Reservations At 8
(A slash tale of the Magnificent Seven in MOG's ATF universe)
Disclaimer: Don't own them, or the show they rode in on. No profit made from this.
Rating: Slash, some violence, some swearing, some lovin'
Archive: fine, just tell me.
Summary: Secretly, Team Seven has been watching out for their gay undercover agent's love life, worried that their friend has made some poor choices for lovers. They finally decide to intervene when one of their own falls in love with him. The road to love...
Tale Begun: 11 December 2004
Tale Completed: 21 February 2005
Feedback: email@example.com welcomes comments
"This stinks!" JD was fuming as he jerked the earphone from his ear.
"Yeah, it does," Vin agreed, but added, "so now we get rid of Greg too."
"About time, if you ask me." Nathan shook his head. "Man doesn't know what he had, sure didn't appreciate it properly."
Josiah sat back in the large club chair that he'd claimed when the team convened. "Things have a way of working out for the best. This is Buck's big chance."
"And, you are NOT going to blow it," Chris Larabee instructed as he finished tying off Wilmington's bow tie.
Buck, who'd been gazing with determination at the far wall, twisted his neck to look down cross-eyed at his old friend's handiwork. "Nice." His teeth appeared and chewed on his lower lip. "How do I look?" he asked the group as he stepped back.
JD grinned. This nervous Buck was a new Buck for him and he rather liked him. Gone was the cocky lothario. This guy was squirming in his dinner jacket, clearly uncomfortable dressed up to the nines. "Good, you look real good, Buck!"
Vin moseyed over and flicked dust specks from Wilmington's broad shoulders. "Mighty fine."
Nathan pushed through Tanner and Larabee and carefully re-buttoned two loose shirt buttons on Buck's white expanse of pleated shirtfront. "Remember to lean forward when you eat so you don't end up with drips all over this."
"Yes, mother." Buck twitched away from the hovering Jackson and appealed to Sanchez who seemed to be the oasis of calm in the room. "Josiah? Do I pass?"
"You do." Sanchez rose to his feet, making the room suddenly seem even smaller. He took the three steps needed to stand in front of their friend and team mate. "We are all trusting you on this, Buck." He paused, his ice blue eyes meeting Wilmington's darker ones. "Don't mess it up."
Chris sighed from behind Josiah. Trust the big man to get even more protective than the rest of them. Chris had faith in Buck Wilmington. Despite the man's reputation and act, he knew the gentle soul within and the kindness and loyalty that resided there. If Buck said he loved someone, it was a pretty momentous occasion. Because Buck said many things, but he never used the "L" word. Or hadn't until now.
"Take it easy, Josiah." Chris rested a hand on the big man's shoulder. "Buck may not be perfect, but his heart's in the right place and we can trust him."
JD, who'd swung around to watch his monitors, whipped back toward the center of the room and the rest of his team. "Showtime! Greg just arrived. He's not alone."
"That shit!" Vin raced over to hang on JD's shoulder and stare at the streaky black and white video monitor. The others crowded up, muttering darkly.
Except for Buck who stood like a stone in the center of the room, anger slowly building. He wanted to shoot the bastard, but that would really muck things up. He'd stick to the plan. Even as he thought it, Nathan and Josiah were striding to the door, both looking determined.
"Be cool, Buck," Nathan threw over his shoulder. "We'll handle Greg and his little friend."
Vin closed the door behind them and lifted a small clear box from the occasional table by the door to their hotel room. He brought it over to Wilmington with a certain reverence. "Now remember, Buck, this is a Central American Orchid. Kinda rare. The green streaks in the rose will match his eyes."
"Thanks, Vin." Buck admired the delicate flower anew. It was much smaller than the normal nosegay he might bring a lady, but it was for a boutonnière. The tiny flower was beautiful. He accepted the container and cupped it lightly in one large hand, smoothing his mustache with the other.
"Got 'em." JD crowed.
Chris Larabee grimaced as he watched his men cut out the young male duo that had just left a limo and stepped onto the red carpet of the restaurant's awning covered walkway. The males were both handsome, clean cut, and well off from the looks of things. Although he didn't know the red head, he knew that Greg Fontaine was a wealthy day trader in the city. Just the sort that fit the bill. Except that he was a two-timing bastard and needed his walking papers. Larabee protected his own. Larabee growled under his breath.
"Let it go, cowboy." Vin nudged his friend. "That's history you're looking at."
Chris nodded sharply and took a deep breath. He turned, running both hands through his blonde hair. The sight that greeted him brought a smile back to his face. His old buddy Buck Wilmington stood dubiously in a first class dinner tux, complete with studs, tie, and sharply creased trousers. The man's dark good looks and height had him ready to compete with any James Bond. He met Buck's eyes and said, "Go get him, tiger."
Buck tugged at his cuffs and squared his shoulders. "Oh - kaay." His eyes drifted across the room, meeting each of the remaining men's. "Wish me luck."
"Nope." Vin gave the tense man a shove. "No way you're gonna need any of that. You'll do."
The other two nodded silently. And Buck left the room without a backward glance.
"He will be along shortly, Henri." Ezra sat straight-backed on the delicately curving chair, resolutely ignoring the face of his watch. Greg was late. Very late. Ezra sipped his single malt, taking just a small mouthful and letting the flavor linger, the smoky peat aftertaste permeating his senses.
Staring blankly at the white damask tablecloth, glitteringly covered in fine china, crystal and silver, Ezra re-thought his life. Greg was the third gentleman friend he'd had since coming to Denver. Neither Rick nor Michael had lasted long. They'd been lusty companions between the sheets, but had no staying power as intellectual partners. Greg was different. Brilliant and gorgeous, a wet dream walking, Ezra had fallen deeply for the man. Apparently, that was not mutual.
This was the third time that Greg had missed a dinner engagement. No excuses had been offered for the second time. The first had been forgetfulness. I am easily forgotten. Ezra shot his cuff and glanced at his watch with as much elegance as he could muster for his state. He was embarrassed, disappointed, and - learning.
Ezra finished his scotch. Looking up, he easily caught the Maitre de's eye.
Glancing away, he didn't see Henri intercepted.
"Is this seat taken?"
Shocked, Ezra looked up and into two beautiful, dark blue eyes. Silently, he shook his head.
"Good." Buck Wilmington sat with far more savoir-faire than Ezra would have ever given him credit. Not that Buck wasn't a graceful man, but this was not where Ezra expected to find his friend, not in this type of chic restaurant, nor in those clothes. Those clothes. Ezra sat back and stared. Buck was wrapped in a simple but well cut short-jacket tuxedo. He looked like he was ready for a high night on the town. So where was his arm ornament? His lady of the evening?
Buck looked around alertly before nodding to Henri and tapping Ezra's empty glass. Apparently Buck spoke 'waiter' well. Almost instantly, Ezra's glass was whisked away and two fresh glasses appeared and were deposited in front of them.
"Greg won't be here." Ezra spoke with finality. It wasn't a question.
Buck studied his amber swirl of liquor, watching the ice crack with seeming fascination. Then, he looked up and into Ezra's quiet green eyes. "Nope."
Ezra swallowed a dry lump in his throat and nodded. He reached for his newly full glass, only to have his wrist grasped gently by a large, competent hand.
"Someone once told me that the best way to drink single malt was to sip it slowly and to let the flavor roll over the tongue." Buck smiled with his eyes, the corners crinkling. His hand changed from a grip to a slow caress, fingertips lightly skimming the back of Ezra's wrist.
Shivering, Ezra met Buck's gaze and found his breath catching unaccountably. "I believe that is true, my friend." Without pause, he continued, never breaking eye contact, "Why are you here?"
"Figured you'd had enough time to sew your wild oats."
"You 'figured' what?" Ezra was taken aback. He tensed and drew his hand away, faintly disappointed at the absence of the warmth those finger pads had pressed upon his skin.
"You know. Rick, Michael, Greg." Buck tipped his head and spoke wisely, as if humoring Ezra.
In a flash of fury, as hot as any he'd ever felt, Ezra shoved away from the small table and lurched gracelessly to his feet. He hissed, "They are my private life, Mr. Wilmington. My life is not for public consumption!" Ezra tossed his linen napkin onto the table.
Buck was instantly on his feet as well and in one quick stride, at Ezra's side. Ignoring their increasingly interested fellow patrons, Wilmington swung a long arm around his friend's shoulders and pulled the man to his side. Leaning in, he breathed warmly into one ear, feeling Ezra stiffen and tremble.
"Ezra, I warned off Greg so I could take his place tonight." He held tight, muscles rippling beneath his jacket as he fought to contain the smaller man beside him. Putting his best, most sincere effort into his next words, he pleaded, "Please, give me a chance."
Ezra Standish was stunned. He ceased his stiff struggles to free himself with dignity from the clutches of his friend. Slowly, he raised his face up towards the man who towered over him. Buck looked back unflinchingly. Ezra took his time. It was much too late to pretend they weren't making a scene, but it didn't seem very important just now.
"A chance at what, Buck?" his whisper was full of helpless fear and sadness.
"Ah, Ez," Buck brought up one hand to cup Ezra's sweet face, his thumb rubbing across the man's wonderfully full lower lip, "A chance to win your love."
Ezra's eyes closed as he leaned in closer to this man who was both his friend and a total stranger. Ezra swayed. He felt as if his life were in limbo. Buck had scared off Greg, only to take his place. Buck knew about Rick and Michael. Buck was standing here in a public place, embracing Ezra and telling him that he wanted Ezra's love. Abruptly, Ezra's legs melted and he dropped back down toward his chair.
Buck eased Ezra the rest of the way into his seat as the man collapsed in the circle of his arms. "Ezra?"
With a shaking hand, the southerner reached out to grasp at Buck's trouser leg. "Buck, sit down, we're making a scene." He spoke to his dinner plate.
Buck smiled and patted his man on the back lightly. "Feel better? Thought you were going to choke there." He spoke loudly enough so that the nearest diners could hear. With a simple ripple effect, the spectators around them shrugged and returned to their meals, no longer interested in the small drama.
Ezra risked another look at the man seated across the table from him again. Still there. No hallucination then. "I just don't understand this."
Buck nodded firmly and smiled. "Have dinner with me tonight. Here." He leaned forward and touched Ezra's hand where it lay on the table near the glass of scotch. "Maybe you'll figure it out by the time we get to dessert."
Buck arched an eyebrow and smiled. "I like sweet things."
Ezra blushed a becoming shade of pinkish-rose. Which reminded Buck of the tiny orchid he had dropped on the serving table beside their seats. Reaching over, he retrieved the flower still encased in a clear presentation box.
In a husky voice, he said, "Here, this is for you." He placed the orchid on Ezra's large silver-toned charger.
Wide green eyes traveled from the small gift to Buck's face. "This is for me?" Ezra echoed in astonishment.
Solemnly, Buck nodded. The tall man was beginning to wonder if this had been a mistake. Ezra seemed to disbelieve everything he said or did. "Thought it might match your eyes."
Ezra dropped his gaze back to the flower. It had an interesting streaking of spring green over each pink petal. The size of the flower, so very small, reassured him. This was intended for a man's buttonhole. "Thank you." He began to wonder if he'd fallen asleep.
"This is no dream, Ezra." Buck's smile was soft like his eyes. Hopeful. He stretched his arm out across the table and poked the box closer to Standish with one large index finger. "Open it."
So Ezra did. He plucked out the orchid and let it sit on the flat palm of his hand, fingers curling only slightly, then brought it up level with his eyes. Studying the tiny thing, he became lost in the miracle of nature's beauty.
"Like you, Ezra, beautiful and perfect."
Buck's quiet words touched Ezra at so deep a place inside that he nearly wept. With a gasp, eyes shining, Ezra switched his focus to the man who had surprised him tonight. "Buck, you've never hinted at - " Ezra licked his lips and paused, then started again, "You always seemed so involved with ladies."
"Plural, pal. Never singular." Buck sat back, easing his tense muscles. This was going pretty well. Ezra hadn't shot him yet.
Ezra tipped his head to the side and continued to examine his companion closely. "Yet?"
"Ever." Buck leaned back down on his crossed elbows, pushing aside the large plate in front of him. Confidentially, he spoke low across the table, "I've been watching you forever. Watched you and Rick. Then you and Michael. Pretty boys, Ez, but not really your style."
"But Greg - "
"Nearly backed off over Greg." Buck shrugged and picked up his scotch glass, shifting his attention to the amber glitter within. "But I kept a watch, began to see that he wasn't treating you right."
"No." Ezra sighed, dropping his eyes again. Inside, he thought in panic, 'kept a watch?'
"You deserve someone wonderful, Ezra," Buck spoke earnestly, "but I hope you'll settle for me."
Without waiting further, Buck stood up and came back around the table. He smiled down at his companion and took up the boutonnière from Ezra's hand. With concentration, Buck carefully tucked the stem clasp into the tiny buttonhole on Ezra's lapel. Stepping back, he let one hand brush Ezra's smooth, cool cheek. "Looking good, buddy."
"And he scores!" Vin yelled, then spun away from the listening station and dunked his empty crushed soda cup in the room's wastebasket. JD was grinning from ear to ear, hands pressing his earphones tightly so he could continue to listen in.
Nathan and Josiah had slipped back into the room several minutes earlier, nodding to Larabee. Nothing was said, but everyone knew that Greg and his new friend were out of the picture now. Chris relaxed for the first time tonight. Maybe now Buck and Ezra would find each other and everyone could ease up. And now, they deserved some much needed privacy. He strode over to JD's jury-rigged station and reaching down, pulled the plug.
"What!" JD looked frantically down at his equipment, dead.
"Hey!" Vin leaned over JD to stare at Chris, then meeting his friend's eyes, he reluctantly nodded and backed up.
Josiah matter-of-factly began gathering scattered possessions, yawning pointedly. Nathan, after a moment's hesitation, flashed an approving smile and began to help.
Chris waited, staring into JD's startled eyes. Slowly understanding grew and JD also nodded, looking almost embarrassed. "Sorry, Chris." He turned away and began to dismantle his bits and pieces.
Larabee gave him a single pat on the back and then moved to the drapery-covered single window. He drew back the curtain slightly and watched as Buck Wilmington emerged from the restaurant below them, with Ezra Standish at his side. The two men moved comfortably, no signs of distress. Good. He felt the warmth of someone close and out of the corner of his eye saw Vin edging closer to look out also. Tanner smiled down at the street.
And in that instant, something changed. Chris saw it in Vin's face. Puzzlement, surprise, anger, fear - and Larabee turned back to look out at the passing scene below. Just in time to see his men pushed into the open back of an unmarked white van. "SHIT!"
He shoved away from the window, Vin doing the same. They spun around to face the rest of the team. "Someone's grabbed them!" Larabee shouted over his shoulder as he ran for the door, Tanner at his back. The three other astonished agents dropped everything and ran after them.
Larabee, Tanner and the rest burst from the hotel entrance next to the restaurant to find the street empty of the mystery van - and the doorman to the restaurant lying on the carpeted sidewalk, unconscious.
Vin punched the air in frustration while Chris stalked to the curb and stared down the busy night time street, seeing only red tail lights and on-coming headlights, no sign of one anonymous white van.
Jackson crouched over the doorman, trying to revive him. Josiah stepped to the side and flipped open his cell phone, placing a call to the local police. JD and Vin quickly moved in opposite directions along the sidewalk, questioning citizens, looking for witnesses.
Chris called back to the ATF building, reporting two agents missing, presumed kidnapped. Since Team Seven didn't have an active case, having just concluded the Jenkins-Warhol case, agents would have to start looking into past cases - including the team's most recent one. Once he finished, Chris checked his men. Nathan was still with the doorman who was now sitting up, propped against the outside of the building.
Josiah was still on his phone. Larabee questioned with a look.
