Home For The Holidays
by Angela B.
Disclaimer: Disclaimer: I don't own them and never will.
Note: Thanks to NT for speed beta reading this for me. All mistakes you find are mine made in the process of making corrections.
Feedback: You bet.
It was Christmas Eve morning (mid-morning if one wanted to be precise) as Ezra sat in the police station watching the light snow dust the ground. He had been 'asked' to help the local establishment in Kansas to stop a sudden flow of arsenal weapons. The undercover agent had to give his team leader credit; Larabee had put up one heck of a battle against the Feds taking him. Unfortunately it was a battle the leader had lost and Ezra had been informed he would be helping out on the case. Chris had not taken the loss well, but thankfully most people on floor seven were able to take cover and avoid serious injuries, thanks to a well placed call made by A.D. Travis' secretary, Helen.
So, for the last four weeks Ezra had been undercover and only been able to communicate with his team back in Denver a few times. In his last e-mail he had informed Chris that he didn't think he would make it back for the annual Christmas get-together the team started having four years ago. The first two years, Ezra had had 'other plans' and hadn't attended. Last year had been different; due to JD's persistence, Ezra had agreed to come for Christmas if it was possible. Days later he had been assigned to a case, ironically enough for the Feds, and had just gotten out right before the holiday. So, under Buck's threat and JD's pleading eyes, he had gone to Chris' for Christmas. It had actually turned out better than he had feared it would.
It appeared that this year would be de ja vu all over again. With a little extra hard work on his part, the bust had gone down earlier than planned. Now all he had to do was finish filling out his report, get to the airport and hopefully catch a plane. He surprised himself at how much he really wanted to be with the guys for Christmas. Finishing up his report and signing his name he walked over to the agent-in-charge, handed the burly man his papers and headed outside. He quickly returned to his hotel, gathered his suitcases and the presents he had managed to purchase during his stay, and headed for the nearby airport.
Finally, after dropping off his rental car, he found his way to the check-in counter and waited his turn in line. The holiday had bought out more traffic than customary and Ezra had to smile at his inane thought that Vin would absolutely hate this scene. A half- hour later he was standing before a very tired looking ticket agent. Giving her the e-ticket that the federal agent supervisor had acquired for him, he knew instantly by the young woman's sudden change in demeanor that something was amiss. Sadly, she looked into his green eyes and informed him, "I'm sorry, sir. Due to the snow in Denver the planes going there are being delayed by at least an hour."
Ezra easily read the lie that filled her eyes. The delay time was much longer than that, but opting not to start a riot with the customers, she was giving the standard uncommitted answer. Nodding his head in understanding, he asked, "Perchance if I was to inquire into another plane, how close could I get?"
The ticket agent's face perked up. Relived no doubt that the man standing in front of her had accepted the information and chose not to cause a scene. "Let me check for you," she said, as she began typing away on her computer.
After a few moments she raised her head and said, "Looks like Dallas is as close as I can get you."
Knowing the woman could only do her best, Ezra assured the poor woman, "That'll be fine." He felt sorry for her; she had an unrespected and probably at times dangerous job. Irritated people were very unpredictable.
The woman checked all his luggage, but the carry-on presents. The undercover agent had no intention of letting the airline accidentally misplace the precious items. If he returned without his clothes he could wait for them, but there wasn't any way he was showing up at the ranch without his gifts.
Even though the snow was light here, the storm in other parts of the country was wreaking havoc, causing extra long delays. Ezra found a bookstore and perused the merchandise until he found a book he thought would suffice him on the journey. Three hours past his departure time, his plane finally arrived and was loaded and readied for departure. After sitting another forty-minutes on the tarmac waiting for clearance, Ezra breathed a sigh of relief as the plane ascended into the evening sky, made bright by the snow clouds.
His flight to Dallas was uneventful and the undercover agent began thinking it would be possible to actually make Denver by morning. Exiting the plane he walked to the baggage claim chute. Another twenty minutes went by before luggage starting arriving on the carousal. Ezra was the last person standing there when he sadly realized his luggage would not be coming out. Feeling weary he walked over to the 'lost luggage' office; he shook his head at the term. It made it sound like the suitcases were children and had simply wandered off somewhere. He stepped into the small office and looked the only person behind the desk in the eyes. 'Another weary person', he thought. Approaching the woman with an open smile he handed her his luggage claim tickets as he said politely, "My luggage seems to have taken a different flight than me."
The woman quickly typed in the numbers and sighed. Ezra took it as an omen of things to come. "I hate to inform you of this sir, but your luggage has been sent to Denver."
Ezra couldn't help but laugh. The thought that if he had ridden in the baggage area he would be on his way home now struck him funny. Seeing the startled look on the lady's face before relaxing and smiling herself, Ezra quickly explained. In the end the woman had laughed too. Staring into the tired eyes that stared back at him, he asked the inevitable question. "So, how would you suggest I meet up with my luggage?"
The older woman looked around for other customers, and not finding any, she said, "Sir, Denver Airport is fixing to be closed. There will be no more flights in tonight and probably none in the morning as well."
Looking into the friendly green eyes she lowered her voice, so her boss in the back couldn't hear. "There is a bus station a couple miles from here. You might be able to get closer by using that route."
Ezra nodded politely, grimacing on the inside. He quietly thanked the woman for her assistance and went to locate a cab. He looked at his watch; with a little luck he could still make it to Chris' before lunch. He would most likely miss the exchanging of gifts, but at least he would have most of the day with the guys. Locating a cab, he instructed the driver of his destination. Noting the humor in the man's eyes in the rear-view mirror, Ezra had to admit if the shoe had been on the other foot he, too, would be laughing.
Arriving at the bus terminal, Ezra stepped out of the cab and caught his breath at the coldness. The arctic cold wind blowing in from the north whipped around his legs and pulled at his overcoat. He entered the fraying building and paused. It appeared to him that every other traveler had heard the same suggestion. Struggling past reclined legs, running children, screaming mothers and scattered baggage, he managed to locate the correct line. He counted silently to a hundred and said silent thanks that his esteemed boss was not with him. The man would have probably ripped off a couple of heads by now or shot someone. When he was ticked off, the team leader had no sense of humor at all.
