Chris’ ranch is huge. Acres and acres of land. Most of it is open grassland for grazing horses, but there’s a stream bordering one edge of the property and a little patch of woods that grows thick with berries and pine trees.
And every summer, it’s the perfect place for the annual paintball showdown.
There are three rules:
1. Masks on at all times. Don’t take them off for anything. This is supposed to be fun and if somebody is stupid and takes an eye out, then it’s not fun anymore and ambulances will be involved and just…don’t.
2. Don’t leave the property when you’re geared up. Chris has neighbors and while he’s not exactly the friendly type, he doesn’t want to get sued because someone happened to get shot accidentally.
3. “Don’t shoot nobody in the back.” Doesn’t apply here. It’s every man (and woman) for themselves.
Chris and Vin are always team captains. Partly because it’s Chris’ land. Partly because Chris and Vin on the same team would slaughter everybody else so they have to be split up.
Inez only plays to shoot Buck. Which she succeeds in doing every year without fail. Sometimes, when an opposing team member sees her moving up the field, they let her pass just to hear the string of curses from Buck a few minutes later as she shoots him out - a clean neat paint splotch in the middle of the chest. There is never any doubt that Inez has hit her target.
Nettie takes the high ground. She’s always on Vin’s team so she covers him as long as she can until she’s tagged out.
JD doesn’t last long. He’s generally within the first three who are taken out. The boy is too itchy to get to the center of the battle instead of taking cover when he should.
Mary doesn’t play. But she waits at the ranch house with food and first aid supplies and she loves to hear Billy’s stories when he gets back. She scrubs the paint out of his hair and off of his shirt in front of everyone, much to Billy’s dismay.
Nathan and Josiah flank the field on either side, hemming in anyone who’s at the center. They manage to get behind enemy lines a disturbing number of times before they take a hit.
For the first few years, Ezra doesn’t play because ew sweaty dirty paint-covered past time is NOT how a gentleman behaves himself.
But it DOES look entertaining. And in the following years, he joins in, getting progressively better until he’s in the top five standing on a regular basis. He belly crawls and climbs and tumbles like it’s nobody’s business. He’s PLASTERED with mud and scraped elbows but lord have mercy, that was FUN.
Put a gun in Raine’s hand and she is scary as hell. That woman has deadly aim and she has a competitive streak ten miles wide. She likes to win and she fights dirty by setting up traps, hiding out like a spider with a web to catch anyone who passes by.
It always comes down to Chris and Vin in the end. At that point, it’s a draw. Otherwise they would keep shooting at each other, locked in a stalemate that could go on and on for hours.
So, there’s never really a “winner” declared. Everybody is too excited to see who tagged who out and talk strategy for the next game.
But then one year, things go a bit differently than they normally do.
Over the past few years, Casey has been watching and learning. She usually lasted about as long as JD - out within the first few rounds.
Then she started channeling some of Vin’s techniques for taking cover. She started watching how Chris played aggressively and actively, always on the move. She picked up bits and pieces of strategy from each of the players.
This year, she managed to make it to the top five. She’s NEVER been in the top five before and once it hits that stage, it’s a free-for-all. There are no sides anymore and teammates quickly turn against each other in a display of brutal, heartless betrayal.
It’s utter chaos.
But she doesn’t get hit. Raine is called out, an orange smear of paint across the visor of her mask.
A minute later, Ezra is tagged. His clothes are torn and he’s soaked with sweat but he’s grinning from ear to ear.
Now she’s in the top three. Just Chris, Vin, and Casey on the field. But she’s been forgotten in the heat of battle. With acres and acres of land to cover, it’s easy for such a small girl like her to get lost in the action.
Chris checks in with Mary on his walkie-talkie to make sure that everyone is up at the house and accounted for. Before Mary can respond, a paintball smacks him between the shoulder blades.
He turns to see a wide-eyed Casey kneeling behind a rock. She shrinks down even further until just her eyes and the top of her head are visible. She’s completely frozen because holy shit she just shot Chris Larabee in the back she is going to DIE.
The crackle of the walkie-talkie is the only sound in the silence.
“We’re waiting on Casey. Over," Mary says.
Chris fixes Casey with a stare that would make grown men tremble with fear. Slowly, he brings the walkie-talkie up and presses the talk button.
“Found her. Game’s still on. Over.”
A slow smile blossoms on Casey’s face at those words. She rises to her feet, shaking like a leaf, gripping her gun so tightly that her knuckles are white and her breathing is a little shallow with one hell of an adrenaline rush.
Then she realizes that Vin is still out there and oh my god how is she going to survive HIM???
“Watch your back,” Chris says in a dry tone.
She spins around, tripping on leaves and twigs, sending her to one knee. She keeps spinning, searching the surrounding forest. Chris starts heading up to the house because he’s already been shot once, that’s enough for him, and the way Casey’s going, she’ll have the whole treeline painted with orange splatters within minutes. He doesn’t plan to be part of her artistic endeavors.
Halfway back to the house, he sees a Vin-shaped blur to his right. Chris raises his gun over his head to signal that he’s out and keeps moving. There’s a pause as Vin skids to a stop for a split second, realization slowly dawning that…Chris is out. Chris has never been hit. Ever. Who the hell dared to pull the trigger on him?
But if Chris is hit…someone else is out there. It’s not a stalemate this time like it always has been before. The game just kicked up a notch.
Now it’s Sudden Death Mode.
And he takes off running.
A few minutes later, the thwack-thwack-thwack of paintball gunfire echoes across the landscape.
Then a scream of triumph pierces the air.
For the first time, there’s a clear winner in the annual paintball showdown and it’s Casey Wells.
(The next year, that poor girl has a huge target on her back.)