Sanchez cupped his hand over the tiny instrument to say, "Talking to the EMTs now, an ambulance is on the way."
Chris nodded and scanned the street for his other two men. Vin was loping back towards him, looking grim. In the other direction, JD was chatting with an elderly street woman, the bag lady seemed alert enough. Might be something there.
"No one saw a thing." Vin was disgusted, having skidded to a stop next to his friend and boss. He faced Larabee. "I couldn't see them, did you make the plates?"
"No." Chris grimaced. "They were covered with mud deliberately." He grit his teeth and looked toward JD again. The kid gave a high sign so he and Vin headed over.
Buck rolled his neck, he'd been hit with some sort of rubber kosh, hard enough to nearly put him out but padded enough to stop short of breaking the skin. Least, that was what he figured since he didn't feel any trickle of warm blood back there. The throbbing let him know that he probably had a sizeable goose egg at the base of his skull.
Ezra was out cold, head resting in his lap. Buck pressed his bound hands flat on Ezra's chest, flexing his fingers. He could feel the rise and fall of the other's chest, feel the beat of his heart. He worked at keeping calm, right now Ezra depended on him to get them both out of this. Whatever this was.
He stared at the hooded men who sat facing them across the length of the empty van's shell. The two were strapped into a back-facing bench, merely lifting and falling slightly as the van hit potholes. Better than Ezra and him. Loose on the metal floor, they were slip-sliding around and bashing into the sides and back with each turn or bump as the vehicle sped along. From the vibrations, Buck calculated that they were moving swiftly.
Each man held an automatic weapon and looked professional enough to know how to use it properly. Definitely in over our heads on this. He clutched at Ezra's shirtfront with both hands as they were flung to the right again, Ezra's limp form crashing with bruising force against the unpadded sidewall of the van. Shit, he's going to be feeling bad when he finally comes to. Buck tried to hitch his friend up on to his lap more, hoping to protect him from more battering. It was difficult to do much with his hands so tightly bound. The bastards had used police plastic strip handcuffs, then pulled them so tightly that Buck's hands were numbing and discoloring. Ezra's were likewise tied off.
With a lurch and squeal of tires, the van came to a stop, engine still thrumming. Buck, still holding onto Ezra, skated across the floor, long legs skidding to the side as he and Ezra moved helplessly into the legs of their captors.
Buck ducked, hunching over Ezra's head as one man put his heel to Buck's shoulder and shoved hard, growling what sounded like a curse in a foreign tongue. Buck couldn't suppress a small grunt of pain at the kick as his shoulder bore the brunt of the shove. The other man unclipped his seat belt and stood, stoically watching with the barrel of his weapon pointed directly at the prisoners.
Slumping back away from their guards, Buck chanced a look up at the men who were both now standing over them. The hoods effectively hid faces and shadowed eyes so it was only body posture that gave him a sign of their temperament. Bored, but alert.
A clatter behind him told Buck that the back doors of the van were being opened. Bright light flooded the dimly light interior of the vehicle. Swiveling on his rump, Wilmington brought his knees up to cradle Ezra between his legs as securely as he could. Now would be an excellent time to wake up, he directed toward his still unconscious friend. 'Ezra?' He looked down and found pain-filled, slitted green eyes staring back up at him. With a quick shake of his head, he signaled that Ezra should play possum for now. The green eyes disappeared immediately and Ezra's body snuggled minutely closer to Buck's. Buck found that very reassuring. Nice, in fact. Promising for their future. He held in the smile that wanted to emerge. The smile died completely as he wondered if they would have a chance at a future.
Dark silhouettes jostled in the bright lights outside the van, and then someone grabbed the back of Buck's collar and heaved him, and incidentally Ezra, toward the door. Unable to brace himself against the unexpected push, he and Ezra ended up at the edge of the van's flooring, caught up in the door bracket floor trim. Hands from outside reached in towards them and then Ezra was being dragged from his lap to land on the ground beyond the van's door. Buck hooked his heels on the doorjamb and pulled hard, jerking himself out of the van in a tumble to the ground, no, cement floor, where Ezra lay unmoving. He landed hard on his knees and keeled to the side to subside on top of Ezra. Covering him.
Larabee stared coldly at Denver PD's two squad cars and milling officers. Aside from entertaining the passing evening throng, they didn't seem to be accomplishing anything useful and Chris was getting pissed. He stood like a rock, arms folded, glaring at the young sergeant who'd been 'volunteered' by the other officers to talk to him. A report would be filed. The witness would be interviewed by the police officers and her statement added to the files that would be read by department detectives.
JD had managed to get a description of the abductors from the bag lady he'd interviewed. There had been four men, all in black hoods, dressed in dark, simple clothing. Nothing had been spoken, the act carried out in silence. The van had driven up, right on to the sidewalk and when the doorman came out to protest, the four men in the van had boiled out, two from the driving bench, two from the rear. The poor doorman never had a chance. Then the men had run up to the sides of the front door and stood poised.
They'd ignored the first couple to emerge, a man and woman who'd run in horror upon discovering the unconscious doorman at their feet and the masked men at their rear. So far, there was no identification on the couple, but officers were inside questioning the maitre de, so it was possible that something might be discovered. The restaurant was a very popular spot and required reservations, with many returning clientele.
Vin appeared at Larabee's side. "Nada."
Chris flicked a hard look at his agent and then back at the nervous young man in uniform who was standing practically at attention before him. "Kale, isn't it?" At the man's nod, Larabee raised his chin in dismissal, adding, "Keep us informed."
Then he turned away to face Vin. "What?"
"They ran a red light at the next intersection, scared one of the bouncers when they went up the corner curb and nearly clipped the front of his bar." Vin pursed his lips. "He says it was a late model Dodge, two men in front, both in dark clothes, hoods."
"Anything there at all?"
Tanner nodded slowly. "Left a good track on the sidewalk, they had some greasy oil grit on the tires."
Larabee became more focused. He looked down at Tanner's discretely displayed fingertips. "And?"
"Smells like jet fuel."
Instantly, Chris closed the distance, snaring Tanner's closest arm and swinging them both around, away from the police cars still flashing blue and white lights. He started walking them to where JD and Nathan were packing up gear. Josiah came out with an armful of things to add to the stack just as Larabee and Tanner arrived.
Everyone looked up at Larabee. Chris' face was set in a fierce grin, a hunter on a scent. "Vin, get the truck. Everything gets dumped in it," he directed at the others. "Josiah, bring around your car too. Vin found jet fuel traces on the tire tread marks."
All eyes dropped to the tread marks on the curb in front of them. The dark greasy stains could be seen here too, Larabee realized. The police soon might realize they had a clue staring at them. Time to leave. He signaled GO and everyone turned away galvanized, the men scattering while JD and Nathan scurried to finish securing everything quickly.
"These? These are the men you brought me?" Disgust and anger marred the low, mellifluous voice of one of the men now standing over them.
Ezra swallowed a cough from the dust and fumes that coated the cracked cement floor. Buck was heavy on his body, essentially trapping him beneath the bigger agent. He could feel the rapid heartbeat of the man against his chest. And then Buck shifted and his face brushed against Ezra's, mustache teasing his skin. He risked opening his eyes again to look directly into Buck's deep blue ones. He saw worry there and caring, something more. Then Buck rose up, dragged off him, Ezra realized, from the way the man was levitating up and back, without the use of his arms.
Blinding light shone into his face and he shut his eyes tightly against the brutal beam. He felt something heavy drop down beside and against him. Probably Buck.
"These are NOT the men I wanted."
"We aren't gonna tell the police about this?" JD asked quietly, nervously watching his boss driving with genuine abandon, the flood lit road speeding by, lit by the hunting lights of the front rack of the Ram's roof.
Nathan, sitting grimly holding the side drop-down grip in one hand, his other braced on the back of Larabee's seat, spared a quick look at their youngest agent. "Waste of time. We can get there faster than we can explain it, and act with more freedom."
JD looked over at Vin Tanner in the front seat. Tanner had both feet against the dash, hands locked on grips at door and center. Tanner spared a glance back, flashing a wild grin at JD. Dunne shivered. Tanner released one hand to whip out his cell and start making calls. Dunne could hear enough to know that airport security was being alerted, as was ATF headquarters again, and finally, the police. Larabee's men would be first on the scene.
Josiah, following the Ram in his suburban, muttered dark passages of Dante as he kept his foot on the floor. It was going to be a close thing and he didn't want to be left behind. With a roar from throat and engine, Sanchez pulled in behind Larabee at the airport's employee entrance.
Flashing ATF cards and half-walking, half-charging ahead, the five men moved in, passing the security barriers and guards with no fuss. Between the call ahead and familiarity, the security teams knew better than to interfere. Most of Larabee's team was instantly recognizable due to their recent case and a raid in one of the hangers here at the airport.
Vin's call had garnered the information that an unmarked white van had entered through the private plane owners' entrance only about twenty minutes earlier. It had driven directly to one of the smaller hangers at the end of the civil aeronautics area of the field.
Nathan commandeered a follow-me jeep and everyone piled in. Jackson pushed the little vehicle which showed a respectable burst of speed and they headed for the far side of the airport and the private hangers.
Jenkins Shipping had operated out of one of those hangers and that's where they'd nabbed Horace Warhol and the Jenkins boy, Maurice. And fifty crates of illegally sniper-scoped rifles and ammunition. Sanchez, standing on the rear bumper and hanging on to the 'follow-me' sign itself, stared at that hanger as they sped by. Nathan was aiming for one further down the row. Couldn't be related, could it? Josiah shook his head silently. Life was full of coincidences.
Emro Dressler paced across the concrete floor to the far wall of the big hanger. He avoided the private black hawk helicopter that squatted in the center of the space. This was a farce! All I needed were two men, the right two men, and we would have something to trade with. Instead, I get stuck with two almost-look-a-likes. He reined in his temper with difficulty. It really was too much. True there was a surface similarity to the Major's sons, but these men were not Simon and Bart Mosher. If Emro didn't produce the Israelis soon, he was a dead man as far as the Palestinians were concerned. Actually, in light of that thought, Dressler paused in his pacing. Perhaps these men were close enough in resemblance after all?
"Oh, my god!" JD cried out, diving out of the jeep as it skidded and rear axle swung to the side. His teammates were doing the same. A big gray helicopter was screaming out of the hanger facing them, so low that the wheels nearly overturned their tiny vehicle. JD lay on his stomach on the tarmac, hands over his ears, eyes scrunched nearly shut against the wind-driven grit that bombarded them. The sounds were so intense that JD felt deafened. He could see Larabee and Tanner rolling over and over, away from the backwash and raising their pistols, two-fisted, at the hull that already was climbing beyond range. From the way their arms jerked, JD figured they had each shot at least twice at the huge chopper.
Crawling to his feet, Dunne gave Nathan a hand up as well, finding his teammate stunned on the ground nearby. He saw Josiah pick himself up, stagger and then sag against the big metal signboard at the rear of the jeep. By now, both Chris and Vin were standing too, reholstering their weapons and looking after the dark speck in the sky, now heading due west toward the mountains.
Clearing his throat, Dunne turned to face the gaping darkness of the interior of the hanger. "Shouldn't we check out the hanger?"
Somehow, that simple question seemed to bring the others back to themselves. Chris started issuing orders, still standing facing the sky where the helicopter had dwindled to a speck. Jackson climbed back into the jeep and Sanchez joined him, rubbing an elbow contemplatively. JD trudged after Larabee and Tanner who were striding directly for the hanger. He could hear Chris on his cell now, speaking to someone about contacting the Air Force.
Dressler went down on one knee in front of their captives, looking carefully at the men's faces. It was amazing how much they did look like Simon and Bart. Simon, a pint-sized replica of his father, and Bart, showing the large bones and height of his mother's side of the family. And the mustache. Unconsciously, Emro fingered his own upper lip as he thought about the possibilities.
"What are your names?"
Buck, startled by the earlier comment, frowned and remained silent. He really wasn't sure how to reply and figured he'd let Ezra handle this if Standish was capable after the blow he'd received. Buck looked away from the man who seemed to be in charge of their kidnapping and down at his friend. The southerner was blinking blearily. It didn't look like an act but with Ezra you never really could tell. Buck waited.
"Why should we divulge anything to you cretins?" Standish growled out.
Maybe I should have said something, Buck thought, wincing at the nasty tone to Ezra's blunt question.
Emro lifted his chin and caught the eye of one of the men around them. The man stepped forward and kicked the smaller captive sharply in the side.
The victim of this assault simply grunted and spat on the ground, anger in his movements. Buck began to wonder if this was the same Ezra he knew. The vulgarity that hit the air next had Buck's eyes opening wide. Ah shit, now you made him mad.
"Cut them loose." Dressler needed cooperation and it looked like simple coercion would not work. He eyed the two men as one of his own men snipped off the plastic cuffs with a switchblade.
Buck began to rub at his wrists as he was freed. Damn that hurt. His hands throbbed anew with pins and needles. He watched as Ezra's bound wrists were roughly yanked upwards, then sliced apart.
Holy crap! He lurched awkwardly forward and caught Ezra in a bear hug, dragging the furious man back, nearly into his lap. Standish had started to launch himself at the nearest goon with a low growl. Outnumbered, they didn't have a chance and here was Ezra acting as if that didn't matter. Buck held on tight to the angry, struggling man.
Wilmington was shaking inside with the thought that Ezra had nearly provoked a lethal response. As he fought to calm Ezra, he eyed their captors. The four hooded men had all backed away and were pointing their weapons at the two of them, looking as if they fully intended to shoot the begeezus out of them. Ezra was ignoring the threat, still growling and jerking about in Buck's arms. The leader, unmasked for all the good it did them - he had no idea who the guy was, the leader stood back, watching speculatively. Not good.
With an effort, Buck got his hands working again despite their numbed, shocky state. He had Ezra's legs trapped in a wrestler's lock with his own longer, larger legs. He gripped Ezra's head in a creative arm lock and wrenched the man's face around toward him. Eye to eye, finally, Buck cursed sincerely and internally. Ezra's very uneven pupil size told him the man was suffering from a concussion and so his unusual behavior wasn't going to go away with normal reasoning. Not that Buck's 'normal' had ever worked on Ezra before. Clamping hands on either side of Ezra's face, he steadied them, ignoring the men circling them, staring.
"Ezra! EZRA!" He was nearly bellowing now. "Listen to me," Buck lowered his voice to a near whisper. "Listen to me, listen to Buck."
Slowly, Standish's movements stilled. The murky look in the opaque green eyes began to clear a little and Buck became hopeful as Ezra's fierce look of rage softened to one of confusion. "That's right, buddy, just take it easy now."
Emro could see that these two men were close. The nameless one seemed more coherent and seemed to care about the one he called 'Ezra.' There was no time to dally. Dressler had missed his opportunity to kidnap the Mosher boys. But, if he could act fast enough, he might still pull off this game with these men as substitutes. If - if he could force them into cooperating.
He gestured to one of his men. "Get them on the transport, we are leaving." He paused, then added, while watching the bigger captive, "Use force if you need to."
Buck, still facing Ezra and willing some sense into the stubborn man, heard the threat and reacted. He pulled Ezra tight into his arms and buried his face against his friend's neck. "Ezra!" he whispered desperately, "Trust me, trust Buck. Don't fight this, not right now. Just do what I tell you. Please?"
Standish pulled back in Wilmington's arms and stared into Buck's eyes. The more alert look gave Buck hope. Ezra nodded, but it was a jerky movement, none of his usual style and grace. The man was hurting, concussed. Buck felt lucky that his friend responded with any sense at all. "Ok, Ez, here we go. We're going to stand up. You just stay right here with me, Ezra. Hold on."
With careful movements, Buck pushed to his feet, per force releasing Ezra's legs. With murmurs of encouragement, he got his friend upright as well, still held tightly to him.