The brown-haired man finally made his way to the front of the line. With relief in his eyes he stated his final destination. He knew immediately that he would not receive his desired goal so easily. "Sorry, sir that bus is already booked solid," the ticket agent said, tiredly.
Ezra had learned early in life to roll with the punches. Gripping the counter tightly and taking a deep breath and trying very hard to suppress his desires to rip the poor guy's head off, noting to himself that he had been spending to much time with his boss, he asked softly, "I suppose you have alternative plan to help me arrive at my goal."
Secretly, he wished he could pull out his badge and bump somebody from the bus, but he knew that everyone else in the place wanted to be at their desired location as much as him. The counter personnel looked at his computer then at the gentleman before him before hesitantly saying, "There is a bus leaving in two hours going to Amarillo." Glancing down briefly before staring the customer in the eyes, he said, "This storm moving in is going to be shutting everything down pretty soon."
Ezra nodded his head in agreement; quickly estimating what the hour would be when he arrived in Amarillo, and he guessed it would be a couple hours after midnight. Ezra figured with the luck he was having he would hopscotch his way home. "I'll take it," Ezra said. The stress from being 'supervisor' with a team of men that wasn't his own combined with the long hours of delays and multiple changes in plans were finally taking their toll. Reaching into his overcoat pocket for his wallet he was startled to find his hand coming up empty. He began searching frantically for the missing item while the man behind the counter had already figured out the coming problem. Stolen wallets and purses were not uncommon at all, especially during peak traveling times.
Ezra looked at the man behind the counter with a bewildered look. "It appears as if someone has absconded with my wallet." Buck would have probably have enjoyed the complete look of despair on the agent's face if he had been present. The traveling agent only shook his head; he had seen this too many times to be deeply affected. "I'm sorry sir, we have an office in the back where you can file a report."
Ezra couldn't help but roll his eyes, as a law enforcer he knew exactly what the percentages were that he would retrieve his wallet. He was still trying to come to grips that he of all people had been pick pocketed. Still standing at the counter looking dejected the man finally said, "Sir, I'm sorry, but you will have to move on now. There's a line behind you that needs waiting on."
Ezra could only stammer, "B…B…But I have to be on that bus." Ezra's wits finally kicked in and he retrieved his badge. Wanting to keep it handy in case it was needed in an unforeseen emergency, but not wanting it to be another bulge in his pockets he had placed the sacred item in one of the bags he was toting. Pulling out the I.D. he laid it on the counter for the man to inspect. "It is quite the necessity that I acquire passage on that particular mode of transportation. Understand?" The tiredness had been replaced by anger and he was operating in agent mode.
The man nodded somberly. "Is this an official trip?" he asked nervously. He would, of course, butt someone off the bus, but he sure wasn't looking forward to it. Some of the passengers were already getting restless and nerves were on edge.
Ezra could easily read the trepidation in the other man and smiled sadly. "No, it is not an official trip. But I would still be appreciative if we could arrange a proposition in which I am on that bus," he said.
Counter-man looked trapped, since it was not an official trip, then he was required to treat the gentleman before him like any other passenger. Glancing around he leaned forward and lowered his voice. "I can reserve you a seat, but, sir I have to inform you that I will have to require payment."
Running his hand through his hair and trying to control his rising ire he cocked his eyebrow at the man and asked, "How do you propose I ascertain such income for said purchase?"
The travel agent darted his eyes back and forth and once down to the packages Ezra was holding before saying, "There is a pawn shop three blocks down."
Exasperation was not even close to describing the feeling Ezra was experiencing. Leaving the counter, he buttoned his overcoat and headed back out into the biting cold. Three blocks later he was standing in front of the pawnshop. He had been in such places when undercover, but he never thought he would be an actual customer. Deciding that he would only 'hock' what he absolutely had to, he entered the store. Doing some quick calculations on how much he could expect to get for what gift, he decided on Buck's midi player and tapes, JD's new software for imaging, and because he knew he would probably need some extra cash, Nathan's. He had bought the licensed paramedic a new medical encyclopedia cd program. After exchanging the presents for money, he somberly headed back out into the snow. His head drooping a little at a loss he couldn't explain. Getting back in line at the terminal he once again came face-to-face with the ticket agent, money and tickets were silently exchanged and Ezra went off to find a quiet place to make his phone calls and cancel his credit cards. After making the necessary calls, he decided to try getting in touch with Vin. After letting the phone ring several times, it dawned on him that the guys would be down at The Saloon. Calling Chris' number, he was to leave a brief message on the answering machine, before his cell phone went dead. Ezra sighed, things were not going very well. Unfortunately the storm was much worse in that part of the country and the fact that the man's recorder was in dire need of replacing; thus the new one in Ezra's bag, only parts of the message was recorded. Finding a place to sit, Ezra sat down, found his book and did what his job so often required him to do; wait.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch:
Chris and company had finally closed down the joint and traversed back to the ranch. Since they would be spending the holiday together anyway, the two designated drivers (Josiah and Chris) decided just to take the others on out to the ranch and save the possibility of them being stranded in town the next morning and not being together. Directing the others to bed, Chris passed by the answering machine and noted the blinking red light. Hoping for a message from his missed agent, Chris punched the button and skipped through the messages until he heard the voice he wanted. The message sent him into leader mode. Five slightly intoxicated men became sober instantly at the sudden yelling of their names. His agents soon surrounded Chris as he hit the button again.
"Mr. Larabee… Calling because… gone down. Plane…Dallas…. Caught…bus….arm….stolen…miserable."
After listening to the message again Buck said quietly, "Sounds like he's stressed"
"He said something about a something going down and plane," Josiah added worriedly.
"I heard something about his arm," Nathan said.
