she found him frozen in concentration.

          Climbing down from the dumpster she'd been inspecting, Alex took two steps toward him.  "Walker?"

          He held his hand up for silence, then beckoned her closer.  As she approached she heard it too.  A rhythmic tapping.  Too regular to be coincidence.

          "He's here!" the attorney gripped Walker's arm. 

          There were still three more dumpsters at this end that Walker hadn't searched.  Pointing to the closest one, he told Alex, "Check that one."

          He chose the farthest of the three.  When that yielded nothing he hopped down and ran to the middle one.  Lifting the lid, he climbed up and peered in. 

          "Oh my God," he breathed.  "Alex, get an ambulance.  Now!"

          Her hands trembled as she pulled out her phone.  She had to disconnect and try again when her shaking finger hit a wrong button.  "This is ADA Alex Cahill.  I need police and an ambulance in the alley behind the Silver Spur Restaurant on Mesa.  We have an officer down."  She stayed on the line to confirm the information then shoved a crate over to the dumpster so she could hop up to join Walker.

          Worry over Trivette's condition quickly chased away Walker's relief at finding him.  Dropping carefully down into the dumpster he knelt next to his prone partner.  He found a pulse, shallow and weak but there nonetheless.

          "Trivette?  C'mon buddy . . . can you hear me?" Walker called.  Reaching for his keys he quickly unlocked the cuffs, easing them away from raw, bleeding skin.  The wrists and the gash on Trivette's right temple had probably been the source of the blood in the trunk.  His right eye had swollen shut, there was a cut on his left cheek and his lip had split in the corner.  His labored breathing made broken ribs a good bet in addition.

          Walker fought back his fury.  Too bad those bastards had been too drunk to get information from.  He'd have liked to give them a taste of their own medicine.  On second thought, from the bruises they'd sported, Trivette had obviously put up a hell of a fight before they'd taken him down.

          Though Walker wanted nothing more than to get his friend out of this stinking hellhole, he knew better than to attempt to move him.  The distant wail of sirens assured him help would arrive soon.

          "Wal-ker?"  The voice came out barely above a croak.

          "Yeah, partner.  I'm right here."  Not sure where to touch that wouldn't cause pain, the Ranger settled on just kneeling close.  "You're gonna be okay, Trivette.  Help's on the way."

          A lone tear escaped.  "Thought . . . I was . . . imagining. . ."  He shifted position slightly,  sucking a painful breath as his left leg bumped Walker.

          The older man reached out to restrain his partner. "Easy, buddy, don't move.  Take it easy."  He started examining the leg but a moan from the younger man stopped him.  "Okay, relax.  You're going to be okay."  Walker hoped if he kept saying the words he'd start to believe them for himself.

          Alex peered over the top of the container.  She couldn't quite choke back her horrified gasp when she saw Jimmy.  My fault . . . this is my fault.  Sinking down onto the crate, she huddled in a ball, stuffing her hand in her mouth to keep from sobbing aloud.  I should've listened to Jimmy and kept my mouth shut.  They wouldn't have targeted him if I hadn't drawn their attention.

          She didn't have time to reflect further as an ambulance turned into the alley and pulled up behind Walker's truck.  Two EMTs hopped out.

          "This must be it, Cal," the driver said, looking at his partner.

          The second, older man nodded.  Approaching Alex, he knelt next to her.  Speaking softly, he said, "Take it easy, ma'am.  We'll get you out of here in no time."

          Realizing how she must look, Alex choked out, "It-it's not me. . .  Our fr-friend . . . we f-found him in the dumpster.  He's been b-beaten."

          The men exchanged glances, jumping on the crates to peer over the edge of the container.  Taking in the situation at a glance, Cal turned to his partner. "I'm gonna get the backboard, Sam."

          "Good idea," the older man replied.  To Walker he said, "It's okay, sir.  My partner and I'll take over for you now."

          The Ranger nodded, pushing to his feet and climbing out to let the EMT have a look at Trivette.  Alex stood nearby, watching.  Her puffy eyes and tear-stained cheeks made his heart ache. "Alex?"

          Angrily she wiped away the tears.  "This is my fault, Walker.  You saw what they did to him."  She began shaking.  "How can people have that much hate for someone they don't even know?"

          He didn't bother pointing out her own strong emotions right now.  She wouldn't appreciate it.  Instead he said, "This isn't your fault, Alex.  None of it."