Emro left it to his men to supervise and hurried over to the helicopter. He gave a wide arm signal to the shapes that could be seen in the cockpit and instantly the rotor blades began to turn, the muted sound of the engine suddenly growing loud. Ducking down instinctively under the high blades, now spinning with a sweeping whop-whop sound, he reached the metal drop-ladder and climbed aboard, moving to the front comfortable passenger seats directly behind the pilot and copilot. Once strapped in, and only then, he turned to look back at the open door hatch.
One of his men was already in and crouched there, looking down with weapon at the ready. Then two heads appeared together at the top of the ladder. The bigger hostage was apparently climbing the ladder with the smaller one in front of him, still caged in his arms. By now, Dressler had realized that the one called Ezra was likely suffering from a concussion. He shrugged, as long as the big one controlled him, his new plan should still work. He turned back to face forward.
"As soon as we are all aboard, go."
The pilot, who'd looked back over one shoulder, signaled a thumbs-up and lifted his chin to see further back. Dressler could hear the shuffling and muffled sounds of all the men entering and settling in the craft, then the scraping and thunk as the ladder was pulled in and the hatch slid closed. The pilot swiveled back to his instruments and the helicopter rose to hover just off the ground.
It was a confining, nearly claustrophobic feeling to be airborne while still inside the hanger. After another moment of rocking on the cushion of air, the craft tilted nose forward slightly and with an increase in power and sound, pushed forward as with increasing speed, it burst from the open hanger and into the air.
Dressler could see a small jeep headed towards them at a distance. It looked like armed men crowded on it. Then the Black Hawk was over them and rising, accelerating into the sky and away. With a choked off scream, Emro jumped in his seat as a neat black hole appeared in the floor at his feet and the edge of the seat beside him disintegrated in an explosion of leather and foam rubber bits. A sharp ping above his head and then a spent bullet dropped to the metal floor to rattle there irritatingly.
One of his men leaned forward and snatched up the tiny missile, shouting out a joke in Arabic to the men behind him, holding the trophy high. Laughter from the others and silence from their hostages. Emro forced himself to relax. Whoever those men on the ground were - they were far behind them now.
Buck felt hope for the first time since the snatch. Only his crazy teammates would be on their trail so fast - and - firing at a chopper this big. He shook his head at the fruitless action, but felt better anyway. Might not have stopped the thing, but they did send a message. They knew about this and would rescue them, eventually. Meanwhile, looked like it was up to him to keep the two of them alive. He looked at Ezra who was sitting like a ruffled bantam rooster in the seat at his side, plucking at the safety harness that held him in the seat as the air caused the helicopter to buck and lift.
Buck lifted one hand and touched Ezra's shoulder. When the angry, confused man turned his way, he lightly stroked Ezra's smooth cheek, letting his thumb hook around to frame his friend's chin. Ezra's eyes lost focus and smoldered at him, lids lowering halfway. "That's it, Ez, relax. We're together. We'll figure this out. The boys nearly caught up to us. They'll get to us. You know them, no stopping them." He smiled tenderly into eyes that still had a glazed look but that were clearly intent on him. He wasn't sure if Ezra understood the words but he was responding to the tone and the touch. Ah, lover-to-be, stay with me, sweetheart, stay with me.
With Ezra calmer and quiet, Buck turned his attention to his captors. The men around him were peeling off their hooded masks. None were familiar; all had dark Near Eastern looks. The bits of lingo that he'd heard made him think Arabic. Why the hell are they here in Denver, of all places? Wilmington let his hand slip from Ezra's face to neck and left it settled there at the top of his friend's shoulder. From the greenish pallor of Ezra's face, he figured that the concussion was about to make itself known again and not just with altered behavior.
The one who had spoken to them, likely the leader, had never been hooded. He was short and fat, greasy looking. Thinning dark hair had been brushed across in oily strands on a bald head. He was frowning now, his thick dark eyebrows coming together in a V. Buck hadn't liked any of this from the start, but the calculating look of the man now was making Wilmington feel like an interesting bug in a collector's net. Not good. Not much future there either.
The team gathered in a circle at the abandoned jeep on the parking area of the civil runway. There was a wing of security heading their way in two more of the little field jeeps. Nathan wondered if they had any left to lead the aircraft into the bays. He fingered the tiny Koran that they'd found on the floor of the empty hangar. There was a definite international feel to this thing. That helicopter had been a military issue Black Hawk in a civilian 'suit' of gray clothes. Local gangsters couldn't afford to run something like that - nor would they want to, much too distinctive.
Jackson surveyed his teammates. Everyone showed stress right now. We're all feeling a bit helpless.
Even as the two small jeeps braked to stalling stops in front of Team Seven, a wailing siren caught everyone's attention. Spinning onto the far end of the tarmac, a Denver PD car, lights flashing and siren on, came careening up the stretch to skid to a halt on their far side. Two plain-clothed men got out of the back and strode over to the ATF agents. Behind them, the driver and the other officer in the front seat with him got out of the car as well and quickly headed off the airport security personnel. Standing at a distance, they held a quiet discussion and the airport workers piled back into their jeeps and departed, turning back towards the terminal.
One of the men approaching Team Seven looked vaguely familiar to Nathan Jackson, but he could not put a name to the face so he waited.
"Agent Larabee?" The first man was rosy-faced, with small, burst blood vessels all over a bulbous nose. His average height had to carry a few extra pounds, but Nathan thought he looked solid, not overweight. A fringe of gray was all that was left of his hair. He came to a stop in front of Chris, not extending his hand.
"Baxter." Larabee said flatly. He eyed Baxter's companion silently.
"This is Fred Hernandez, CIA." A taller, coffee-toned man with dark, crisply curling hair nodded without speaking.
Chris looked the man up and down, then turned to his team and introduced them to Baxter. "Boys, this is Tiny Baxter, police liaison for the intelligence community." He pointed out and named his men as a simple courtesy to the two waiting. Jackson, like his teammates he was certain, was already worrying the situation and these new players in his head.
Hiram 'Tiny' Baxter, a thirty-year veteran of the Denver PD, had known Larabee a long time and respected the man. This time he had a feeling that things would not go smoothly. "Some of Mr. Hernandez's men fielded this one and Fred called me in to help intercede. You and your team are going to have to back off."
Jackson stiffened. Around him, the others froze. JD hissed under his breath and rocked forward on his toes. Vin seemed to sink closer to the ground without moving, his eyes nearly closing in a strangely lazy action. Josiah simply cursed in a murmur that still managed to have Nathan sending him a shocked look before turning back to see how Chris would handle this.
"No." Well, that was easy, Nathan thought with a smile that he bit back.
Baxter shifted from foot to foot and looked at the ground as he answered, "That won't work this time, Chris." He looked up into Larabee's cold eyes. Regretfully, he continued, "National security issues."
For the first time, Hernandez spoke, his voice a surprisingly high tenor with a slightly musical accent. "Mr. Larabee, your two rogue agents have become involved with a cell of Palestinian terrorists and an arms dealer who specializes in trading with them and with the Israelis. As we speak, your men are accompanying them to an unknown destination somewhere up in the mountains above the Denver - Boulder area. We can not afford to have any more of you involved."
"My agents are not rogue, Mr. Hernandez." Larabee jutted his jaw forward, eyes squinting as he gritted out, "They were KIDNAPPED." He arched his back and looked up at the empty sky for a moment before letting his eyes drop back down to fasten on the CIA agent. "And I won't walk away from them. Especially not now, knowing what a mess they've gotten themselves into."
Hernandez studied the angry agents before him, letting his gaze linger on Larabee. He gave no ground, simply nodded and reached into his jacket. Instantly, five ATF agents responded by reaching for their weapons, each breaking from the group in a separate direction.
"At ease!" Baxter bellowed, both hands raised. Everyone went still, five guns now aimed at Hernandez, who had yet to remove his hand from his jacket pocket. "STAND DOWN, Larabee! We are not the enemy here!"
Slowly, Fred Hernandez withdrew his hand from behind his lapel, bringing out a slim brown envelope, larger than normal letter mail. He seemed unaware of the weapons still pointed at him but he did continue to move slowly. With no pause, he serenely tapped the envelope against his palm, allowing the contents to slip free. Several glossy black and white photos dropped into his hand.
Nathan exhaled finally. He relaxed, lowering his gun to rest against his thigh, resetting the safety without looking. Around him, the others' actions mirrored his own.
Chris Larabee re-holstered his gun, knowing that his boys were still holding theirs and ready to react if the need arose. He kept his eyes on the CIA agent's face, his eyes.
"Here." Hernandez offered the photographs to Agent Larabee, his economy of speech endearing him to Chris.
Chris stared down at the pictures. What the hell? At first glance, it looked like several candid shots, taken from a distance, of Ezra and Buck, both in dark, European-styled suits. While Ezra might dress something like that, Buck only would under duress. He looked more closely. As he stared, two more glossies were slipped across the top of the stack he held. Two portraits. Two men. One dark, big, mustached. The other, smaller, clean-shaven, also dark. Not Buck. Not Ezra. But close. Suddenly, things began to make sense.
"They took the wrong men."
Hernandez nodded again. He crossed his arms and stood patiently as Larabee's men crowded around their leader, staring, first dubiously, then with stunned disbelief at the photos.
Chris gave his boys time to see what he'd seen, in the end it would save time. Now, collecting the photos and dropping them back into the brown envelope, he confronted the man from the CIA. "Who are they?"
"They are sons of Captain Aaron Mosher, a key figure in Israeli security forces. And they are vacationing here in Denver and the area, for rock climbing."
No one bothered to say the obvious, but Josiah had to choke back his anger that two of his friends were involved in a misadventure through sheer happenstance - doppelgangers becoming victims of their coincidental similarities. He shoved his gun into the belt holster at the center of his back, letting his arms swing forward just so that he could release some of the growing tension. An evening that had started out in such a promising manner was deteriorating into a nightmare.
Vin shifted from leg to leg, throwing out a hip as he leaned to relieve pressure on his back. That damn truck ride over here had been wild. It had hurt like hell on his spine when they crunched several traffic speed bumps on the airport approach road. He knew they wouldn't be backing out of this one, but it wasn't going to be easy. Not like hitting the street for information - though, now that he thought about it, it might actually work to their advantage, knowing the locals. These imports would be real difficult to hide and the Denver illegal community would likely know more about them than anyone suspected. Vin began to get that itch he used to get when he was a bounty hunter. He walked softly closer to Larabee so that Chris would know he was ready and had a plan.
Chris caught Vin's movement and turned his head slightly. He gave a slow nod, more a dropping of his chin, eyes still on Hernandez. It was enough for Vin, he knew. They could leave here anytime now.
JD was snapping his fingers soundlessly at his legs, arms hanging down loosely. Unless you knew him, you wouldn't realize that he was wired and percolating. All I need is access now. I've got some names, some places, and some connections. Gimme a few hours and I'll hand you their heads on a plate. Come ON, Chris, let's get out of here. JD stewed restlessly. His weapon was already back in his underarm holster and he was beginning to wish it wasn't.
Nathan Jackson deliberately moved into the space between Josiah and Chris Larabee, squaring up beside Chris. No point in letting Josiah blow now. Won't solve anything and might get us locked out totally. Leastways now the man is telling us things. He plucked the brown envelope from Chris' hand and tidied it up swiftly by pulling the pictures, sorting them and aligning them, then carefully tucking them back in the envelope. All the while, Larabee seemed focused exclusively on Hernandez. Nathan waited for a chance to return the evidence in a proper manner to the CIA agent.
"We can help."
"We don't need it." Fred Hernandez could be blunt when called for and he followed his instincts with this ATF commander. It didn't hurt that Hiram Baxter had warned him about the man and his crazy team.
"We're not walking away from this one. Buck Wilmington and Ezra Standish are two of my men, our teammates. They don't get hung out to dry." Chris didn't have to fake his anger but he controlled it easily. He'd read his men from peripheral signals and knew they all had ideas, didn't need more right now. When we break away, we can get started. But he knew if he made it too easy, they'd get pulled in by Travis and grounded. He didn't particularly want to risk that. Though, push come to shove, they'd work the case regardless.
Hernandez tilted his head to the side. "Mr. Larabee. We can handle this. We'll get your men back. Let us do our jobs." He's not pushing hard enough, something's up. Damned if I can figure out what.
"Can we go?" Chris looked blankly at Baxter now, dismissing the CIA man without another word.
Tiny Baxter seemed uncomfortable. He wasn't in the chain of command for anyone, he just acted as liaison between agencies, acting on behalf of the Denver PD. He glanced over at Agent Fred Hernandez. The man wielded a lot of power within his agency, had a big team out in the field here in Denver - something unheard of in the US before Homeland Security issues boiled over. Now all the alphabets were stepping on each other's toes and ignoring each other's spheres of authority. And their local power player, ATF's Larabee, looked ready to eat Hernandez for a snack. Baxter got no guidance from Fred so he pursed his lips and nodded slowly. "I'll keep you informed, Chris, I promise."
Larabee narrowed his eyes, staring holes into Baxter. "See that you do. You know how to reach me." With that, he spun on his heel and stalked off for the small jeep that Nathan had commandeered. He knew his men were trailing him.
Jackson paused beside Agent Hernandez. "Here you go, sir. Think I got them organized for you." He spoke respectfully and handed the envelope to Hernandez, having crimped the end closed so the photos wouldn't slide out. Giving a sketchy salute, he turned and followed along behind the rest of his team.
Fred Hernandez watched the ATF team climb stiffly back into their small transport, the big man, Sanchez, at the wheel now. As the jeep rolled off, he turned back toward Baxter and the waiting police cruiser. Without waiting to get inside, he pulled out his high security cell phone and contacted one of his lead men. "Henry? I want men all over Larabee's team. They are taking a piece of the action and this is their turf. I need to know what they know when they know it."
Baxter smiled at Fred, then nodded slowly. Hernandez was smart enough to know that Larabee was probably smarter.
"Alright, Nathan. What was that all about?" Chris turned in the front seat and raised his eyes to Jackson perched on the back shelf seat next to Vin. This time JD clung to the metal "Follow Me" sign on the rear, toes hooked on the rear bumper.
Nathan looked back at Chris impassively. Then he straightened one arm, pointing it toward Larabee. He shook the arm at the team leader. And two glossy black and white photographs dropped out of his sleeve into Larabee's lap. Nathan grinned, teeth a flash of white. "Sleight of hand, courtesy of Ezra's coaching."
Josiah's belly laugh had the jeep dancing down the runway.
"AIIIEEE!" Emro's cry of disgust had all his men peering toward the front of the aircraft.
Buck wrapped an arm back around Ezra's heaving shoulders and held on. With his free hand, he yanked his own bowtie loose and then used it to mop up the remnants of the vomit on Ezra's chin. "Easy, buddy, deep breaths now." He tilted them slightly away from the direction of the semi-hysterical thug leader so that Ezra wouldn't inhale the stench of the vomitus that now decorated the creep's lap, legs and shoes. From behind them came the sound of raucous laughter as the other four thugs reacted. With a smirk hidden in his sleeve, Buck soothed his confused and irritated, sickly Ezra while privately gloating over his poor friend's great aim.
"Control him!" The head-thug, as Buck thought of the man, hissed the order at him, gesturing furiously at Ezra who was again shaking with the early signs of heaves.
"He's sick, damn it! Concussed thanks to you bastards!" Buck wasn't about to back down, he could see that these men wouldn't be interested in anything other than power, force.
"Then take care of him." The man curled a lip, then stood up, picking futilely at his ruined trousers. He edged around their seats and toward the back of the large hull, calling for something in the sharp staccato of another language.