"You think he's hurt?" JD asked, concern evident in his voice.
"Come on kid, this is Ezra we're talking about," Vin stated with humor, trying to lighten the growing heaviness in the room.
"He said he was miserable," Chris said very softly. They all knew Ezra never commented on his true feelings. The fact that he did was of great concern.
Snapping out of his thought Chris began issuing orders. "Buck, take the tape and see if you can clean it up any. Nathan, find me the home number of that agent-in-charge." Turning to JD, he said, "Get on the computer and see if you can track any of his credit cards. Josiah, start finding out the number to the hospitals in that area." Looking at Vin he said, " I need to know the weather conditions and possible transportation to Dallas"
All the men simply accepted their given orders and set off to fulfill them. Five minutes later Chris was barraging a certain captain with questions faster than the man could answer. It was soon ascertained that the bust had gone down smoothly and that the borrowed undercover agent had left in one piece and fit. Everyone had learned by example that when one 'borrowed' one of Agent Chris Larabee's men, they had best return them in the same shape as when they had arrived, or else you would be receiving a visit from a very angry leader, usually followed by the rest of the team. He had, earlier, turned on the TV and was relieved to learn no plane had gone down, that had released one worry.
Josiah had finally found out that Agent Standish had switched his flight to Dallas upon learning he couldn't get into Denver. Running his hand through his hair he knew it would have been much slower if JD had not been able to track him on the computer through the man's credit cards. He called the Dallas airport and worked his way through the automated answering service. Forty-minutes later, a near-maniacal Josiah finally got a hold of a 'live' person. It still took a while and a lot of threats to find out that the person he was talking to had no way of tracking the agent from his plane. He had found out that Ezra's luggage was safely on its way to Denver, he just didn't know where Ezra was at the moment. He resigned, himself to the fact that he might wind up tracking down his friend the old fashion way
The profiler walked into Chris' study and waited to be acknowledged. Chris looked up and knew immediately he wasn't going to be happy about what Josiah had found out. "Tracked him to Dallas. From there they have no bookings for Ezra."
Chris only nodded and Josiah turned to leave, then turned back and said, "At least we know he's not hurt." The big man put his hand on the knob, but was stopped by his boss' words.
"At least he wasn't when he left," Chris said softly. Then added, "Thanks Josiah."
"He's fine," Josiah said, although he wasn't sure if he was trying to assure his boss or himself.
Back on the bus:
Of all the things he had been forced to participate in all his life, this was at the top as being the worst. Maude and the government had both ask him do a lot of horrible things, but there was something about riding in a bus that he just found repulsive. It wasn't the seats, because, contrary to popular belief they really weren't that uncomfortable. He couldn't blame the people; they were everyday citizens just trying to get to their families like him. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he was certainly not going to do this again if at all possible.
Ezra had found himself in the aisle seat beside a twelve-year-old girl traveling to see her father. The agent had realized a long time ago that divorce decrees very seldom gave any consideration to the child. The person on the other side of the aisle was a man in his forties, who had already been nipping at some holiday cheer and was now rambling on about his sappy, sad-sack life. Ezra turned his attention to the young girl beside him; he could tell she was nervous about having to sit beside a stranger even though he had already shown her his credentials. He had noticed her at the terminal and after showing his I.D. to the proper people, had assigned himself as her guardian and protector for the duration of the trip.
Taking out his cards he began shuffling them, doing a few tricks to lighten the atmosphere. After a few minutes, he began having her pick out cards. Using the cards as she picked them out, he began telling a made-up story. The little girl was delighted at the man's abilities. After about twenty cards, her eyelids began to droop and Ezra rearranged their belongings so that she could lean against him and just rest for a while. It didn't take long for her to fall asleep, leaving Ezra to listen to the chattering man across from him. During Ezra's orientation, the tipsy man had tried to 'help' Ezra tell his story. After a stern look, the man had finally quit and listened. Now that the girl was asleep, the man felt it his duty to keep Ezra engaged in conversation. After awhile Ezra, himself, feigned sleep.
A couple of hours after midnight the bus arrived at the terminal in Amarillo. Ezra made sure the young girl found her father and then went to see what the next step would be to getting home. It turned out worse than he had ever expected. Due to 'safety' reasons, the busses were no longer running into Colorado. Ezra knew the real reason lay in not getting sued for traveling in snowy conditions and the possibilities of getting into an accident. The agent was still standing at the counter contemplating his next move when the father of the little girl approached him. "Excuse me, sir, is there a problem?" the man asked.
Ezra pulled down his mask and cursed himself for being so open with his emotions. Plastering a smile on his lips, he said in a forced humorous voice, "I seem to be stuck." Seeing the confused look on the father's face, he said, "I was hoping to arrive back home today, but it seems the fates are against me."
The man stood there for a moment before a look of inspiration came over his face. "There's a truck stop on the edge of town. Those guys drive in practically in kind of weather. I would be more than happy to take you out there. You could probably get a lift without any problem," he said, happy in the thought of doing the agent a favor for looking after his daughter.
Surprise showed in the agent's face as he quickly assessed the merits of such an idea and found them with possibilities. "I would be most appreciative. Only if I am assured it would not be of an imposition to you," Ezra said, looking down at the young girl.
"No problem at all," the man said as he led he way out of the terminal.
Thirty-seven minutes later Ezra found himself in a lit-up truck stop. Being in one of the main intersections of the Interstates the place was quite big. Gathering up himself, he walked into the restaurant and sat down. The waitress came over and he started to order before remembering he had only had so much money left and figuring he may need it before he got home, he grinned and politely refused the much hungered-after liquid, waving off the poised coffee pot. The waitress looked at him in question and Ezra softly explained, "Got pick pocketed back in Dallas."
The young teenager smiled sadly, and then proceeded to the coffee. "It's on the house," she said with a smile.
Before she could walk away Ezra called her back. "I find myself stranded with no possible mode of transportation to arrive at my destination. I was wondering if there might be someone about who could possibly help me out."