          "How can you say that?" she cried. "If only I'd listened to Jimmy instead of running off at the mouth at those jerks!  Jimmy and I wouldn't have fought, he wouldn't have stormed out of C.D.'s when he did--"

          "Maybe not," the Ranger agreed.  "But they still might've gone after him.  And it's not in you to just stand by when a friend's in trouble, Alex."

          "But if I'd kept quiet maybe they wouldn't have noticed us!"

          "Hard not to notice Trivette sometimes," Walker said wryly.  "And even more impossible to ignore you."

          She flushed at the off-hand compliment but didn't back down.  "Walker, be serious!"

          "I am," he responded.  "Listen, those guys are going away for a long time.  They won't be hurting anyone again.  And we found Trivette in time.  Worrying about what might've been isn't doing any good, Alex."

          One of the medics cut off any response she'd been considering by asking, "Ranger, can you give us a hand getting him out of here?"

          The Ranger moved quickly to assist, supporting the backboard carrying his partner as the medics climbed out of the dumpster.  Together they lowered the injured man to the ground.

          Walker and Alex stood back as the partners hooked Trivette up to oxygen and got an IV going.  Cal fetched a splint, carefully immobilizing their patient's left leg.  Sam gently examined Trivette's torso.  Frowning, he grabbed a pair of scissors from their supplies, quickly cutting open the stained shirt.

          "Damn," Cal breathed, looking as his partner. "Could mean internal injuries."

          Alex gasped, turning to hide against Walker's chest at the sight of the deep bruising.  He  held her close.

          "Bastards," he hissed.  The thought of what his friend had suffered filled him with an anger that threatened his reason.  Lethal injection would be too easy in his opinion.

          "Let's get him out of here," Sam said.  Together they lifted the unconscious man and settled him on the stretcher.  Looking back at Walker, he said, "He'll be going to St. Matthew's.  You can follow us if you'd like."

          The Ranger nodded, slightly distracted as a police car pulled into the other end of the alley.  Knowing he had to fill them in on what had happened, he said, "I'll meet you there."

          It didn't take long to brief the officers on the situation but with every passing minute Walker grew more and more anxious to be gone.  He needed to be at the hospital with his partner.

          Alex had walked back to the truck, climbing in to wait for him there.  He looked over at her once, catching the look of impatience on her face. 

          For her part, the blonde attorney watched as Walker spoke with the officers.  She knew they needed to hear his instructions but wished he could hurry.  Briefly she considered blowing the horn but knew he'd leave as soon as he could.  At the least she could start the engine for him.

          Finally he finished, nearly running to the truck and climbing in.  His tires left rubber trails as he backed out into the street.

          When they arrived at the hospital Alex grabbed Walker's hand as they hurried into the Emergency Room entrance.  Surprisingly, he didn't pull away.  She wondered if he even noticed.

          Stopping at the nurses desk the Ranger cleared his throat to get the attention of the young lady on duty.  She looked up, smiling when she got a good look at Walker.  The badge caught her eye next.

          "Can I help you, Ranger?" she asked, ignoring Alex.

          "My partner was brought in here a little while ago.  Can you tell me where he is?  His name's Trivette.  James Trivette."

          "Let me check."  Reaching for a clipboard, she looked it over. "Yes.  He's been taken to Surgery."

          "Surgery?" Alex asked. 

          "That's right."  The nurse finally looked at her.  "They found some internal injuries.  It could be awhile.  There's a waiting room on the Surgical floor if you'd like to go there."

          "Thanks," Walker said, numb.  "We're familiar with it."

          They passed a bank of phones on the way to the elevator.  Walker froze a few steps beyond them, a frown crossing his face.

          "Walker?  What is it?" Alex wondered.

          "C.D.  We've got to tell him."  The man dug in his pockets for change as he headed for the nearest one.

          "Oh God," the attorney whispered.  Somehow in the race to find Jimmy they'd totally forgotten about the older man.

          Walker reluctantly picked up the handset and dialed the familiar number.

          C.D. restlessly paced the small waiting area.  It'd been two hours since he'd gotten the phone call from Cordell and still they'd gotten no word on Jimmy.

          Looking over at Walker and Alex, his expression softened.  Walker sat with his arm around the pretty blonde, who'd finally fallen asleep. 

          Walker looked up, catching his old friend's look.  Feeling a little defensive, he said, "She didn't sleep well last night."