We're deep in something here, Ez, Buck thought silently to his friend as he eased the man's cummerbund and waistband, then picked the shirt studs loose and undid the bowtie at Ezra's neck.
Ezra tried to look at Buck hovering close in front of him. His stomach was curdling with the feeling of sickness and the continuing motion of the helicopter. His head pounded with the pain from his goose egg, the roar of the motor around them sheer agony. He swallowed the dry gritty taste of his own stomach contents and wished only for water and quiet. His world was so tumbled that he no longer had any idea of what was happening. The one constant seemed to be Buck Wilmington at his side. The how and why were receding in the waves of pain and illness, but the man's presence was the only thing he felt he could trust.
"Buck?" Ezra's voice sounded weak even to his own ears.
"Water." The very thought of a complete sentence was more than he could cope with so he sincerely hoped that Buck understood.
Apparently he did because Wilmington surged to his feet, one hand still firmly clamped to Ezra's shoulder, and twisted around to bellow to the rear of the hold, "We need water! If you want me to take care of him, give me some water now!"
Buck certainly sounded fierce, Ezra thought vaguely, glad for the feel of the man's big hand on him. It gave him a sense of connection that he really needed as the world swung wildly about him. Then Buck was sinking back down beside him and holding a plastic water bottle to his lips.
"Small sips, Ezra." That melodic voice was so gentle now, Ezra leaned into it as he nursed at the bottle pressed to his lips. Buck was hugging him again, the warmth of his long arm across Ezra's back was comforting. Ezra leaned further into Buck, enjoying the contact and sipping the cold water that cut through his nausea. Then it settled like a hard, heavy weight in his stomach and he began to shift in dismay. The bottle disappeared and his face was caught by Buck's other large hand.
"Ride it out, Ez, just take slow breaths, and hold on, buddy." Buck's soothing commands echoed in Ezra's aching head but he obeyed. Gradually, the feeling of a rock in his gut eased and the motion of the transport became the rocking of Buck's body cradling his. He let his head drop onto Buck's shoulder and it slid down on to the big man's chest. He could hear Buck's heart beating now, steady and reassuring. He rubbed his forehead against the stiff lapel of Buck's dinner jacket and suddenly thought about the tiny orchid that Buck had given him.
"Is it gone?" He realized dimly that he'd spoken but wasn't sure if Buck would hear his quiet question.
"Is what gone, Ezra?" Buck's head had lowered because now he felt warm breath on his face and then Buck's slightly scratchy cheek on his forehead.
"Flower." Ezra felt as if he was drifting off on a cloud of Buck now. Surrounded by the smell of his aftershave, the texture of his jacket, the heat of his body, the touch of his skin.
Buck listened in surprise. Then he smiled as he realized that Ezra was asking about the boutonnière that he'd given him over the dinner table. Was it only a few hours ago? He tilted his head so that he could see Ezra's face. The pained look was etched there, but Ezra had still managed to fall asleep. Aw, Ez. Buck pressed a kiss to the sweaty cold forehead and then closed his eyes and rested his chin on his friend's head. I should wake him. You're not supposed to let folks sleep with a concussion. He sighed.
"Ezra?" He gently shook the smaller body pressed against his. "Ezra, you can't sleep now, wake up."
Bleary green eyes slid back open and blinked up at Buck.
"Good boy!" Buck patted the pale cheek and suppressed a grin at the look of indignation that appeared.
"Boy?" Ezra sat up slightly, "I am not a boy, good or otherwise." Then he slumped back down against Buck unwilling to give up the nice warm heat of his friend's body or the good feeling of the touch.
"Nope, guess you're not a boy, Ezra." Buck let his fingers comb through the other man's ruffled hair, the suggestion of waves that had always charmed him becoming more apparent as sweat and disarray allowed nature's curls to reassert themselves.
Buck hugged Ezra slowly closer and smiled. "You're all man and one that I'd like to get to know better."
"You would?" Ezra's eyes seemed huge this close. The greens were gradually clearing, though it was clear that not all the lights were back on yet, Buck thought affectionately.
"Yes, Ezra, I would." He let his hand trail down the lapel to Ezra's waist, then on to his hip where he captured the farther thigh and tugged Ezra's body even closer to him. "I do think I could fall in love with you, Ezra."
Ezra snuggled into Buck's chest and smiled. That sounded very nice.
The drone of the helicopter engine coupled with the throbbing sound of the blades had lulled Buck into a doze. Ezra's warm body curled up against him had been an added inducement to drowsiness. Their kidnappers had been ignoring them for some time. Waking to full alert with a change in the sounds of the transport, Buck cracked open an eyelid and stared around the windowless cabin. Both side hatch doors were shut. Even without any terrain for clues, he had some ideas about where they might be. With his former military experiences, Buck had a feel for the range of a helicopter. He'd never flown in this particular model, but they had to be a great distance from Denver by now.
On the pretense of rolling his shoulders and neck, he checked the rest of the passengers, their captors. The men were seated on the side benches behind them. He and Ezra were in the second seats after the pilot's. The little man in charge seemed to be sulking in the rear, now dressed in an oversized Air Force pickle-suit.
Buck leaned back as Ezra sat up, awake as well. "Hey pard, how are you doing?"
Ezra swiveled to face Buck and met his eyes. "What did I miss?"
So, you're back? Buck pressed his lips together and shook his head. "Nothing good. We got picked up right from the restaurant, whacked from behind." Buck paused to rub the back of his neck in sympathetic remembrance. "You got hit pretty hard, Ezra. I think you have a concussion. You've been out of it, or only half conscious for nearly three hours now."
Standish rubbed his tongue around the inside of his mouth and grimaced. Wilmington nodded consolingly and handed him a half-empty plastic water bottle. "You got sick. Up here in the air." He jerked his chin toward the rear of the craft. "Upchucked over Snow White back there."
"Snow White?" Ezra's reserved look was settling in. As he suppressed his surprise and bewilderment in favor of playing his undercover persona, willing to seek information rather than succumb to physical ailments. He firmly told himself to disregard his nearly blinding headache.
"Didn't give me a name, but that fellow in the one-piece," Buck nodded rearward again, "That guy and his dwarves are the ones that took us." Buck quirked his lips ruefully. "Seems they made a mistake - thought we were somebody else."
"This is all a mistake?" Ezra forgot to control his voice and heard it rise in confusion.
"Yeah." Buck smiled ironically now. Ezra was becoming fascinated by Buck's range of expression with those lavish lips. He nearly missed the next bit. "Fact is, Snow asked us what our names are."
Buck waited. When Ezra didn't comment, he continued, "You called them cretins, refused to answer, and they started whacking on you all over again." Buck shook his head at his friend. "You were a bit of a terror. You get pretty nasty when you're concussed, Ez."
"Doesn't seem to have done us any good," Ezra observed, leaning back on his seat, wondering why he felt chilled when he'd been warm when he woke.
"Not sure what will." Buck tentatively rested a hand on Ezra's shoulder. When it wasn't shrugged off, he smiled and relaxed, leaning back himself next to Ezra, leaving his hand were it was. "I think old Snow might be thinking up some way to use us. He knew we weren't the right ones back in Denver, still took us along for the ride."
"Speaking of Denver, where precisely are we? And where are we going?" Ezra's voice had moderated to a quiet murmur now, his awareness growing as was his understanding of their current predicament.
"Not sure. No windows and Snow hasn't been much of a tour guide." Buck hesitated, then added, "And guess you should know, I think the goons are speaking Arabic."
Ezra closed his eyes. What the hell was wrong with his social life anyway? First he couldn't seem to find Mr. Right, if his previous 'partners' had been any indication. Greg had been a dangerous disaster. He quelled a shudder at the thought of the man. Then, along comes Buck. Things are looking up, really wonderfully. And wham. Kidnapped. By mistake. What is wrong with my kismet, anyway? "Arabic." He didn't ask anything, life seemed to be one big question mark right now.
"Yeah." Buck checked over his shoulder and then pressed down on Ezra's, tipping his head closer to whisper, "speaking of the little shit, here he comes." Buck licked his lips. "Ah, Ezra, I should warn you - he don't like you much right now."
"Oh? Why is that?" Ezra straightened in his seat. As if I really care.
"Like I said, you puked all over him."
"Buck, we really need to work on your word choices." Ezra placed his hands flat on his knees and arched his back to relieve the stiffness he was only beginning to realize he had. A sharp pain on one side hinted at some bruising there as well. Wonderful.
"Soon as we get out of this, Ezra, we can work on anything you want. As long as it's together." Buck leaned in and gave Ezra a brief peck of a kiss on his cheek. "Hold that thought," he whispered before sitting up and staring at their approaching captor.
Ezra stole one last glance at Wilmington. Trust Buck to find time for romance in the middle of a kidnapping. Ezra hid a smile. I like it.
Emro saw that the men were both awake again and the younger one, who looked so much like Simon Mosher, seemed less upset, calmer. Good. Now to find out more. "Gentlemen." He came to a stop in front of the two men and gave a half-hearted bow. Rubbing his sweaty palms on his borrowed jumper, he looked both over. It really was amazing how much they looked like the Mosher brothers.
Neither Buck nor Ezra chose to answer. Both simply stared stonily at the man.
Dressler began to think that these two were not your average man in the street that the news broadcasters were constantly mentioning. He really did need to establish who they were before going on. "Who are you?"
Dressler tried again, varying things slightly. "My men made a simple mistake in apprehending you. You bear a striking resemblance to two other men that we were trying to find."
"You always kidnap folks when you find them?" Buck bit back more that he was going to say, angry with himself for saying anything at all. He felt a touch on his thigh. Looking down, he saw that Ezra was resting one hand there, pressing lightly. He understood and closed his mouth.
Emro was pleased to get any sort of rational response from these two. He snapped up the opportunity to trot out his new little twist. "No, of course not. We do not find 'folks', we find criminals and worse. We agents of Interpol," he smiled as the two men exchanged wary looks before staring at him again, "we Interpol agents track down suspected terrorists and try to apprehend them as quickly as possible before they can do harm." He shook his head woefully. "Unfortunately, you are close to being dead ringers for the two we were seeking."
This time Ezra couldn't resist. "Close to being dead, anyway, at your treatment."
"Yes, yes, unfortunate that. However," Emro smiled brightly, his slicked down black hair strands gleaming on his greasy pate, "this may be a very good misadventure for us all!" He clapped his stubby hands together as if greeting himself. "You see, you may be able to help us capture more of their cell here in America. Yes," he nodded wisely, "You may be heroes!"
Buck swallowed a cough, nearly choking and Ezra raised an eyebrow. "Oh, my, that does sound promising."
Chris leaned back in his desk chair and stretched. It had been over ten hours since two of his men had vanished in a private helicopter. Worried as he was, he knew that his team was working full out but that no one had snatched more than a catnap all night. It was eight in the morning and they needed a break.
He dragged himself up out of his chair, discretely rubbing his rump, numb from his hours in the seat while on the phone. He then rubbed his ear and shoulder. Numb, too.
They had made some progress. Vin and Josiah had disappeared into the streets the minute they hit the edge of town, Nathan had started in on calling contacts and JD had lit a fire on the 'net. Chris windmilled his arms and yawned. Coffee and some food. Everyone needed to stop and fuel up. Maybe take out some time to sleep. Morning business hours were dead time on the streets, too busy on the Internet, and no one was answering telephones. Decision made, he walked out into the bullpen of his team's suite of offices, part of the ATF units in the federal building.
Everyone out here looked groggy and glassy-eyed. "Okay, boys, time to take a break."
Tired eyes rose to meet his as he turned around to look at each team member. "Let's do a meeting down at the Rooster Grill."
Nothing was said. The men stood and shrugged on jackets or sweaters against the fall weather, already cool in the mornings in September. As a group, the five men entered the elevators, looking formidable enough that two secretaries dashing down the hall suddenly found themselves with enough time to wait nervously for the next down car.
"You know, if Buck had been with us, they would have piled in, too." Vin mused to the wall in front of him.
JD grunted. He didn't want to think about his roommate right now, the hard rock of worry in his chest had grown big enough already.
Chris spoke mildly. "Been thinking about what to tell Travis."
Instantly alert, the other four men turned to face him in the small space. He added, staring at his feet, "We might have to take some leave time if he doesn't see this as part of the job."
"You think he'd do that?" Jackson was concerned and unhappy at the prospect of fighting their boss. He folded his arms across his chest and frowned, hands tucked out of sight.
Chris shook his head. "Nope, I think he'll let us loose to follow the trail, leastwise until there isn't one."
"I found some stuff," JD started.
"Hold it until we're at the Grill, JD," Larabee instructed, eyeing the elevator walls warily as the door dinged open on the lobby floor. The others followed the direction he was looking and everyone became grim.
"You really think?" Dunne asked askance to Josiah.
Sanchez simply nodded his head toward a man lounging in the lobby, over by the directory. "Don't think he's really lost, son."
The five men walked out of the elevator and, looking straight ahead, moved in tandem toward the exit, no one giving their observer a second glance.
Striding down the street, Vin, at Larabee's side, muttered, "Two more on our flanks."
"And one in front," Larabee nodded.
"Boxed in?" Nathan loosened his jacket, releasing the buttons so the jacket could swing free in front. He wanted quick access to his weapons.
"Think they're just watching." Josiah sounded serene. "Mr. Hernandez didn't strike me as the sort to let us step on his toes."
"If it's just his boys, we let them be." Chris turned his head to stare at one of their shadows, realizing that no real attempt was being made at cover. "Probably better this way. I don't have to call Tiny when we need them." He looked ahead to the Grill, a local dinner-style storefront restaurant that they frequented when any of the team ate breakfast. They'd had morning meetings there before. In the doorway, just out of the sidewalk traffic, stood Fred Hernandez. "Might be having someone join us for breakfast."
"Shit, then he pays the tab." Vin's grin was wicked though his eyes were watchful.
No one spoke again as they came even with the CIA agent-in-charge in the field. FBI they were used to, CIA was a new player in Denver.
"Mr. Larabee? Mind if I join you?"
"Talked it over." Chris' tone was flat, uninviting. "You can come if you pay."
"That's fair." Fred Hernandez nodded complacently, turning to hold open the door for the five ATF agents.
"For all of us," Dunne added as he followed his teammates inside.
Fred faltered for a moment, then smiled in admiration at the men strolling inside in front of him. Piece of work, the whole damn team.
The helicopter was no longer moving forward. Even though they couldn't see out, the sense of momentum eased. And then everyone felt it, they were dropping. Emro was sitting chummily with Buck and Ezra, having finally gotten their names. Ezra Sanders and Buck Williams. They were ex-soldiers, which explained how at ease they'd been with all the firepower his men had displayed. Both were firefighters now, so they were used to dangerous situations. That explained why they hadn't panicked. Dressler was satisfied that he'd convinced them that he and his men were Interpol.
"If you could just explain again why we are going to a base so far from the city?" Ezra asked politely, fastening his seatbelt at the increase in turbulence.
Dressler frowned. He'd gone over all this. The smaller man was apparently a bit slow-witted compared to his larger partner. "Yes, well, as I already explained, Mr. Sanders, or perhaps I should call you 'Ezra'?" He looked at the young man inquiringly.
"Mr. Sanders will do splendidly."
"Um, yes, Mr. Sanders." Emro had the uncomfortable feeling that he was missing something. "We got word on the radio from some of our contacts that the criminals have left the city. They are already on the way into the mountains. We must have a place to work from that is close to where we expect to locate them. And, if we do not find them, from where we can contact their people and convince them - with your able assistance and fortunate similarity in appearance - that we HAVE found them."
"And this will do what?"
Emro's frown became darker. "We will be able to force certain cooperations from them, in exchange for your lives - ah, their friends' lives, er, freedoms." By the time he finished speaking his voice was becoming snappier, more impatient.