The teen looked at the man for a moment with a puzzled look before figuring out the message. Nodding her head, making her ponytail bob up and down, she said, "You want to know if there's a trucker who'll give ya lift?"
Ezra said, "Yes, that is exactly what I'm inquiring. I need to get to Colorado"
The girl turned on her heels and called back over her shoulder, "I'll go ask. Be back in a minute."
A few minutes later, the teen came back with a very tall, lean man. He appeared to be in his thirties and was wearing jeans and a long-sleeve t-shirt. The girl introduced the man. "This is David."
Ezra held out his hand and shook the trucker's hand. Motioning for the man to sit down he introduced himself. "My name is Ezra Standish. I don't know if the young lady told you or not, but I find myself, not only stranded without transportation, but also, without any monetary gains." He didn't want to mention that he was a federal employee unless he absolutely felt it necessary, not everyone could distinguish between the varied government agencies and some of those agencies were not very popular.
"You're busted and need a ride to Colorado?" the man said plainly.
Agreeing silently Ezra slipped into a role of an ordinary man and said, "That pretty much sums it up."
"Where ya headed?"
"Denver, or as close to there as I can get," Ezra replied.
" Well, I'm leaving right now headed for Colorado City. I can give ya lift that far. After that we'll have to find you another ride," the trucker offered.
"Colorado City would be most appreciated," Ezra said with a genuine smile. It was only a couple hours drive from there to Denver. Things were looking up, with a little luck he would be home by late afternoon.
Ezra briefly thought about calling one of the guys to let them know where he was, but quickly came to his senses. They all would be in bed at this late hour and, besides, Chris wouldn't have listened to messages yet anyway. The feared leader would have been put straight to bed; probably by either Vin or Buck. He admitted that Chris had started taking his turn at being the designated driver in the past year, but if he had calculated it right; tonight would not be his turn. He saw the trucker disappearing out the door and all thoughts of calling vanished, as he hurried to catch up.
Back at the ranch:
Buck was still trying to clean up the tape. He silently cursed his old friend's temper. The poor machine had taken a lot of abuse in the year. Chris went through answering machines like Ezra went through clocks. It seemed every time Chris received a call he didn't like, the machine took the punishment. That was why JD and he had gone in together and bought Chris a new state-of-the-art answering machine built of sturdy material, promising it could withstand the effects of an earthquake. With any luck, the machine would last a couple of years.
JD had hesitantly reported to Chris that the credit cards had been cancelled; due to the fact the owner had reported them stolen. JD hadn't been looking forward to telling his boss that bit of information at all, but had no intention of looking like a scared 'kid' by having one of the others do it for him. He had figured out if he wanted to stop being treated like a kid and earn his place among the guys, he would have to do the same things the other guys did, even if that meant delivering bad news to his ill-tempered leader. JD had been right in thinking Chris wouldn't take the news well, but at least he had walked off with his head still attached.
Now that there were no more credit cards to follow, they were stuck as to how to track their friend's movements. Sitting around brainstorming Vin loudly shouted, "The luggage."
Josiah turned his red-rimmed eyes toward the Texan. "What?" he asked tiredly.
"Ezra's luggage. If he thought it was going to Dallas, then he would have checked it out when the bags didn't show up," he explained
"Right!" Josiah said, as he picked up the phone and once again maneuvered his way through the select-a-reason-you're- calling numbers. Just as he was about to throw the portable across the room, an actual voice came on the line. It took another ten minutes to locate the office he was looking for and explain to the person why he was calling. The woman on the other end actually recalled the young man and Josiah had no doubt it was because of Ezra's dimples and green eyes. For some reason, completely unknown to Ezra, women remembered his face long after he moved on. Josiah laughed at the flash of thought that crossed his mind. Buck did his best to garner women's attention and Ezra, and to be fair, Vin, got it all the time and rarely noticed. A few minutes later the profiler pushed 'end' and redialed information. Calling the bus terminal was a long shot, but it was all they had.
A frustrating, but profitable hour later, Josiah walked into the study. Without an invitation he sat his bone-tired body down into the comfortable couch. Chris could see the tiredness in his man's face and knew there was four others just like it out in the living room.
"Find anything?" Chris asked.
Nodding his affirmation, Josiah spoke, "Found a ticket agent who sold Ezra a ticket for Amarillo, Texas. Figure that's the arm we heard about on the tape. Buck's stopped trying to clean up the tape. We figure Ezra called from Dallas, so we aren't going to get any new information from that recording."
Chris nodded. "How did the guy remember Ezra?" Chris suddenly asked.
"Ezra pulled out his badge and asked for a reserved seat."
"Ezra pulled rank?" the blond asked worriedly. He knew Ezra could get into a lot of trouble doing that in non-emergency situations.
"Nah. Just wanted to reserve a seat until he could get the money," Josiah said. Seeing the coming question he went on before Chris could ask. "Apparently Ezra walked to a nearby Pawn Shop and hocked some presents. If I was guessing I would say they were ours," Josiah finished softly.
"I don't care if he gives them all up as long as he gets somewhere safe and stays put," the leader said hoarsely. Looking up, he was reminded how tired he and his men were. "Tell the guys to call it a night. We'll get some sleep and start again in a few hours."
Josiah nodded once and rose off the couch and walked out the door. Chris sat in his chair a while longer, wondering when it was exactly that he started caring whether or not all of them were together for the holidays and how they had wormed their way into his once turned-off heart.
In the rig:
Ezra and the trucker talked for awhile but, after the exhausting four weeks of undercover work and the arduous traveling experience he had incurred in the last several hours Ezra was beyond tired. He could feel his eyes closing shut and jerked his head up and shifted in an attempt to stay awake. Intellectually he knew it was safe to go to sleep. The man behind the wheel that had so graciously offered him a ride was of no threat to him, but he still felt uneasy letting himself drift off. Perhaps it was guilt that made him try to stay awake. Guilt, because the trucker had no choice to stay awake and keep his rig rolling. Guilt, because he had once posed as a trucker when the F.B.I. had learned guns were being shipped across the states under the guise as other merchandise. Maybe, he felt he owned the honest truckers something. Ezra realized his tiredness was causing his thinking process to be all over the place and not make any sense whatsoever.