          The ex-Ranger nodded.  Frowning, he checked his watch.  "We shoulda heard somethin' by now, Cordell.  It's taking too long."

          Walker flinched.  "He was hurt pretty bad, C.D.  They really did a number on him."

          "Damned sons of bitches.  I should've taken my shotgun to 'em when I had the chance," the older man growled.

          At that moment, the doors to the Surgery ward opened and a tall man in scrubs approached them.  He pulled off his scrub cap as he walked, shaking out a long, blond ponytail.

          "I'm Dr. Neil Stanek.  Are you the folks waiting for word on a James Trivette?"

          "That would be us," C.D. answered as Walker gently shook Alex awake.

          She wiped her eyes sleepily, looking around as if unsure of her surroundings.  When she spotted the doctor she climbed to her feet.  "Jimmy--?"

          Walker also pushed to his feet, glad she'd asked.  His own mouth felt too dry to possibly speak.

          "Your friend is a lucky man.  We were able to stop the bleeding and repair the damage--"

          "So he'll be okay?" C.D. jumped in.

          "If no complications set in he should recover fully," the doctor told them.  "We're moving him to Recovery and from there to ICU.  We're keeping him sedated for a couple days and will need to constantly monitor his condition."  At their concerned looks, he explained, "The pain's going to be pretty intense and we don't want him moving around."

          "Well, when can we see him, Doc?" the ex-Ranger asked.

          "Normally we only allow family into the ICU ward."  The doctor looked at the three friends. "But I get the feeling that's not the right answer."

          "You're right, Doctor," Walker answered for his companions.  "You might as well consider us the family you'll be dealing with."

          Stanek nodded.  "I thought as much.  Once he's been moved to ICU, I'll let one of you in each hour for five minutes.  Sound fair enough?"

          "That's reasonable," C.D. agreed.  His companions nodded.

          "I'll have someone notify you when he's settled in ICU."  The doctor turned to leave then hesitated.  "It looks like your friend took a hell of a beating.  I hope you catch the guys responsible."

          "They're already in custody," Walker assured.

          "Good."  With that the doctor nodded and headed back into the Surgery ward.

          "He's going to be okay," Alex breathed, breaking the silence.  "Jimmy's really going to be all right."

          Walker found himself engulfed in one of Alex's enthusiastic hugs.  He couldn't help smiling.  To be honest he felt much the same way and returned it in equal measure.

          "Hey, what about me?" C.D. said. "Don't I get one?"

          Alex laughed, the first time she'd felt able to do so since the night before.  Breaking away from Walker, she embraced C.D., giving him a quick peck on the cheek for good measure.

          Moving closer, Walker draped an arm around his old friend's shoulder.  "Looks like we did it again, C.D.."

          "Yup, I'd say so, Cordell.  But it keeps gettin' closer to the wire."

          The younger man nodded, all too aware of that truth.  "It wasn't his time, C.D.  Not this time."

          Alex quietly slipped into the room, carrying a large thermos of coffee and an old Phyllis Whitney novel she'd been reading.  Approaching the bedside, she studied her friend closely.  He looked better today, though the bruising still made her cringe.

          They'd moved Trivette out of ICU yesterday, having gradually reduced his level of sedation.  He'd been drifting in and out of consciousness, but hadn't been lucid enough to talk yet.

          She, C.D. and Walker had stayed close the first thirty-six hours, taking turns in the ICU ward.  When he'd finally been moved to a private room, they'd taken watches in shifts of four to six hours at a time.  She couldn't help reflecting it had become an all-too-familiar routine they'd developed.  It ensured the injured person never woke alone.

          Pulling a chair closer to the bed, she poured a cup of the still-steaming liquid and curled up to read.  When she caught herself repeating the same page for the third time she set the book aside.  Reaching for the cup of coffee, she grimaced in disgust to find it stone-cold.  Climbing stiffly to her feet, she walked into the bathroom to dump the remains.

          "No!  I've had enough of you!  Get the hell away from me!"

          The hoarse growl startled Alex and she dropped the cup into the sink.  Rushing out into the room she found Jimmy thrashing wildly.

          Grabbing the hand that didn't have the IV, Alex clung tight.  "Jimmy, it's okay.  Shh, you're safe now.  Take it easy, Jimmy.  I'm here."

          She kept up the soothing reassurances, not even sure of her words.  She debated calling a nurse, but decided against it when he gradually relaxed his grip.

          "Jimmy?" she called softly.  "It's me, Alex.  Open your eyes for me, okay?"