"Don't mind my friend, Mr. Dressler, he's just trying to make sure we do everything the way you want it." Buck made calming motions, using his good-old-boy tone of voice that had convinced more than one criminal that he was not a threat. Too bad. For them.
"Umm, yes." Doubtful, Dressler pursed his lips and became busy fastening his own seatbelt.
Then there was a jolt and the chopper settled down on a surface with a random bounce. Emro brightened. Soon, he could rid himself of these nuisances and catch the real Mosher boys. Still it was good to keep these two in his grasp until he was sure. It would not do at all to get on the wrong side of the Palestinians. He looked anxiously back at the men in dark clothing. So far, those four had left everything to him. He needed to pull this off or he would be a dead man.
The door beside Buck slid back suddenly with a metallic clatter and squeal. Harsh floodlights had everyone squinting and Dressler bustling forward to lean out and yell something in Arabic.
Ezra's eyes went up in surprise. Buck had told him about that but this was the first time he heard it since he'd started thinking straight again. He reflexively rubbed at his head, then bent over to unbuckle his seatbelt only to find Buck's hands already there in his lap. He looked over at Wilmington. Buck's eyes were on his task and his face was a picture of concentration. Suddenly, Ezra really saw Buck Wilmington, as if for the first time.
Team Seven, or at least the five members still at large, settled into seats around a big table at the back of the Rooster Grill. CIA Agent-in-Charge Fred Hernandez pulled out one of the two other vacant seats, laying a folder quietly on the table in front of his seat.
None of the ATF agents said a word. From the reports he'd received, Hernandez knew that these men had been working all night. How the hell did they get on this so fast? As far as I can tell, there wasn't any case there that they were working. Fred didn't particularly like puzzles that entered his domain when HE was working. His men had been on the trail of Dressler and the cell of terrorists for two continents and three weeks. He knew now that they were after Major Mosher's two sons. He'd finally located the young men's planned destination for their climb, but, from what his men learned at the Grand Hotel Restaurant, so had the black agent on Larabee's team. Fred Hernandez jutted his jaw out and rubbed his nose. Everywhere his men had turned last night and early this morning, they'd tripped over Larabee's men.
If Ezra was here, he'd be able to read this man, Larabee thought grimly, staring silently at the CIA man. They damn well better find Standish and Wilmington. He waited.
"Mr. Larabee, my men have been keeping track of you and your team." Fred found himself toying with the edge of the file and had to press his fingers down on the Formica table top to stop his nervous mannerism. These men were beginning to get on his nerves.
"Yeah." Chris leaned back, arching his back and yawning widely. He already had that figured out. Secretly, he eyed that file folder, fingers itching to snatch it up.
Hernandez shook his head and pressed the folder forward an inch. The greasy paper placemats made him want to cringe but the other men looked quite comfortable with the place.
"Coffee all around?" A bored voice at his shoulder made Fred start slightly before swallowing, then nodding like the others. The waitress, who he could now see at his elbow, simply turned and left again.
He turned back to face the circle of tired faces. "Have you found anything?" Anything that I don't know about? he thought as he watched them.
Chris cocked his head to the side. "What makes you think we'd tell you if we had?"
Hernandez stared into those cold hazel eyes and took a deep breath. It was difficult not to feel intimidated by these locals. "You'd get something back in trade."
Everyone stiffened, alert looks entering the exhausted faces of the ATF agents. The big one, Sanchez, put both his elbows on the table and leaned forward over the center.
"You know something more?" His voice was a low, crooked teeth showing beneath a raised lip.
Fred sent a look towards the formidable agent before turning back to Larabee once more. "I may have a lead on where the Mosher boys are headed."
Jackson rested his hands against the edge of the table in front of him and silently beat a tattoo with his fingers. He sat straighter and snapped out, "Might be we already know that."
Larabee frowned at Nate. Man couldn't keep a secret to rest his soul. He breathed out a huff of air but kept his peace.
Hernandez tipped slightly to the side and raised an eyebrow at the black agent. "We just found out that they are already on their way there." He tapped the folder in front of him significantly.
"You got anything else?" Chris finally answered with another question. He didn't like playing these games and wished he could trust this man, but he hadn't ever had much in the way of dealings with spooks and a good word from Tiny Baxter wasn't enough to convince him to deal plainly with Hernandez yet.
Fred tucked his lower lip under his upper and snorted. "Yes." He edged his fingertips under the corners of the file and lifted it slightly. "We may have located the helicopter's destination."
The youngest agent present, who Fred identified as JD Dunne, raised a hand to flick his fingers toward Hernandez. "We got that."
Fred noticed that the other four men blinked though they didn't look towards their youngest. Instead, Larabee pressed his hands down on the table and stared directly at Hernandez. "Try again." It came out as an impatient growl.
"Look, Mr. Larabee, we can do more together." He sensed the hostility among the men present. "I know you offered before, but I am only now realizing the resources you can offer that we don't have available." Eating humble pie wasn't easy, but Fred Hernandez was nothing if not a realist. This meeting was not going as planned. He'd expected to show up with important investigative discoveries, then get one of the ATF agents reassigned to his team for liaison with their inside kidnapped men. Now, though, it looked like Larabee's reduced team was still ahead of his men and Hernandez realized that he needed them. He met Chris Larabee's cold eyes. "Will you work with us?"
The one called Vin Tanner, who, according to reports was the sharpshooter and all-purpose man on the team, finally drawled out, "Don't see as how we need you if that's all you got to offer."
A general shifting of the men let Hernandez know that they agreed and that he wasn't getting anywhere. "We have more." Running a blunt hand through his crisp, wavy dark hair, he said, "We have a rather large budget. We can bring in helicopters, satellite intell, and paramilitary forces if needed."
"Can do that ourselves." Sanchez spoke to the opposite wall, stretching back and clasping his hands behind his head.
Fred was getting irritated, didn't Larabee have any discipline with this bunch? He seemed content to let them speak for him and Fred wasn't going to get cooperation if he had to negotiate with the whole damn team. He rolled his shoulders and sank into himself, then suggested, "Maybe, Mr. Larabee, we could step outside together, reach some agreement?"
The tension in the area seemed to double, and then Larabee barked out a short, unamused laugh. "I don't work that way, Hernandez."
In the quiet that followed, Fred sagged back in his seat. The waitress arrived and deposited a round tray with six mugs and two thermos of coffee, both marked regular. No one moved.
"Alright." Fred bit his lip and lifted his folder higher, then reached across the table, offering it to Larabee. "Here. This is all we've got."
Chris didn't show his surprise and accepted the folder as if he'd expected it. Opening it slowly, he decided that maybe he could work with Hernandez after all. Eyes racing down the first page of the thin set of documents, he quickly tossed pages of coordinates off to Vin. Other pages, with radio frequencies and translations of limited exchanges, he passed to Josiah. A third set, with printouts of traces on the Internet, he long-armed to JD. He gave Nathan a page on background information on the terrorist cell, and kept the executive summary of data for himself.
Team Seven digested the material and looked back up at Hernandez with what he could only describe as wolfish expressions.
"Backs up my stuff." JD dropped his share of the paperwork on the table, nodding.
Vin scratched at his chin. "You got anyone in the mountains yet to confirm these sightings? Pretty wild down that way."
"No." Fred was beginning to get the rhythm of conversing with these men. His own confidence was returning with the respectful way they were now looking at him. Maybe this would work after all.
Buck dropped from the helicopter deck to the ground and looked around quickly before turning back to watch Ezra spring down lightly, and then stagger to the side. Buck grabbed him and held on to one arm until Ezra straightened, nodding to Buck and balancing on his feet. Damn, he's not a hundred percent yet. Buck had already released Ezra but stood close by. Just in case. There wasn't much to see in the dark. Landing lights and staging lights made it feel like they could be anywhere, but from the thin metal stands and the mess of cables, his guess was that this was a temporary camp of some sort. Buck was unhappy. Wish I could see more of the country around us.
Ezra fought off vertigo and steadied himself with determined focus. He welcomed Buck's closeness and regretted his inability to hold his own just yet. Looking over his shoulder, he watched Dressler drop down with a clumsy hop, catching hold of the copter platform with one hand to regain his feet. Ezra's head was spinning with too much disconnected information. The phony Interpol bit was so transparent that he wasn't sure they could even trust the ruffians to continue to play along with their own con. It never paid to deal with crazies. Ezra edged a bit closer to Buck and the fingers of his right hand caught at Buck's nearest trouser leg. He clenched his fingers in the loose fabric and bit his lip. Not much to do until they did figure this all out. So he held on and refused to wonder why touching Buck made him feel better. But it did.
Dressler brushed down the front of the ill-fitting green jumpsuit, eyeing the prisoners. His eyes narrowed with interest as he saw the way the smaller one, Ezra, held on to the big one. Whatever else these boys were, it was fast becoming clear what they were to each other. He smiled calculatingly and rubbed his hands together.
Moving past the landing lights, Buck discovered that they were in rough terrain, and by the way the starlight was blocked, he'd guess deep in the lower ranges of the Rockies. Shit. He put a gentle hand on Ezra's shoulder. The man had been holding on to him since they hopped off the chopper. He squeezed the sturdy shoulder, trying to convey his confidence, shallow though it was. He dipped his head to murmur in Ezra's perfectly shaped ear, "It'll be fine, Ez. We'll get out of this!"
Ezra looked up, shocked, into Buck's face. So near he could almost count the individual hairs on the man's mustache. Did he look so much like he needed reassurance? Then his eyes dropped to where his own hand still held tightly to Buck's trousers. He blushed brightly, suspecting from the heat that it showed even in the dimmer lighting of the open camp, now that they were past the helicopter pad's landing lights. He found he had to force his fingers to unclench and release his hold. He licked his lips and met Buck's eyes. "I know." He patted Buck's stomach with daring. "Just a bit rocky still."
Buck caught the hand on his belt buckle and stroked it warmly, smiling into Ezra's face a moment more. "Don't worry, pard, I'm fine and I'll watch your back."
The men shared another stolen moment of silent communications, lips so close that they shared a breath. Then both pulled back, the sounds of the men around them reminding them of their danger.
"So we know that the two Mosher brothers were in the same restaurant and left after our boys." Chris rubbed at his eyes, feeling the weight of the sleepless night and the pounding anxiety for his missing friends. He cleared his throat, then said, "But we're not sure when they hit the road."
"No," Fred Hernandez agreed. "We think they are well on their way to the New Mexican canyons just south of the Colorado border, but there are several routes they could have taken and we don't have a fix on their transport."
JD interrupted. "I do. It's a Chevy Blazer, red, with Colorado plates, about a year old."
Fred straightened in his seat, noting the proud way the other men nodded to their youngest. "How did you?" He didn't finish the question as he saw the way Dunne's face went blank and he suddenly found the napkin on the table in front of him very interesting. "Never mind."
He pulled out a cell phone, flipping it open, belated realizing that he'd nearly caused another incident as he saw the men around him slowing relaxing and removing hands from beneath jackets or lifting them from waistbands. Shoot, these men sure are touchy. The blinking light on his cell reminded him of his original intentions. Hernandez refocused and touched in the numbers of his second in command. "Shelby? We got some more on the Mosher's vehicle, run this," and he gave him JD Dunne's information. "Yeah, that should help." Clicking off, he pocketed his cell with a look of apology to Larabee.
Tanner interrupted, "We need to get closer intell on the camp. Can see a helo-pad here." Vin laid out a satellite image photo of some rugged hills with what looked like tiny dark boxes in one location, a fairly identifiable white X just a short distance away in an area that seemed fairly level.
The other men leaned in to study the picture while Dunne began to shift around in his seat and look anxiously at his boss. "Chris?"
"Go." Larabee nodded, leaning back to grab a egg stuffed muffin from the tray of a passing waitress. He ignored the indignant, "Hey!" and wrapped the bun in a napkin, handing it to JD as the young agent snatched up Vin's photograph and headed for the door.
Jackson stood abruptly and took a deep swallow of coffee, then headed for the lunch counter in the back, tossing over his shoulder, "He may need some help." They could see him pick up two more muffins from a ready-order on the short order cook's prep shelf and swing away, already eating as he strode after JD Dunne.
By now, the waitress was back at the table, frowning at Larabee. "Mr. Chris!"
Chris flashed her a look and dragged out his wallet. "Easy, Evelyn, here." He thrust out several bills in her direction. "Send extras to the folks who have to wait a bit longer."
The dirty blonde nodded her head and accepted the cash with a sigh. "Yes, sir." Then she shifted her feet and pulled out her pad, plucking a pencil from behind her ear. "Rest of you want to order now?"
Sanchez spoke first, "Ma'am, I think we need something to go. Can you just run up a box full of those egg sandwiches?"
The waitress nodded, tucking away her pad again. "A dozen be enough?" She looked to Larabee for the answer to this.
Chris was nodding to Sanchez, acknowledging his wisdom. Turning up to the woman, he said, "Better make it two." And handed her some more cash without counting.
Everyone was starting to rise now. Josiah, still cradling his coffee mug in his hands said, "I'll wait for the order and bring it back."
Larabee paused, assessing whom he needed most, then nodded. Vin probably could do something right away with maps; Josiah would need more data first on the men they were seeking. "See you back at the office."
No one invited Hernandez along, or even asked his opinion about the sudden change in plans, but Tanner took hold of his arm and tugged him up out of his seat and along with Larabee. Fred fought down a smile. It actually felt good to be so casually included. He looked back over his shoulder to where Sanchez was still standing over the table, a contemplative look on his face as he gathered the scattered papers left on the table, placing them in the abandoned file folder. Turning to face forward, Fred found himself already moving out the dinner's door and into the street. A quick look found his men at strategic observation posts. He gave a stand-down sign, then a follow-me. They might still come in handy to help out Team Seven. At this point, he knew it was the team's show, not his.
Ezra sat down on the bedroll next to Buck. He brushed at his sleeves, a nervous mannerism that he chose to disregard at this time. They both looked disheveled, and dinner jackets were not exactly appropriate garments for a trek into the wilderness. He looked down at his filthy shirtfront in dismay. He had to stifle a gag response to the smell of vomit still clinging to his once-white ruffled 'bib'.
"Pretty bad, huh?"
Buck's voice actually held a note of humor in it and Ezra decided that he found that endearing. With a small smile, Ezra shook his head. "Not good, Mr. Wilmington. GQ would have conniptions." He lowered his back onto the blanket until his elbows caught him and rested there, craning his neck around to examine their situation. The sharp pain that burnt his side was subsiding slightly, maybe a cracked rib, but definitely not a broken one. Small thanks for that, at any rate.
Buck planted his open palms flat on the blanket near his rump, arms straight, and tilted back on the support they provided. He, too, gazed around. He said softly, casually, "Thought we'd moved on to 'Buck'?" He noted that there were at least eight or nine men plus Snow White - he didn't much like Emro Dressler and still called the man by the nickname in his head.
Ezra gave a one-off shrug with his nearer shoulder. "Perhaps I should consider that, a bit of familiarity may be called for considering our dire straits."
Buck counted three Land Rovers, and one big wheel All Terrain vehicle, then there was the helicopter. Damn, these boys were well equipped. He flexed one elbow so that his long body dropped lower towards Ezra. "Well, that's good news."
Ezra finally looked over at his companion, suppressing a jerk of surprise at the man's proximity. Buck really didn't seem to have any personal space of his own, and no respect for anyone else's. What was truly amazing was that he didn't seem to mind this lapse in Buck's manners. "Good news? Sir, we are kidnappees, surrounded by felons with ill-intent. Where's the good news in that?"
"Just saying, it's good that you are considering some familiarity with me."
Exasperated, Ezra turned fully toward his friendly nemesis, only to start back in shock at how much closer Buck had become in these few moments. Too close! "Buck!"
"Good, Ezra, very good." Buck smiled deeply and swayed in toward his target.