After jerking awake for the fourth time David said quietly, "It's okay if you want to catch some zzz's, Go ahead and get in the sleeper, I'm used to making this haul alone, I'll be fine."
Ezra could only nod his head in thanks, but declined the use of the sleeper, before closing his eyes and letting the much-needed sleep overtake him. Five hours later Ezra awoke with a start, the sun shining brightly in his face. David, seeing Ezra jerk awake in his rear-view mirror, remained silent until his passenger could get his bearings. The agent finally turned his attention towards the trucker. "Please forgive my rudeness, I didn't mean to sleep for so long."
David waved the apology off before saying, "Let me ask ya something, Ezra. You never really said what ya did for a living besides working for the government, but I gotta figure ya do all right by the looks of thing. Why didn't you just call someone and have them wire you some money? At least that ways you could have holed up somewhere until this storm passed."
Ezra took a deep breath. He hated to admit it, but the idea of calling one of the guys for money never crossed his mind. He had never had anyone he could call to ask a favor from before. The whole idea of a real friendship was still new to him and he was still trying to figure out the rules to it. Maybe there were no rules when it came to honest friendships. He thought back to the one phone call he had made. He had told them he had caught a plane to Dallas, and then had procured a seat on a bus to Amarillo. He realized he had even blurted out that he, of all people, had been pick pocketed and, if memory served him right, he even admitted he was miserable. Ezra shrunk deeper inside of himself; he would never live that one down. Admitting to feeling emotions was next to admitting weaknesses. Maude had drilled into him that it was something people could take and use against you. He wondered if the guys would ridicule him for being miserable and quickly quashed the thought. They might harass him a bit for losing his wallet, but internally he knew they would never belittle or use his emotions against him. He was bought back out of his reverie when David cleared his throat, a clear sign he was still waiting for an answer.
Ezra figured the man deserved as much of the truth as he could tell him. Ezra started off telling David what agency he worked for, without telling him what he did, exactly. The agent went on to give some highlights of his latest case and how he came to be riding along with the trucker on a cold Christmas morning. David asked about the rest of the team and Ezra gave brief orientation on each man he worked with. Silence settled in the warm cab before David said, "Sounds like you guys are pretty tight."
Ezra thought on it a minute before agreeing. "Yes, I suppose one might say that."
The trucker waited a second before asking again, "So, why didn't you just call and have them wire some money?"
"Couldn't get a hold of them, between time and the storm," Ezra replied. He knew it was a weak answer. In reality if he had really wanted to get hold of them he could have called any of their cell phones or, at the worst, called Inez's business number. He simply didn't see it as their problem, or a dire emergency. He had grown up learning to solve his own problems and not depend on anyone for anything. The trucker accepted the simple explanation.
"So how long have you guys been working together?" David asked, setting off a conversation that would lead into other topics, making the miles and hours pass by quickly.
Back at the ranch:
Chris awoke and headed for the kitchen to start the coffee maker. During the early morning, the storm had kept up its pace and now the part-time rancher's yard looked like a winter wonderland. He knew without a doubt that at least two if not more of the guys would be having a grand snowball fight later. At the thought of the guys Chris' mind struck on the chord that their seventh was still at large with no way of tracing his movements. He wondered once again why the man had not called back last night. Between Josiah's investigative work and Buck's cleaning on the tape, they had learned Ezra was without money. If he had simply called one of them they would have gladly wired him some cash. At least that way the man could have found a room to stay in.
Not for the first time did Chris wonder at Ezra's lack of dependency on them. All of the others had at one time or another called on him for a favor, whether it was for a ride to work or an extra day off and a few times he had found himself calling on the others for some kind of help. But not Ezra, he never called on any of them unless it was a matter of life and death, and even then he didn't come right out and ask, but merely mention the problem. It was up to them to offer a solution. At least the man was making some progress; just acknowledging that he knew they would be there for backup was a giant step. The man definitely had some serious issues when it came to people, but then again, didn't they all?
The blond heard the soft steps of someone behind him and greeted the friend. "Hey, Buck. What are you doing up so early."
"Chris. Coffee ready, yet?" Buck asked as he reached for a cup. "Thought I'd get started on trying to figure out where Ez went." Filling his cup of the incredibly hot liquid he said, "He didn't just fall off the face of the earth. Although, in this stuff it wouldn't be too hard."
Chris only smiled. Everyone had Vin pegged as Ezra's closest friend and, while Ezra and Vin were great partners in the prank department, it was Buck, Chris believed, that was Ezra's confidant, although, Buck would never say and Chris certainly would never ask. The blond leader figured it was Buck to whom Ezra confided in when Maude would become too much for him to handle or a particular social problem arose with the guys that Ezra didn't know how to cope with; like the Christmas gatherings. Buck was a good guy and better friend. Chris was thankful that his old friend had taken the young undercover agent under his protective wing.
"Don't think we'll have much luck. The weather will play havoc with the telephone lines and the cell phone service is already out." Chris informed his friend, as the others began to filter in looking for the coffee. Today would be a long day.
Back in the rig:
It was nearing noon; in just a few hours they would be rolling into Colorado City. Ezra could almost feel the anticipation building within him and for the life of him he couldn't rationalize it. He couldn't fathom how he had let the six men so close that he was actually anxious to see them. The thought befuddled him. Years of Maude's teaching had simply been overridden by six persistent, loud, at times obnoxious, men; who knew how to push, pull and if they had to, mow down people to get what they wanted. The thing that Ezra couldn't get his mind wrapped around was the fact that what these men seemed to want most was him, for him to be a part of their group. It was quite unsettling at times, and yet it gave him a feeling he hadn't encountered too many times in his life, it was quite a warm feeling and one he kinda enjoyed.