          It took him several moments to comply but finally he did as she asked, searching until he found her.  "Alex?"

          The attorney almost wept at his uncertainty.  All because of me!  Tightening her grip on his hand, she said, "I'm here, Jimmy.  You're in the hospital.  You're going to be just fine."

          He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath.  The resulting pain made him wince. "How . . . long?"

          "Two days."  Lightly brushing his cheek, she said, "You gave us quite a scare for awhile."

          The tone of her voice caught his attention.  Eyeing her closely he frowned. "Alex . . . you okay?"

          His concern un-did her control and she had to blink back tears.  "I'm fine, Jimmy.  Really."

          "You don't . . . sound it."  He gestured toward the water pitcher and Alex quickly poured him a glass then supported his head while he drank.

          "It's. . .  Never mind."  She tried frowning at him.  "You're supposed to be resting, not worrying about me."

          "Friends are supposed to worry," he said, yawning.

          "Go back to sleep."  Alex tucked the blanket around him and settled back in her seat.  "I'll still be here when you wake up again."

          "Don't seem . . . to have much . . . choice. . . "  And with that the injured man drifted off again.

          The next time he woke more peacefully.  He would've rubbed the sleep from his eyes but found his hand trapped.  Turning his head to the side, Jimmy smiled slightly.  Alex had fallen asleep in the chair, her fingers still wrapped around his.

          There was enough light in the room that he could see dark smudges under her eyes and fine lines around her mouth.  She didn't look like she'd had much rest lately.

          Remembering their last words at C.D.'s,  that didn't surprise him.  Alex had always played fair and hadn't deserved any of what he'd said that night.  She'd been trying to help in the only way she'd known. 

          Again he found himself wishing he'd taken the time to go back and apologize right when it had happened.  He would have saved them both a lot of grief, it seemed.

          As if sensing his scrutiny the blonde stirred, opening her eyes.  Blinking away the sleep, she yawned widely.

          "Nice view, Counselor." 

          She blushed.  "I didn't think you were awake yet.  How do you feel?"

          Jimmy sensed he needed to choose his words carefully.  "A little stiff and sore.  Nothing a little time won't take care of."  Shifting position carefully, he said, "Still your watch, huh?"

          She couldn't help smiling.  "Yes.  C.D. should be here in an hour or so."

          "Oh man," the injured man groaned, closing his eyes.  "I think I'm gonna have a relapse."

          "Jimmy?  What's wrong?"  Concerned, Alex rose to her feet, moving closer to the bed.  "Are you okay?"

          "He's the world's biggest mother-hen, Al.  You know that," the injured man complained. 

          Alex relaxed, giggling at the truth of that. "I suppose.  But it's only because he cares, Jimmy."

          "Yeah, I know," the Ranger sighed.

          "You should've heard him when Walker called to tell him what had happened."  The blonde shuddered.  "Good thing those guys were already behind bars.  If C.D. could've gotten to them--"

          "Wish I could've seen that."

          "Well, he almost let Walker and I have it, too," Alex admitted.

          "What?"  Jimmy stiffened.  "Why?"

          "We, uh--"  Alex took a deep breath, trying again, "We. . .  That is . . . I-I--"

          "Alex!"  It would've been a roar if Trivette had been able to draw enough breath.  Even still, the tone made the attorney flinch.

          "Okay!  We never got around to telling him you were missing," she admitted in a rush. "The first he heard about it was when Walker called to tell him you'd been brought here."

          "Yeah?  So what'd he do?"

          "I can't remember when I've seen him so mad," the attorney admitted.  "He hung up on Walker and when he came storming into the hospital fifteen minutes later I thought the nurses were going to call Security to remove him!"

          "No, really?"

          "Honest."  Alex held up her hand.  "His face was beet red.  I was afraid he was going to have a stroke.  Took Walker ten minutes to explain."

          Jimmy's eyes widened.  "Well that must've been fun to watch.  Probably did Big Dog some good to sweat a little."

          "James!"  But Alex couldn't hold back her grin. 

          He returned the smile, unrepentant.

          She couldn't hold the look long, however. "I can't say I blame him, really.  We came so close to losing you, Jimmy."

          "Hey," he chided.  "Don't go there, Al.  It's over."

          To her disgust, tears threatened again. "It was almost permanently over, Jimmy.  If that boy hadn't--"  She tried pulling her hand from his, only to have him tighten his grip.