Ezra collapsed onto his back to avoid the pursuing lips aimed at him. "Buck! This is NOT the time!" He eyed Wilmington suspiciously from his vantage point on the ground. "You are enjoying this way too much."
Buck rolled over so that he rested on his arms over Ezra, his bulging forearms, still clothed in shirt and jacket, forming a cage around Ezra's upper body. "I'm beginning to think that any time I can get close to you, Ez, is a good time."
"Well, I can not find myself in agreement with that." Ezra pressed his palms up against Buck's wide chest and pushed. It was like trying to press weights and the man didn't budge. Sagging back down in defeat, and rolling his head first to one side, then the other, Ezra looked around at the camp. Amazingly, no one seemed to be noticing Buck's amorous advances. Well, that wouldn't last long if he let Buck continue. He looked back up and met Buck's warm dark eyes. "Buck, please, let me up. I just can't do this now."
Instantly, Wilmington rolled free, ending on his back next to Ezra. Contritely, he stared up at the stars above them. "Sorry, Ezra. I know we've got some issues with these creeps, but I'm not worried. We'll get out of this. Besides, it's more fun to think about us. I didn't mean to push. Hell, just started in with you tonight at dinner, I know I'm not being fair."
He turned his head to look over at Ezra. "But, Ez, for me, it hasn't been just one night. I've been studying at this for some time. I really like you. Admire you. You're so smart, got such class, you do your job so well that it looks like it's not even work sometimes. You have a giving heart, too. I've seen it, even if you tried to hide it." Buck cleared his throat. "And, Ez, buddy, you are mighty good looking. You have the sweetest little ass-"
"Buck!" Ezra's face blazed with a new blush. He jerked his head back until his skull nearly touched his shoulder blades on the ground blanket. He'd actually rather enjoyed listening to Buck sound so admiring, so complimentary. But the nonsense about his heart, and then his appearance was too over the top, even for Buck's romantic prattles. "Enough."
"Ezra, I want to have something with you."
"What? A baby?"
Buck grinned. He coughed a chuckle and then shrugged, not easy to do lying there on the ground. "Well, I'd like that, darlin', if we could but I'd settle for a partnership. You, me, and life."
Ezra drew in a breath to answer when a dark shape appeared above their heads.
"Is everything alright, gentlemen?" Dressler stood looking down at his captives-cum-conspirators.
Ezra looked blankly up at the man, his train of thought thoroughly derailed.
Emro noticed that the smaller, slower one was once again speechless. He cocked his head toward the big one. "Williams?"
The big man made a face, then sat up quickly, tucking his legs Indian-style in front of him. He looked up at Emro. "Everything's just hunky-dory."
"I don't understand." Dressler was about ready to have them tied back up and never mind the little 'Interpol' scheme. He noticed the smaller one, Sanders, was twisting into a sitting position but seemed off-balance because he began to tilt to the side.
Emro watched as Williams reached over and grabbed the back of Sanders' collar and jerked him upright into a seated position. Sanders shot a rather foul look at Williams who simply looked back up at Emro and folded his arms before saying, "Just means we're fine. Ready to back your play."
"Good, good." Emro nodded uncertainly, then turned slightly to face the part of the camp where men were moving about purposefully. "We have had some further information on the Mosher boys. We know they are traveling toward this area even as we speak." Emro folded his hands over his protruding stomach, resting them there. "We will contact Major Mosher in the morning. It will be evening in Israel and he will be home from work by then." When neither man in his 'audience' reacted to this, he felt pressured to continue. "So, we will try to ambush the sons, but if we are unsuccessful in time, we will use your kind services for a live video to send to their 'daddy.'"
Emro Dressler, aka Snow White, smiled then, and both Ezra and Buck felt ill. The man might be a fumbling idiot in some ways, but evil lay within.
As soon as he finished, Emro nodded to the two captives and strolled off towards a knot of men.
"We are departing immediately." Ezra began to climb to his feet.
Buck grabbed his friend's sleeve and yanked him back ground-ward. "Hold on, darlin', we can't just up and waltz out of here now."
"I can and will!" Ezra shoved his hands under his buttocks and pushed up again. Only to be frustrated when Wilmington caught him with two hands pushing down on his shoulders. "MR. WILMINGTON!"
"Williams!" Buck hissed. Damn, having a semi-concussed Ezra around was a bit of a challenge. He lowered his voice, and offered, "How about we just watch a while, see their routines and THEN high-tail it?"
Ezra, still held pinned to the ground, grunted in a very ungentlemanly manner and frowned. "I suppose."
"Great!" Buck released his hold on Ezra only to reapply it when the man did a jack-in-the-box upward. "Damn it, Ezra! Stay still! You're still concussed and you aren't thinking straight."
For the first time, Ezra subsided a bit. It did still hurt, his head. Maybe Buck was right. He knew he wasn't thinking too clearly, but his instincts never failed him and they were screaming at him to run. With a sigh of defeat, he had to admit, he wasn't certain if he should run from Dressler and his cohorts, or from Buck.
Chris led the way back into the Federal Building, Vin striding in pace behind and to his side, Fred Hernandez still shoulder to shoulder with Vin Tanner. The man from the Central Intelligence Agency was muttering into his cell phone again, instructing his own team to return to their temporary headquarters and continue their grid search for the missing Mosher sons. Everyone knew approximately where they were heading and what the boys' intentions were, but no one had found them. Yet.
If Tanner or Larabee overheard Hernandez's orders, they gave no sign, though Tanner did seem to be growing a wild grin. Fred took a deep breath, reminded himself that he'd been a covert agent for over ten years before retiring to supervisory field work. That only served to remind him, though, that his nerves were not what they once were and this group of ATF agents was pushing his tolerance levels hard. Gritting his teeth, he surged ahead to reach Larabee just as the man shouldered into an open elevator car. Tanner crowding in behind him didn't help his sense of negotiating power at all.
"Call me Chris. It'll save time." Larabee didn't bother looking over at Hernandez.
"Sure." Fred coughed and loosened his necktie. "Call me Fred."
Nothing more was said as the elevator slid to a smooth stop at the eleventh floor. Although Hernandez knew where the ATF offices were, even the ones for Team Seven, he meekly followed along behind Tanner and Larabee. Never had he seen such driven purpose and emotional commitment in agents of any agency. It was both inspirational and intimidating.
The three men crossed the hall and entered a large open office with smaller ones opening off of it, the home of Team Seven. They could see JD Dunne and Nathan Jackson at a desk in the bullpen of the suite. Dunne was typing madly while staring at a computer screen. Jackson was sitting on the corner of a desk directly behind Dunne, talking on a telephone, line pulled taut, his eyes focused on the screen in front of his fellow agent.
"What have you got?" Chris Larabee went directly over to his men, seeing the intense concentration, he leaned over JD's shoulders, placing his hands on them.
Dunne looked up at him in acknowledgement and then returned to his work. Without looking away from the screen, he began to speak. "Think I've got them on surveillance satellite." Dark hair flying from his face as he batted at his bangs, JD clicked his mouse repeatedly and the image on the screen zoomed in tighter with each click, until a red SUV roof could be seen on a long stretch of country road, moving at an ant's crawl.
Nate poked his head in from the side, studying the image as he depressed the close button on the phone. "Got confirmation from two different credit card charges - gas and breakfast, both on that route. They're headed southwest toward the New Mexico border."
"Can we intercept?" Larabee shot the question at Hernandez. For the first time since they'd made 'peace', Fred Hernandez was the subject of a direct, penetrating stare from Chris Larabee. The pale greeny hazel eyes were hot and demanding. Fred nodded.
"Good." Larabee turned away, and rose from his lean over Dunne. "Vin. Put some gear together. Nathan. Help him. Take what you need to be persuasive."
Jackson, already heading for another door, trailing the departing Tanner, stopped and looked back at his boss. "Persuasive?"
Larabee didn't blink. "We need information and cooperation. Fast."
The black man's chest rose as he took a deep breath and his mouth drew into a long frown but he nodded and turned away, looking grim.
Hernandez spun around to face Larabee. When had the man reached the other side of the office? "Yes?"
"Come on in here." The blond opened the door to an obviously larger office, with blinds drawn on large panels of windows that faced the pen. Larabee disappeared inside.
Most of the anonymous men were now in a loose group at the rear of the camp. Dressler had headed back over there, smirking - no doubt about his latest kidnapping spree. Buck scanned the camp, no one between them and the higher ground that he could just make out in the gray dawn light. A couple of men were still near the helicopter, looked like they were checking it over, fueling it up from a large truck that had arrived since he and Ezra.
Standish had been quiet but tense. Buck hoped that the passing of time was helping Ezra recover from his concussion. They hadn't talked further, just studied the camp.
"Now." Ezra's voice was faint and his movements small as he began edging away from their position. Buck wanted to stop him again but knew Ezra was right. This was a lose-lose situation for them. They needed out. He followed just as carefully.
Whatever was occupying the terrorists, including Dressler, must be very interesting Buck decided as he and Ezra made it to the perimeter of the camp unnoticed. Easing into the darker shadows of a loose collection of boulders, he came to his feet, crouched low, still following Ezra. Standish was surprising him yet again. The man obviously had some field training somewhere. There had never been a time he'd needed it in work, Buck realized, thinking about the undercover agent's usual out-front role in cases. Guess I shouldn't be surprised. Like I said to him, Ezra is a talented man. Buck looked back over his shoulder at the camp that remained quiet and nearly motionless. We're clear!
Ezra picked his way silently across the broken, rocky slope, aiming to get high and away from their kidnappers. He knew Buck was right behind him. Funny, he'd never considered Buck in social terms before. The man's proclivities for the fairer sex were always there. Never had he seen any sign of Buck changing or sharing another persuasion. Not like me. Ezra paused to listen, hearing only soft night sounds of the wild. And he says he's been watching me for sometime. Why didn't I notice that? And how did he manage to subvert my dinner engagement with Greg? Ezra nearly stumbled, his mind no longer on where he placed his feet. The near accident was enough to throw his adrenaline into high and wash all thoughts of Buck's motives from his head. Narrowing his eyes, he soundlessly moved ahead, faster now as the likelihood of their small sounds carrying diminished. Buck kept pace, like a large graceful shadow.
They crested the slope and found themselves seeing dimly, the layers of hills beyond, building toward mountains. From the looks of the trees, the few they'd passed, they were on the edge of desert country. Damn, that meant they were a long way from Denver. What I suspected, but it's a shame that it's proving out. Buck shook his head. "Ezra?"
Standish's elegant profile emerged from the shadows as he turned his head toward Buck. "Yes?"
"We've got to get deep cover before the sun's up or they'll hunt us down with the chopper."
Ezra lifted an arm and pointed upward. "Up there. I see dark shadow against that cliff face."
Buck looked up doubtfully. That was a climb and then some. The light was getting stronger, though the sun hadn't yet rimmed. "Let's do it," he said surging ahead as they dropped below the crest of the hill and out of sight of the camp.
Dressler smiled and leaned back against the closest Land Rover. So much easier when victims cooperate. His men with night-vision oculars both confirmed that Williams and Sanders had reached the top of the first hill. The simple tracking devices that he'd had attached to their clothing would do the rest. Safe and no supervision needed. Now he could concentrate on the Mosher boys. If that worked out, they'd simply leave. The escaping men would be left in this no man's land to their fate. If Simon and Bart slipped through his net, he could easily snatch up Williams and Sanders again - and by then, they'd probably be happy to be 'rescued.' Emro's smile widened and he laughed. It was all going to work out after all!
Josiah tightened the harness across his hips, teeth showing in an unholy grin. He elbowed Nathan Jackson who sat beside him, with what seemed like a permanently grim expression. Dark eyes followed Sanchez to where Tanner was working on the seemingly enormous pile of weapons as JD knelt on the deck of the cargo plane, securing pieces of the pile, a few at a time. Jackson shook his head, still not convinced that they really needed to play with all those toys.
JD looked a bit flustered, but Vin seemed inordinately pleased with himself, lifting up a sniper rifle to check the sight, sweeping the barrel of the empty rifle around the cramped interior of the small propjet.
Larabee was standing wedged between the pilot and co-pilot seats, hunched over some maps, his words lost to the men behind him in the roar of the just-started engines. Standing at his shoulder, hanging over his back to be part of the dialogue in the cockpit, Fred Hernandez looked bulky in his body armor.
Once the blond lead agent clamped a hand down on the pilot's shoulder in agreement, he and Fred backed up and away from the tiny forward compartment and started back down the gangway to the hold, Hernandez, per force, in the lead. Emerging into the larger open cargo area, Fred stopped to stare at the firepower that the ATF were mounting for this operation.
"Dear god, don't tell me you guys want another Waco!" He staggered to the side when shoved from the back by Larabee. Turning slightly, he stared wide-eyed at Chris. "What do you expect to use all that for?" He gestured in fear towards the stack of weapons that JD Dunne and Vin Tanner were rapidly reducing to an orderly set of stowed gear.
Chris smiled wolfishly and called without turning, "Vin?"
Tanner stopped, a clever portable grenade launcher in his hands, and squatted back on his heels. He patted the armament and looked up at Hernandez, his sky blue eyes clear, bright and devilish. Shoving home a lever, he shrugged, "Wanted to make sure they couldn't say no."
Fred spun toward Larabee, only to see the man seating himself next to Sanchez and Jackson, lifting ends of the harness to belt himself into the safety web.
"Chris," Fred paused to take a steadying breath, "I can't run with cowboys! You men have to take it easy here. Bart and Simon Mosher are innocents. The men who took yours are the criminals, not the Mosher boys."
Chris deliberately finished buckling in before cocking an eyebrow up at Sanchez looming large beside him. "Did he just call me a cowboy?"
Fred gulped and abruptly sat down on his side of the cargo hold, where the foldout bench sling already had harness set up for three men. He ducked his head and busied himself at one of the end positions, strapping in. Somehow, he had a feeling that he'd just said the wrong thing. Very wrong. But, damn it, his agency didn't need gun-happy ATF agents shooting up the countryside indiscriminately. It would be bad enough when the Fibbies found out that the CIA was operating inside the continental US. Suddenly, those warrens of dark alleys in East Germany that he used to haunt seemed like playing patty-cake.
Josiah, who had been slow to answer, finally nodded judiciously. "Yes, I believe he did, Chris. However," he added, "I don't think he's familiar with the connotations involved in that term."
Larabee seemed to relax back into the sling bench, folding his arms and turning to stare stoically at Hernandez, less than ten feet away. "That so?"
"I just don't think we need to show up with all that," Fred gestured to the final weapons that Dunne and Tanner were securing into a weapons locker at the center of the deck flooring.
"Cowboys," Vin Tanner drawled, dropping into the seating space next to Hernandez, "are kinda like milkmaids, they just tend the cows." He tipped his head and a sly smile crossed his face as he slid a look over at his best friend across the way. "Not always real bright."
Larabee bit off the end of a long brown cheroot and then shoved the unlit small cigar into a corner of his mouth, chewing on it by way of answer. He beetled his brows at Hernandez after sniffing at Tanner. "Don't call me cowboy."
"Sorry, it was just an expression." Fred muttered, adding rebelliously, "But that isn't the point here. You can't charge in on those two boys with all this stuff!"
"Won't be any charging," Tanner murmured with good humor, "We know to handle ourselves."
Fred, still waiting for and not getting an answer from Larabee, bit his tongue and sat back. Maybe it wouldn't be too bad.
" 'course, charging in - that could be fun," JD Dunne put in, settling into his space and grabbing up his own harness. "Like that time we had to take on the Nichols gang, huh, Chris?" Dunne's impish grin had Sanchez and Jackson fighting to swallow answering ones.
"JD." Larabee's eyelids lowered and his voice held a warning. "Pipe down."