A little after two, David pulled the long-hauler into the welcoming lighted parking lot of the truck stop. The snow was definitely getting thicker and it would not be too many more hours before the highway would be closed down. If his luck held for just a little longer he might make it home by nine and therefore he would technically be home on Christmas. Ezra climbed out of the rig minus one gift, which he had left sitting in the passenger seat. He had never been one to take anything for nothing. He would simply have to replace Josiah' leather bound book of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories.
Ezra followed David into the large building and headed for a quiet space to have a little alone time. Though he was generally thought of as a people person, and while it was true he could converse with any person with half-a-brain, he still liked time to himself. He found his quiet space; albeit the washer and dryers were making some noise, it at least wasn't voices expecting a reply. The agent decided to give the guys a call, knowing that by now they would undoubtedly be watching a football game and munching on goodies. The weird, envious feeling returned at the thought. Ezra pushed away the thought as he sought out the payphones. Figuring JD might be using the internet, he dialed Chris' cell and received the irritating message that the phone was not in a serviced area. The agent quickly deduced it had to be due to the weather. He would call collect and promise reimbursement. He tried the cell number and got the same message. Hanging up, he decided to try the house phone on the off chance he could get through. The operator took the information and put the call through. After the fourth ring he persuaded the operator to continue to let it ring a few more times. Knowing the guys, they were probably arguing over whom would get up to answer the intrusive ringing.
On the seventh ring Ezra was about to hang up when David came in the room. "I found ya a ride to Denver, but he's leaving now," the trucker said. Ezra quickly hung up just as a voice called out on the other end, and hurriedly followed David to meet his new ride.
"Hello," Vin shouted. The weather was causing havoc with the lines and made it sound like a wind tunnel when he picked the receiver up. The guys turned to face the sharpshooter when his voice went up in pitch, as he said, "Heck yes, I'll accept the charges!"
Turning, he flashed the guys a big smile, as he said, "Hello. Hello? Hello?" His voice rising with each word he spoke.
Vin shouted a few more times then hung up, feeling like the call had been important. He wouldn't ever openly admit it, at least not in a serious mood, but he missed Ezra. They all did. Ezra could liven up things quicker than anyone and he was exceptionally good a getting their boss' ire up, which always proved to be great entertainment. Who needed TV and football when they had Chris threatening to knock Ezra into next month? Chris didn't do anything halfway.
"Who was it, brother?" Josiah asked as Vin walked back into the living room.
"The operator, she said she had a collect call from Ezra but, either he hung up before I answered or the line went dead," Vin replied as he sat back down in his spot glumly.
"Well, if he's holed up somewhere that's warm this would be about his getting up time," Buck laughed.
"Let's just hope he had the common sense to do exactly that," Nathan said. The medic knew the undercover agent was notorious for not doing the sensible thing.
"He's fine," Chris said flat out.
"How can you be so sure, Chris?" Josiah asked.
"Because I haven't received a phone from a hospital demanding I come get his sorry hide," Chris retorted, with a small smile. The statement had the others laughing and agreeing. If Ezra were in a hospital and conscious Chris would no doubt be getting the infamous phone call. Without saying it they all silently hoped Ezra wasn't in some hospital unconscious.
Back on the road:
The ride the trucker had found him turned out to be with a traveling salesman who lived in Denver. Ezra didn't care at the moment if the guy was an arms dealer, he was getting closer to home by the hour and a strange excitement was starting to grow. The snowplows were working overtime, trying to keep the highways clear and salted. He knew when the sun went down and the wet roads began to ice over they would become very dangerous. The salesman, thankfully, had a new model of a Ford SUV with four-wheel drive. Driving at a safe speed, and barring any reckless drivers on the road, they would perhaps arrive in Denver without harm.
The salesman was, of course, a very good conversationalist, although if it had been up to Ezra, they would have rode in semi-silence. He talked for a living, but the times he enjoyed most were when he wasn't required to hold-up a conversation. When he was with Chris or Vin, both would talk to when they had something to say, but they didn't talk just to hear their own voices and, contrary to myth, that was what Ezra enjoyed about being with both men. They conversed when they wanted; otherwise they left you to your own thoughts. This gentleman, however, didn't or wouldn't notice that he was tired and would have enjoyed some silence. The undercover agent slipped into one of his many versatile roles and became a buyer; a role he was quite accustomed to playing. However, he made sure he stressed he bought something other than what this gentlemen sold.
An eternity later, in utter blackness, the lights of Denver finally came into view. They were still a good piece off, but the fact that he could make out the lights like a twinkling beacon made him want to shout with joy, almost. He did have his decorum he had to uphold. Forty-three minutes and lifetime of traveling later, they passed the city limit sign. Ezra didn't think he had seen a more wonderful sign in his life. He could have easily read: Home.
The salesman had already mentioned his locale in the city, while Ezra had only implied he was coming in for a visit. No need in letting the man know he, too, lived here. Ezra could see the bright neon sign of a twenty-four gas station and quickly suggested the man drop him off there. He reassured the salesman he would simply call his party and have them come pick him up. The driver agreed with the pitch and pulled into the station. As Ezra got out of the car, he handed a blue wrapped gift to the gentleman as a thank-you token. The salesman declined the offer, but took it after Ezra convinced the man he had won it as a door prize at the convention he had been attending. Standing in front of the door, he watched the diver pull away before walking over to the payphone. Maybe one of the guys would come get him if he offered them money for gas and expense. After trying their cell and home numbers without any success he was beginning to realize, as he walked into the warm store, he would have to see this trip to the end in the same method as he had traveled this whole trip, the seemingly hard way.
Standing inside the store, he felt the hairs on the back on his neck rise. Turning around he found the clerk watching him intently. Smiling back at the woman, he waved his cell phone and explained, "Trying to get a hold of a ride."
"Snow on the lines is kicking their use in and out. Right now they're out. Have been for the last couple of hours," the woman explained.