          "Alex, none of that matters.  What counts is that we made it through.  We beat them."  He found himself baffled at the quick turn in the conversation.

          "How can you say that?" she cried. "I almost got you killed, Jimmy!"

          "What?"  He blinked rapidly, trying to decide where that had come from.  "How d'you figure that?"

          "If I'd only listened to you, kept quiet and not provoked them, they'd have left you alone."  She closed her eyes as the guilt choked her.

          "Hey," Jimmy squeezed her hand again to get her attention.  "You don't know that, Alex.  Guys like that, there's no way to tell what's going through their heads."

          "You're just saying that," she accused.

          "Whoa!" he protested.  "Hang on.  When have I ever lied to you?"

          "Never," Alex admitted.  "I'm sorry, Jimmy.  I just--  Those guys really got to me, y'know?  And then when we couldn't find you--"

          "I know . . . but it's over, Alex."

          "Is it?"  The blonde pushed to her feet, walking over to stare out the window at the darkened skyline outside.  "What about you and me, Jimmy?  What about what happened between us?"

          Jimmy carefully considered his answer.  He knew he couldn't just toss out something off the cuff.  "Okay, think of it this way.  We're at C.D.'s, or maybe some place totally different.  Similar situation.  How do we handle it?"

          "Is it that easy?" she wondered.

          "Hey, you weren't the only one who flew off the handle," the black man softly reminded her.  "At least you went after the right guys.  I blew up at a friend.  I'm sorry, Al.  I was out of line.  Took my anger at them and directed it at the one person who'd been trying to help."

          "Oh Jimmy--"  The attorney turned from the window and moved back to the bedside.  Taking his hand again, she said, "If we ever get into that situation again I promise not to antagonize anybody, okay?  Or at least I'll try not to."

          "Fair enough," he granted.  "And if you can't, I promise to try to remember who the real bad guys are, okay?"

          "Deal."  She would've continued, but the door creaked open slightly.

          "Alex?" C.D. asked softly as he peered in. "You awake?"

          "It's okay, C.D.," she answered. "We're both awake."

          "Oh.  Good . . . good."  The ex-Ranger stepped in, followed closely by Walker.

          Alex looked up to meet the bearded Ranger's inquiring gaze.  She smiled warmly, telling him everything he needed to know for now.

          "Hey, guys," Trivette waved as his friends approached the bed.

          "About time you woke up," Walker joked, reaching out to shake his friend's hand.

          "Yeah, well you know me.  I like taking long naps," the younger man responded in kind.

          "Jimmy, how're you feelin', son?"  C.D. stopped at the end of the bed, studying his young friend.

          "I'm doin' okay, Big Dog."

          "Walker, did Kyle have his hearing today?" Alex wondered.

          The Ranger nodded.  "The Judge agreed to a suspended sentence in exchange for his testimony."

          "Kyle?  Who's Kyle?"  Jimmy glanced from one to the other.

          "It's a long story.  We'll fill you in later," Walker assured his partner.  Looking at Alex, he asked, "Have you had dinner yet?"

          "Is that an invitation?"  She grinned at his sudden flush.

          "Sounded like one to me," Trivette agreed.

          "You stay out of this," his partner growled good-naturedly.  "Or I'll see about getting your hospital stay extended."

          "Cordell, he's a hurt man!  And he's on medication," C.D. defended their friend. "He can't be held accountable for what he says right now.  Well, I ain't sure about the rest of the time--"

          "C.D.!" Alex scolded, unable to hold back her own grin.

          "Y'know, I thought you guys were supposed to be my friends," Trivette said.

          "We are," Walker assured. "Believe me, Trivette, you'd know if we weren't!" 

          The friends laughed at the younger man's pouting expression.

          "So are you taking me to dinner or not?"  Alex asked, moving to Walker's side and hooking her arm through his.

          "Do I have a choice now?"

          "No!"

          "Go on, you two," C.D. shooed them toward the door.  "Get out of here so my patient can get some rest!"

          "Your patient?!" Jimmy squawked. "Hey, Walker?  Alex!  Don't leave me alone with him!  Guys?"

          They laughed as they walked together out the door.

Walker Texas Ranger and its characters belong to CBS Inc., Top Kick Productions and maybe other copyright holders. This story and the author is in no way connected to those copyright holders and intends no infringement on their copyrights. The story is only meant as an entertaining tribute to a great show and its actors.

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