JD nudged Tanner, who swayed sideways into Hernandez. Vin started batting at the youngest agent, "Watch it, man!"
"What?" JD's wide dark eyes peered around Vin to stare contritely at Fred. "Sorry Mr. Hernandez." JD's head twisted then to grimace up into Tanner's face, mere inches from his own. "That wasn't my fault!"
"Boys!" Larabee spoke sharply, sending a repressive look at the younger agents.
Both Tanner and Dunne sank back instantly, chins rising in unison as if they found the ceiling of the hold very interesting. Larabee watched them for a moment before resting his head against the vibrating hull wall, and then he turned to eye Hernandez.
Fred, who honestly felt like scrambling out of his harness, rushing to the front and demanding that the pilots let him off, felt the intense stare that Larabee was shooting his way. He raised his eyes to meet it and fingered his collar. It suddenly seemed awfully tight.
"No sign of anyone yet."
"That doesn't make any sense, Mr. Wilmington."
"Nope, must be a reason they haven't raised the alarm yet." Buck stared out at the brightening day from their cover in the small cave-like opening they'd located in the cliff side while still struggling to see in the half-light of dawn. All to be seen was the ripple of diminishing hills heading into the distance. They hadn't come that far, barely a few miles. Some sign of action from the kidnappers should have been seen by now. He suddenly had a very bad feeling. "Ezra, I think we might have a problem."
"Bugs!" Standish stood up abruptly, struggling out of his jacket and pulling free the rumpled cummerbund.
Buck stood up, confused, as Standish began to toss off his undershirt, shaking is roughly. "Ezra?"
"They must have put something on us, Buck."
The southerner was patting himself down now, rubbing hands quickly and lightly over his trousered legs, ankles to thighs, then circling hips and - don't go there, Buck! Wilmington shook his head, realizing that Ezra was probably right, and began his own search.
"Found it!" Ezra was sitting on the ground again, holding up a tiny transmitter that he'd just removed from a fold of his cummerbund.
With that clue, Buck quickly found his own in one of the tiny watch-pockets of his vest. He held it out for Ezra to see. "Guess we better smash these and then high tail it some more."
"No, Buck, no!" Ezra hastily reached over and wrapped a hand around Buck's wrist, holding back the stone Wilmington was preparing to use to crush the tiny electronic device. "I've got a better idea."
Taking up Wilmington's bug and his own, Ezra wadded them inside his cummerbund and knotted the pleated cloth waistband into a secure lump. He shoved a broken piece of dry tree branch into the knot and stood up. Buck, who'd been silent until now, asked, "What you going to do with that?"
Ezra smiled, dimples appearing to wreath his cherubically curving lips. "Watch." He lofted the packed cloth and wood complete with bugs, and let it sail off and over the cavern's edge, spiraling down into the river valley below. There was a faint splash as it dropped into the white waters of the river below. They could both see it bob to the surface and start racing down the current.
Ezra, standing at the edge of the cavern area turned with a wide smile, dusting his hands and facing Buck Wilmington. Whatever he was about to say froze on his lips as his expression faded from good humored and malicious to stunned surprise.
"Ezra?" Buck climbed to his feet and hurried toward the smaller man.
The southerner was gazing back over Buck's shoulder now, wonder spreading across his face. "Buck," came out in a whisper, "look what we found!"
Buck caught Ezra up by the shoulders and tugged him closer - and away from the drop off at the edge of the cavern - before turning to see what had drawn such a reaction from Ezra. As Buck moved so that he could see, his action pulled Ezra's body around. Ezra's head, though, remained still, neck craning as green eyes greedily ate up the vision revealed by the light of the rising sun.
To Buck, Ezra's face was much more intriguing than the lumpish looking sandstone cliff face punctuated by hollows and some oldish-looking adobe ruins. "What? Ezra? What did we find?" He released one of Ezra's shoulders so that he could slide his hand down Ezra's back and gather the small man closer, enjoying the shared body heat in the crisp coolness of the morning.
Buck's examination of the brown on brown scene sharpened with the awe in Ezra's voice as he said, "And I don't think anyone else found this before us, at least," he leaned forward in Buck's arms, looking down at the dirt beneath their feet, "At least, not for a long time."
Green eyes looked up apologetically before returning, as if drawn by magnets, to the view in front of them. "It looks like an Anasazi pueblo." He hooked an arm around Buck's waist, to Buck's immense satisfaction, then pressed Buck forward so that they did a slow shuffle closer to the edges of what they'd thought was a cavern.
Buck stared in surprise, seeing the roughly weathered edges of adobe brick and sandstone melding to form what had once been a solid wall and now had a gaping hole in the middle of it, forming the 'cavern', their refuge earlier this dawn, tucked into an overhang on the cliff face. "So who are these Anasazi? Indians?"
Ezra flashed him a look that was part disappointment, and part resignation. "Yes. I suppose. Though, it is more acceptable to call them Native Americans now. They were a people of substance in the southwest about a thousand years ago."
By now, the two men were close to the old stone arch forming the hole in the former adobe wall. "Look! You can still see fingerprints here," Ezra pointed to some smears in the adobe, like a kindergartener had been playing in the mud, except the smears would better match adult fingers.
Buck noticed that Ezra's hand and finger were trembling slightly. "Cold?" He automatically hugged Ezra closer, noticing how well they fit together. Nice.
"No, not cold." Ezra's face broke into a child-like smile that he turned on Buck. "Excited."
Ezra casually raised Buck's hand to his lips and kissed it before pushing Buck's arm away to free himself. Buck stood stunned. He kissed me. Wilmington's hand tingled and his heart began to thump faster. He suddenly realized that Ezra was no where to be seen. "Ezra?" Buck fought panic as he spun on one heel. "EZRA!"
"Right here, Buck." Ezra's head poked back out of a well-shaped rectangular opening further down the adobe wall. "This is absolutely incredible! Come inside." A hand appeared in the opening, waving Buck back toward the 'cavern' entrance.
Wilmington choked back a curse. What the hell is Ezra thinking? We're in the middle of a fucking kidnapping, on the run, hiding out, and he wants to take the grand tour of some old Indian ruin? Buck practically ran into the cavern, ignoring the shaft of sunlight that speared down from above, leaving a flat rectangle of sparkling light on the flat sandstone floor. He turned to his right and, with the day's light for illumination, saw a series of doorways, one framed in the next, receding into the distance, each one well shaped and blocked with wood. "What the hell?" He saw no sign of Ezra. When I get my hands on that boy, I'll - "EZRAAAH!"
A cheerful face leaned back into view between the third and fourth doorframes, breaking the symmetry of the domino-effect. "Right here, Buck!"
Ezra's voice was bubbly with happy excitement, Buck couldn't think of any other way to describe it. This was a new side of Ezra and in the ordinary way, Buck would have been thrilled with the discovery, but right now? It was insane. "Ezra, you come out of there right now!" By now Ezra had disappeared again.
"Come ahead! I have found petroglyphs!" Ezra was practically singing.
"Petro-what?" Buck started down the room in front of him, tripping over the raised doorsill, nearly twelve inches up from the floor level. Catching himself on the doorjambs, he hung there for a moment, taking deep breaths and telling himself that he was NOT going to kill Ezra. Nope, not yet anyway. Maybe kissing the man silly would work instead? Work for me, he thought with a faint smile.
He plowed into the next room, more wrecked than the previous, some sort of dried up old sticks and what looked like scrawny weed-branches had fallen, along with dried mud from what had obviously been a ceiling. The litter was a hurdle to cross but Buck's long legs stretched over it easily. More cautiously stepping over the next threshold, Buck found Ezra finally. The bewildering man was gazing raptly at the inner wall of the room, a wall of rock. The rock, a soft brownish white, was covered with scratchings, patches of color - reddish, dark brown, and chalk-white. Looked like someone had made handprints over part of it, each print surrounded by blotches of red. Some of the bits of etched stone were objects and shapes, one looked like a child's drawing of a man, bent over and holding a stick to his head. Ezra was pointing at it. He barely glanced at Buck before turning back and calling out triumphantly, "Kokopelli!"
Buck heaved a great sigh and stalked further into the room and came up beside Ezra. The little guy was damn near vibrating with excitement. Buck stared up at the wall and squinted at the drawings. "More like Coco Puffs, if you ask me."
"No, no, this is a find of a lifetime! Buck," Ezra turned quickly, latching on to Wilmington's lapels, face turned up to Buck's. "Buck, this is incredible! I don't know this site!" Everything Ezra said seemed to be ending in exclamation marks.
But, Buck began to melt as he gazed down into that flower-like face, those beautiful green eyes glowing up at him, all hint of the tough, sneaky undercover agent gone in favor of an enthusiastic discoverer. Buck raised a hand and cupped that lovely, shining face, smiling down into the stars that passed for eyes. "This is important to you."
"Yes," Ezra breathed out.
Buck was charmed all over again. What a treasure.
He realized he must have said that out loud because Ezra answered, "Yes, but not monetary, only an historical treasure."
Buck smiled fondly and stroked Ezra's face as his darling man continued, "Buck, these are beautiful!"
"Yes," Buck breathed out, smiling down into Ezra's eyes. "Beautiful."
"Buck?" Ezra was becoming confused. Buck wasn't really making sense, he was agreeing with Ezra, but seemed to be focused on something else entirely.
"Ezra, quit talking," Buck caught at Ezra's waistband in the front, hooking one hand in and pulling Ezra's body close to his own, "I'm going to kiss you now."
"Oh." Ezra's lips stayed in that perfect shape, all thoughts of ancient Anasazi, their dwellings and art, dissolving into Buck's approaching face, lips. "ummmmmm."
Ezra melted against the man holding him so firmly. The kiss was their first truly deep and exploratory connection, physically. Ezra, who'd had many affairs with men, was familiar with facial hair and not discomforted by Buck's abundant mustache. As Buck pressed still closer, as if seeking to swallow Ezra, their heads automatically tipped to better fit, Buck's neck curving down so he could meet Ezra's upturned face.
Buck let his hand creep out from Ezra's waistband and grope around the slender man's body to cup his sweetly rounded ass. Grasping it, he lifted, his other arm roping the man's back and pulling Ezra close against him. Buck shifted, rubbing his pelvis against Ezra's, now that he had the man high enough to bring them together. It felt so damn good, better than he'd ever imagined, and he'd imagined pretty well. He groaned into Ezra's soft mouth, one hand now straining up to glide into that gorgeous head of hair, fingers driving through the chestnut locks as he lost himself in sensations.
Ezra felt his feet leave the earth as Buck enveloped him, consumed him. He rode the rising tide of sensual overload, hands snaring and holding tight to the strong shoulders of Buck Wilmington. Eyes closed to better absorb the touches, the kiss, he was overcome with the feeling of coming home to this. There was no sense of strangeness or hesitation, his head was spinning with relief - it felt so right. Suddenly he wanted nothing more than to attach himself to Buck forever. His legs, seemingly of their own accord, no longer supporting him, hooked around the taller man's thighs as he moved against his friend, no, lover. Ezra's mouth, still captured totally by Buck's insistent lips and tongue, was unable to form the smile that crinkled skin around his eyes and warmed his cheeks to a bright flush of color.
For moments that seemed to go on forever, the two men clung together, breathless and seeking, bonding in their urgency, throbbing painfully against one another. Then Buck caught his breath as his body surged and spasmed. He could feel Ezra echo the movements against his thighs and groin. He groaned. Damp warmth seeped and that sweet feeling of total relaxation and serenity washed across him.
Slowly, Buck pulled his mouth free from Ezra's, feeling the man's dead weight against him now. Ezra was limp, his legs dropping bonelessly from where he'd tried to frantically climb up Buck's only moments before. Green eyes half-opened but glassy, shut again and Ezra's head tipped down to rest against Buck's shoulder. With a sigh, Ezra's breathing evened out into the slow rhythms of sleep and Buck, holding him close, smiled as he rested his head against Ezra's.
With cautious, slow effort, Buck backed up to the closest sidewall of the adobe room and, shoulders braced against it, he slid down. Ezra's legs folded up on either side of Buck as Wilmington subsided on the earthen floor and Buck cradled the man to him. He let his own head tip back to rest against the supporting wall and closed his eyes, perfectly content to wait for his lover to awaken. With a half-hearted kiss toward Ezra's nearest ear, Buck's eyes closed and he, too, relaxed into deep sleep, still holding Ezra in his lap and tucked warmly against his chest.
Neither could say how much time passed, only that the brilliant sun no longer shone directly into the ruins and shadows now clung to the walls. It was the sound of feathery, hollow notes that woke them. A lightly played flute was tickling the air with a haunting series of melodic riffs. It wasn't exactly a tune, but somehow both pleasant and energizing.
"Hear that?" Ezra pulled his head back enough to look up at Buck's face.
"Sounds like a pipe of some kind."
"A flute," Ezra answered with confidence. "Kokopelli's flute."
Buck's eyes opened wider and he lifted his head. "Ez?" He gently began to disengage Ezra from his lap and arms, pushing the man to one side. "Thought we were alone."
Standish seemed to emerge from his dreamlike state at Buck's comments. "Yes." He sat upright, one hand braced back awkwardly against the wall, elbow cocked toward the ceiling. He half-shoved against the wall to push himself to a crouching position, balancing on the balls of his feet. "I do not believe our captors would tease us thus."
"Nope, don't think Dressler would go that route. So," Buck had been moving too, and was now standing, knees flexed, hands away from body, as he edged between Ezra and the direction of the sounds, "we got company, uninvited."
Ezra listened quietly to the musical poem drifting towards them. Finally he stood up as well and dusted his hands. He glanced down for a second at his dress trousers, unhappy at the sticky wetness he'd created, then clearly chose to ignore it as he braced his shoulders and leaned forward, one hand gently pushing Buck aside.
"Allow me." Ezra walked with cat-like grace across the floor and was through the doorway into the next room before Buck could react.
"Wait!" Buck hissed, making a futile grab for his partner. Failing, he took long, quiet steps to catch up to the man, arriving at Ezra's back just as the music drew to a close.
In the silence that followed, both men stood poised, listening for any clues as to their unknown 'guest'. Then, to Buck's surprise, Ezra bowed toward the doorway in front of him and said, "I, for one, am no music critic but that was very evocative. My compliments."
Buck stared hard at the empty doorway, then down at Ezra questioningly.
"Our friend is just beyond the portal, Buck." Ezra made no move to continue into the room, instead leaned back against his larger friend, as if confident that Buck would catch him and Buck did.
"You're a cocky little imp, Ezra." Buck nibbled a presented ear, all the while keeping his eyes glued to the still empty doorway.
"Not really, Buck, I just have faith." Ezra turned in Buck's arms and smiled up at the man, brilliantly. "Faith in you."
Buck couldn't resist, his eyes dropping to that enchanting smile, his innards warming and heart swelling. "God, Ezra, I do. I do love you!"
"Ah, love." A third voice intruded, low and dry.
Ezra continued to smile up at Buck, his eyes trapping Buck's. He slowly turned away, and both he and Buck, who now raised his eyes as well, looked into bright eyes, so black as to be velvet.
The dark eyes peered at them from a long, bony face, high cheekbones highlighted by the angled shafts of midday light. Gleaming black hair was pulled back tightly, forming a thin frame to the face. Buck, still hovering over Ezra with a protective arm now encircling his friend, realized that their intruder was hunched over in the doorway, one moccasinned foot resting on the high threshold of the low opening. It was like seeing a framed painting come to life.
Ezra studied their visitor with dawning pleasure. He could see the wooden, carved flute, with feather adornment on a leather thong. The spindly man had a thick chest and small potbelly that made his appearance slightly off kilter.