Ezra could only smile and nod, biting the retort that urged to escape. Finally stating, "It appears so."
"Your car break down or the snow get to be too much?" the woman behind the counter inquired.
"Neither. Been trying to get home by any means necessary since yesterday morning," Ezra said, thinking back. 'Had it really only been yesterday when he started on this odyssey.
"Oh," she said softly. She smiled before saying, "So you've got this far and now you're stuck?"
"That would be an accurate assumption," Ezra said, as he began walking down an aisle. He had only snacked for the past thirty-six hours and his hunger was again growing. He fingered the few dollars he still had left from selling his items at the pawnshop. He found a can of small wieners, grabbed a box of crackers and took a bottle of juice from the refrigerator.
Walking towards the counter, he contemplated his next move. He was so close, yet from where he stood, he felt a million miles away from his target. Setting down his last present on the floor in order to pay for his items, he looked at his watch; nine-twenty three. He had almost three hours before he broke his word and that thought ate at him. Even though he hadn't spoken the promise aloud, he had still made it and, contrary to what people thought, he didn't go back on his word.
Ezra paid for his items and popped the lid off his vienna sausages and opened the crackers. He ate the simple meal and visited with the clerk. He had thought about a cab, but once again he needed phone service for that, plus there was no guarantee he could talk the driver into going out to the ranch. Going to his condo never crossed his mind; the ranch was his single-minded objective.
Back at the ranch:
The guys had spent the day being frustrated. There wasn't much in the way of tracking they could do. Without the credit cards, Ezra's trail had essentially grown cold. Since he was technically not missing and because they had no proof he was in any danger as an agent, they couldn't call out the troops. Josiah and Nathan had both called the bus terminal in Amarillo again, when the phones were working, and talked to a number of people, none of them had any memory of a specific stranded traveler. There had been too many fitting Ezra's description; a white, male having no means of further transportation towards one's destination.
Not one of them suggested opening the presents sitting under the tree or eating the Christmas dinner that was sitting in the refrigerator waiting to be finished cooking. They would wait for their missing brother and celebrate together as a whole family. These men who had lived for so long alone and had finally found a family amid this team would wait until they were one.
Buck sat in one of the recliners, half-watching the movie. All football games had long been played and though they had watched them as in years past, none of them, he noticed, could quite get into the worked up frenzy they had in the past. For some reason without Ezra there to lay odds and make wagers, it just wasn't the same. He was looking forward to getting the outsider to at least stay inside the house this year. Last year, Ezra had bolted to the barn after the second round of presents had been handed out. The man had some definite issues with the holiday, but that was part of the challenge with his friend. To see how many of those issues they could resolve or at the very least make better. Wherever he was, Buck sure hoped he was inside and warm. The man hated being cold almost as bad as he hated having to do menial labor.
Back at the store:
Ezra was finishing up the last viennas and washing it down with a swallow of his juice when headlights reflected in the store's window. An old pickup pulled up and young man walked in, his face hidden behind a scarf. For the briefest of seconds he imagined it was JD, driving Buck's truck. His reality soon kicked in and realized it was not who he had wished for. Ezra smiled politely and watched as the man and girl exchanged greetings. It was apparent these two knew each other in some manner.
"Hey," the man said, looking at Ezra.
"Good evening," Ezra replied.
"He's stuck here," the girl behind the counter said, obviously trying to be helpful.
"Really?" Tom said inquisitively. Looking at the manner in which the agent was dressed, he could tell Ezra wasn't some regular joe, much less a threat. "Where you trying to get to?" the man questioned.
Ezra quickly explained the location of the Larabee ranch and watched the obvious recognition appear on both faces. "You're familiar with the locale of which I am speaking of?" he asked cautiously, not daring to hope he might have found a way of getting home after all.
"Yeah. The turn-off to my parents place is five miles this side of that ranch on the opposite side of the road," Tom said. The smile on his face was burgeoning. He knew what it was like not to be with family for Christmas and was thinking he knew now why the fates had been making him run late. This guy needed him in order too make it home himself.
If you don't mind riding in a truck without any heat I'd be glad to offer you a ride," Tom said, pleased he would be doing something good for someone else.
"I wouldn't mind it at all. Thank you for such a generous offer," Ezra said, a smile of his own growing wider.
The man bought the two items he had stopped to purchase before going on home. Ezra followed the man out to the old truck and climbed inside, and knew the kid wasn't joking when he said he had no heat. The inside was colder than a refrigerator. How the young man had been able to endure his trip without heat was beyond him. He looked again at his benefactor, wondering how the driver had made his trip in the flimsy blue-jean jacket he was wearing, and made a quick decision. Taking out the last present for his bag, he took out the bulky package, unwrapped it. Vin's coat would finally be the worth the price of dragging it along on this trip.
Tom waved off the offered leather coat with the removable fur lining. He insisted he had made the trip this far just fine and he didn't want to use the jacket meant for someone else. Ezra explained that he had started out with seven such gifts and how he couldn't very well show up with just the one. "Tom, I see it as an equal trade in gifts. I am giving you a warm article of clothing and you are giving me the gift of being with the ones I have spent the last thirty-six hours trying to get to," Ezra said. "Besides it would make me feel better knowing I was able to reward you in some small manner since I no longer have any monetary means by which to compensate your generosity.
The driver hesitated a moment before realizing how much the hitchhiker really wanted this exchange. Reluctantly he took the coat and slipped it on, started the truck and backed out of the parking lot headed for home.
Total darkness immersed them once they left the city and dangerous traveling conditions caused them to creep along the highway. What would normally take forty-five minutes, driving the speed limit, was taking them close to two hours. As they approached Tom's cutoff, Ezra noticed the man showed no signs of slowing down. "Pardon me, didn't you say this cutoff was the one needed for you to get home," Ezra asked.
"Yeah, thought I would take you on home first," Tom replied, wiping the foggy window shield with his hand for the umpteenth time.
"Sir, while your intentions are honorable and very much appreciated, I don't believe you will be able to get down Mr. Larabee's road. It will be far too muddy and I fear you, yourself, will become stranded," Ezra said, silently fearing he would be the cause of the man not getting home to his family.
"I don't mind, Ezra," Tom replied.
"Yes, well I would prefer it if you pulled over here. Though the driveway is on up there, the house isn't. If I walk right through those trees there I will arrive safely at Mr. Larabee's front door in a matter of minutes and you will not have to take any further risks," Ezra said, lying through his teeth. From the spot he pointed to was a good three miles back into the ranch.
"You sure, Ezra? It's really no problem to take you the rest of the way," Tom said. He wanted to be courteous, but his own doubts about getting home safely were beginning to creep in.
"I am perfectly sure, Tom. Now pull over and we will both be home within minutes," Ezra said authoritatively, but softly.
"Okay," Tom said, as he pulled over just slightly. It was too dark to tell where the edge of the highway was and he didn't want to take any chances of going over the shoulder into the ditch.
Not daring to let the truck set idle for too long Ezra clasped the outstretched hand and shook it. The two gloved hands holding for just a second longer than normal. Climbing out of the truck into the wind and snow, he huddled further into his overcoat, gave one last wave and shut the door. Now all he had to do was hike through woods he had only been in a couple times by himself in the daytime, much less in the dark during a storm and find his boss' house. Slipping and sliding his way across the slick road he reached the other side still upright, stepping off the snow-covered road, he went down to his knees in the snow bank.
Back at the ranch:
After playing a couple of uninteresting games of poker, the guys had finally called it quits and had started watching the late-night comedians. None of them could explain why they weren't calling it a night and going to bed, but each one silently kept hoping their brother would walk through the door any minute. Like a commercial, they would look up and their brother would be standing there; clean-shaven, with a smile on his face asking for a cup of coffee. Intellectually they knew it wasn't possible, but then again this was supposed to be the time when anything was possible, wasn't it?
Tromping through the woods:
Ezra wished he could lie down and go to sleep. He was no longer all that cold. He was already chilled from the unheated ride and five minutes into his walk his fingers and toes had become unbearably tingly. Now, he kept slapping his hands together to make sure he could still feel them. He had lost track of the amount of times he had fallen or the number of tree limbs his coat had snagged on. It didn't matter. He wasn't going to give up now. He had fooled himself into seeing this as just another case. The ending was just around the bend or the next tree. He would make it and he would succeed.
Stopping for breath he looked down at his wrist, fumbling with numb gloved fingers, he finally managed to pull back the sleeves covering his watch to see the time. He had eighteen minutes. Starting off again, he thought he caught sight of something shiny. Looking more closely, he noticed the object remained stationary and glimmering; a light. He was almost there! He kept his eyes fixated on the point where the light should be, the object blinking in and out of sight with the shifting of his course. His heavy-laden feet kept a steady pace with his mantra that he was almost there, just little farther. Soon the light became visible more constantly. Its glimmering becoming brighter. His teeth chattering, his body physically jerking, he kept heading towards the light. Inwardly he had to laugh at thought that the joke would be on him if the shining object he was headed for turned out to be a figment of his imagination and not the ranch house.
He climbed the stairs slowly. It seemed to take every bit of strength he had left to get his legs to lift high enough to clear each step. Struggling, he grasped the doorknob with both hands and with the last of his resolve turned the knob and stepped into the brightly lit foyer. Not bothering to even contemplate what he normally would have seen as rudeness by not removing his muddy shoes, he stumbled into the living room.
At first no one took notice of the shivering man standing in the doorway. Not until a very stuttering southern drawl said, "Hey, ya'll." His ability and desire to correctly articulate something more meaningful left out in the woods.
Six men jumped at the sound of the new voice and just as quickly hurried over to their freezing friend. A barrage of questions and orders soon livened up the once quiet group. Chris, Nathan and Buck guided Ezra over to the fireplace, while Josiah starting stoking the dying embers into a blazing fire. JD ran to gather extra clothes and blankets, while Vin went to heat some cocoa to a warm temperature and gather a bowl of tepid water.
Meeting back in the living room, they watched as Nathan stripped the soaked shoes and socks from the swollen red feet. Chris and Buck were divesting the undercover agent of the rest of his clothes, then eased the blue feet into the bowl of water. JD handed the dry clothes to Josiah, who placed them in front of the fire to warm, while Buck wrapped a blanket around Ezra's trembling body. The agent had taken the ministrations from his friends without comment. He was simply too cold and too tired to stop it.
Finally he looked up into JD's worried face and tried to smile. With a very slight smile and a twinkle in his green eyes he stammered out, "Made it home for Christmas." Looking up at the clock on the mantle he said, "With three minutes to spare."
"Of all the foolhardy, non-sensical, idiotic, jackass stunts to pull, Ez. What were you thinking? Do you know…?" Nathan spewed.
Ezra let Nathan rant on, basking in the glow of good friends. Then he caught a glimpse of the tree and all the presents that were under it and his heart sank. He had none of the presents he had started out with; he had nothing to give his friends. Seeing the sudden dip in his friend's appearance, Chris asked worriedly, "What's wrong?"
Taking a couple of deep breaths to better control his voice, Ezra answered, "I have arrived empty-handed, bereaved of your gifts."
Buck let out a belly laugh, causing Ezra to look at his friend sharply. "I see nothing whimsical about that statement, Buck," Ezra said, his teeth still chattering.
"Pard, your home. I'd say that was the best Christmas gift you could have given any of us," Buck said.
Several ayes chorused in agreement, including his boss'. Leaning down close to his agent's ear, Chris said, "Glad to have you home, Ez. But if you do anything this stupid again I'll strip the hide off ya. Ya got me?"
Ezra leaned back and took note of the half serious face and the cocked eyebrow and nodded. "I got ya, Mr. Larabee," he said, as he warmed up in the glow of the fire and the company of his friends. He knew he would do it all over again, just for this moment of being with friends.
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