The moment of assessment was brief as the stranger stepped into the room with Buck and Ezra. Once through the open doorway, the man straightened from his hunched posture, a bulging, black nylon backpack giving an echo of the hunchback silhouette. Buck decided it was the synthetic fabric that relieved him the most. With a sigh as the tension eased, Wilmington gathered Ezra closer and nodded over his friend's shoulder at their 'guest.' "Makes the world go round."
Ezra had to think for a moment to remember that Buck was responding to the stranger's first words. Then he smiled, first up at Buck, then at their new friend. Somehow, he knew that this man would be a friend. "We are stopping here to take refuge from evil-doers." Somehow the words 'criminals' and 'kidnappers' did not seem apropos with the stranger. Ezra essayed a small bow, one hand patting at Buck's still restraining arm.
The beanpole before them laughed in delight. "HA! Evil-doers? You have found a safe haven here, for this place will not allow such creatures."
"Not allow?" Buck looked around uncomfortably, shuffling his feet closer to Ezra, putting one large dress boot on either side of Ezra's petite feet.
"Sit, sit." The man gestured with his free hand, palm facedown and flat patting the air. He crossed his ankles and sank into an easy cross-legged position on the earth floor.
Ezra dropped down in similar movements without hesitation. Buck was left with an Ezra-shaped space and empty arms. "EZRA!" He could hardly believe his hardened, caustic, and cynical friend could accept this unknown man so easily.
"Sit down, Buck."
With a frown and very put-upon look, Wilmington drew his dark winged eyebrows together and lowered his gangly body to the ground beside Ezra. "Ok, we're all sitting. Now what?"
"Is he always so impatient?"
The amusement in the man's soft voice provoked a chuckle from Ezra. "No, but then, he is rarely confronted with such an unexpected, close encounter."
"Of the third kind?" The stranger's mouth curled up in a, to Buck, disquieting smile.
"You will have to tell us that." Ezra leaned sideways so that he could maintain contact with Buck. For some reason, he had no fear of this one.
"I am simply a wanderer," the man held up his instrument, continuing, "a musician, a seeker."
"Ah, and what do you seek?" Ezra rubbed his hands together, still smiling.
"Today? It seems that I seek you," the stranger nodded, then turned and met Buck's deep blue eyes, "and you."
"We are Ezra and Buck." Ezra returned, as if he'd been asked.
Buck began to worry. Ezra was taking this WAY too well. Was that damn concussion interfering with the man's normally suspicious nature?
"And I," the stranger touched his chest with the palm of one hand, "I am Tonto."
"No. Way." Buck began to rise angrily. "I've heard that old joke before, means 'I don't know'!"
Ezra snatched at Buck's arm and pulled him down. "Stop. Buck, wait and listen."
"It's a good name for one such as me, for I am all questions and few answers." Tonto smiled benignly at the men. "I chose it myself."
"So what was it before?" The anger was clear in Wilmington's voice as he put his hand over Ezra's where it still held his sleeve.
"Henry." Tonto smiled again, the shrugged. "I prefer Tonto."
Buck humphed and Ezra rolled his eyes as his friend, then turned back to Henry nee' Tonto. "Why are you here? Did you just find this site too?"
"Friend Ezra, I did not find this place. It called to me from across the hills and I came." Henry, Buck could not bring himself to call the man Tonto, looked around the ruined room with satisfaction, finally staring in open admiration at the wall of shapes and picture-forms. Henry's body swayed towards the wall, one long arm reaching out and the splayed hand coming to rest, poised in the air mere inches from one of the strange handprints on the wall. Buck could see that the hand would be a good match if Henry let his touch.
Ezra squirmed, tensing, and Henry glanced back at him. "Don't worry, Friend Ezra, I shall not touch."
Ezra subsided, reassured.
Buck felt like spitting. "Well, you found this place and you found us. Now what?"
"Perhaps you are hungry?" Henry nee' Tonto let his backpack drop off one shoulder and slip to the floor.
Buck's mouth instantly filled with saliva and he had to lick his lips to stop any from drooling out. "Yeah, we might be."
One hand came out and pulled that lumpy backpack away from Ezra and Buck, "Or, perhaps you are only hungry for each other?"
"You have a problem with that?" Buck was on the offensive again, his face smoothing out and voice lowering into a dangerous flatness.
Ezra, alerted by the change in Buck's composure and tone, sat up, hands pressing down on his knees. He twisted his neck to frown at Buck beside him. "Buck, calm down."
"I am an admirer of love, not a detractor. Friend Buck, I only wish you and your Ezra many contented years of bonded love and contentment. I plant the seeds of harmony and let the music grow by itself." Henry raised his flute to his lips and played. The room seemed to darken, sunlight slowly crawling away and shadows showing bold. On the wall, the figure that Ezra had pointed to and called Kokopelli seemed to glow unevenly, as if lit by firelight, or as if it danced. The slow notes seemed to strengthen in volume after leaving the flute, filling the small chamber with the repeating tonalities, like tiny echoes bouncing around their heads. Buck decided he'd never complain about Vin's harmonica playing again. Ezra simply closed his eyes and rolled his neck, letting his head loll back as he began to hum along with the tuneless musical arrangement of notes.
How long the little concert went on, Buck wasn't sure. Gradually he relaxed and drooped, Ezra's warmth beside him the only heat in the room. His head began to nod and then his chin, so very heavy, dropped to his chest. He struggled to remain awake but everything was so tranquil that he really no longer knew why he fought it. Light began to fail.
Henry began to fade. Buck pulled his head back up with tremendous effort and forced his eyes to open. He stretched out one hand towards the musician, fingers unable to find the man to touch him, even though he knew he saw him - right in front of his eyes. And then, his eyes fell closed again and he slept.
Hernandez watched in irritation as the ATF team sprang still another surprise. When the pilot had announced over the intercom that they were approaching the landing field, Agent Dunne, 'JD' Fred corrected himself, unhooked his harness and stood up, grabbing at the sling strap beside him and swaying in the propjet's slight bumping over choppy air.
"Shouldn't he stay secured?" Fred asked into Vin Tanner's ear as the other agent was seated next to him and it was hard to be heard across the hold just now.
Bright blue eyes slanted towards him and crinkled with good humor. "Got things to do."
Unsatisfied, Fred Hernandez leaned forward to watch as JD knelt carefully at the side of a duffle bag strapped down next to the scary, he admitted it, weapons locker in the center of the hold decking. JD ripped open the zip and plunged both hands into the satchel. His hands came up with what looked like tiny wires and small earplugs. SHIT! Fred yanked himself forward to the edge of the sling bench, his chest forcing the safety harness to expand as he sat perched now on the outer bar of the canvas seat.
A hand came down on his shoulder and he turned his head toward the source, Vin Tanner. Tanner grinned at him. "S.O.P." Tanner's grip fell away and the man patted Hernandez on the shoulder before settling back beside him.
Watching, Fred saw JD start across the deck, distributing his loot. Silently, Larabee, Sanchez, and Jackson accepted their shares and began hooking earpieces and tiny microphones, with nearly invisible wires, to their persons. Then JD was handing one to Tanner and turning to stare questioningly at Fred.
"Oh, hell, if you've got extra, give me one too!" Fred spoke in open irritation, ignoring the assessing glance from Larabee and the twin, understanding smiles from Jackson and Sanchez, who'd both relaxed back in their seats and were watching him.
Once JD sat down, Larabee's hand went to his throat and Fred heard his low, quiet voice in his own ear. "Check."
"Tanner." Vin cocked an expectant eye at Hernandez.
Fred touched the tiny mike. "Hernandez."
Thumbs went up around the hold.
"Chris?" Fred was getting spooked by the paramilitary nature of this team's approach, "Are these really necessary?"
When Larabee didn't expand on his answer, Fred sighed internally and sat back. These guys were too much.
The hum of the jets was interrupted once more by the pilot. "Gentlemen, I'll be lowering the landing gear now, we'll be on the ground in a few. Prepare for landing."
There were two large white Suburbans, with bold New Mexico Highway Patrol lettering, parked outside the plane when the co-pilot swung open the hatch and dropped the exit ladder to the ground. He stepped back as the passengers began to climb out.
Larabee led, with Hernandez following. The men behind them were scrambling to lift out their weapons locker and duffels. Fred refused to dwell on their stash.
Once on the ground, Fred walked over to the lead vehicle waiting for them, shaking hands with the uniformed patrolman on the near side of the first truck.
While introductions and updates were shared, out of the corner of his eye, Fred watched the rest of Larabee's team lower their baggage off the plane and tote it to the second truck. He could see them greeting the other driver and stowing gear at top speed. With a snap of attention, he turned back to the conversation between Chris Larabee and Captain George Carson of the NM HP.
"Thanks, Captain." Larabee quietly shook the man's hand, so Fred stepped up and did the same with a nod. Then Chris added, "We'll ride with you." He leaned out of their small group to yell, "JD, you ride with us."
Fred saw JD's head pop up from where he'd been poking around in the duffle on the ground. The young agent gave a short wave, shoved something back in the bag and from the way his arm jerked, Fred figured he'd zipped it closed. The bag, slung quickly on Dunne's back, came with him as the agent jogged quickly over to their truck.
Dunne, with a careless flick of dark straight bangs, was sliding into the back seat area as Hernandez suddenly realized the rest of the team was already in the second vehicle and slamming doors. Larabee was in the front passenger seat, and leaning back over it, called to him, "Fred, get in!"
Hernandez climbed in, nodding to the Captain already seated behind his driver and to JD who had taken over the rear seats with his ubiquitous duffle and was busily engaged in setting up a slim laptop on top of it. Before Fred had his seatbelt buckled, Carson had leaned across him to slam home the big passenger door and they were moving.
Buck stretched and yawned, back arching. He felt refreshed and content as he looked down at Ezra Standish still asleep and tipped against his side. They'd fallen asleep sitting together. Wiping his eyes, Wilmington looked around, becoming tense as his memories kicked in. They were still in the small wrecked brown rock and adobe room. The noon sun was warming the walls obliquely, shadows barely visible. I thought it was later than this. Buck unconsciously flattened one hand on Ezra's spine and began a gentle rubbing as he studied the space in front of them, empty except for a large black nylon backpack. He swallowed scratchily, his mouth gone dry. Where was Henry? Trying to stay still, he turned his head to the extremes of his physical rotation and still nothing, no one. No Henry. No 'Tonto.'
He could hear nothing at all, the ruins were silent around them. Then he realized he was hearing Ezra's even, quiet breathing. That sound reassured him, strangely. He looked down at Ezra. Bleary green eyes looked back up at him.
"Hey, Pard." Buck swiped a thumb across Ezra's pale cheek. "You okay?"
For a moment, Ezra simply blinked up at him, then he hummed softly and pressed his face into Buck's hovering hand. Keeping contact there, Ezra's voice floated up. "Yes, tired, but fine." Eyes becoming clearer and sharper, flicked back up. "And you?"
"Doing okay." Buck pulled an unprotesting Ezra on to his lap, arms holding the man in a comfortable cuddle. "Better now." He smiled warmly and tipped his head down to steal a kiss, light and promising. Pulling back just a whisper, he added, "I love you."
Ezra's face warmed with color and his eyes seemed to glow as he looked back up at Buck, fingers coming to his just-kissed lips. "I think I could love you, too, Buck."
Buck smiled tenderly. "Good. Good start. We'll get you there, darlin'."
Ezra sank against Wilmington and turned his head, resting it against the big man's chest as he checked the room. Empty. "Henry, ah, Tonto seems to have left." Ezra eyed the abandoned backpack. "Leaving a bit of goodwill behind, I see."
"Maybe." Buck held Ezra a bit tighter. "Not sure what's in there, or if we should even look."
Ezra pulled gently away from his new lover, his friend. "Buck, this has nothing to do with those cretins who kidnapped us. This is," he hesitated, looking back over his shoulder at the backpack and empty room, then eyeing the wall of images with a lingering look, "this is - different."
Buck pulled Ezra's head back around to face him, eyes mapping Ezra's features, memorizing each bit. "Yeah, Ez, this is very different." He lightly kissed those sweet lips again, then met Ezra's eyes. "I want this to last, Ezra."
Standish felt a warmth growing inside and smiled up at Buck. "We'll have to see, won't we?"
New Mexico's Captain Carson of the Highway Patrol was rather garrulous and kept interrupting himself to point out scenic tidbits as the two truck convoy headed up the narrow road that would intersect with the route of the red Chevy Blazer. Between cactus varieties and chance glimpses of roadrunners, Carson explained that after Hernandez's people had called them, his officers had established a checkpoint on the road identified as the route of the Blazer. It was a regular insurance, registration, and license check, stopping all traffic briefly, thus being less likely to rouse any suspicion. If the Blazer arrived before they did, his men would hold it on some minor irregularities in the vehicle.
"What if it doesn't have any?" JD interrupted his own flying fingers to throw in before returning to his computer screen link to the satellites.
"Sonny," Carson boomed with a flash of teeth, "if it rides on a road, it ain't perfect and my boys will figure out how."
Larabee took advantage of the break in Carson's flow to call back, "JD? What's the status?"
"I found the roadblock. Looks like the Blazer still has about ten minutes 'til arrival."
Carson spoke up. "We'll be there in five." Now that the others were on drill, his conversation dried up and he sat straighter, putting one hand on the shoulder of his driver. The captain suddenly looked a lot harder, less jovial, and more ready for business.
Chris, still facing the rear of the truck, studied the man. He'd been ready to write him off as a loud-mouthed buffoon, but the sudden change in demeanor had him reevaluating. A lot like Buck, fools around until it's time to go, then worth riding into trouble with. Chris nodded formally to the captain and then turned back to face ahead. They were rounding a curve in the road that hugged a small butte.
"There, you see?" Dressler smiled down at the patrol officers and their matching patrol cars. "They set up this block and it works for us!" He tapped one of his men on the shoulder and pointed toward the far end of the draw that fed out toward the road. "Take cover there." The man nodded and, crouching low, dashed for the hidden spot.
His men were no longer wearing black. They'd changed into desert camouflage. He had every intention of plucking the Moshers from this little police filter and taking them away triumphantly. He could already see them in front of his high tech video equipment, informing their father that their lives were forfeit if he didn't cooperate. Cooperate with the men that Dressler would be using to cross the borders with guns for the group paying Dressler's fee, a splinter group of Palestinians. Emro was tired of this project, it had gotten too involved he realized now and he was ready to end it. Quickly.
He marshaled the rest of the men at his command, scattering them in strategic locations across the butte that shaded the roadblock. His information put the Israelis on this road, arrival time imminent.
The wiry lookout on the top of the small butte began flashing a small mirror. Here they come!
Vin leaned forward in the passenger seat of the second truck. "Chris?"
Larabee sat up, pressing one hand to his earplug. The other members of the team listened silently as he acknowledged Tanner. "Yeah."
"We got company. Light signal up on the left."
Larabee reached over and took hold of the driver's nearest arm. "Stop here."
The corporal raised an eyebrow at him but didn't slow. Larabee didn't hesitate, he leaned over, grabbing the wheel and jerking it sharply to the left, causing the truck to careen across the narrow tarmac toward the rough debris at the foot of the bluff edging the road. "SHIT!!" Corporal Flanagan stomped on the brakes and wrestled the truck to a fishtailing stop.
The truck engine died with a rattle and the sound of the hot engine ticking as it cooled was the only sound in the cab for a moment. Then Carson exploded.
In the second truck, Tanner pressed a hand on the patrolman's gloved grip. "Slow down, we're all stopping."
Before the man could respond, the lead truck was swerving across the road and skidding to a halt. Patrolman Harris slammed on his brakes and managed to stop without hitting the rear of the first truck. Breathing deeply, he shook his head and looked over at his passenger, but the seat was already empty.
"NOT NOW, CAPTAIN!" Larabee was dropping out of the truck's doorway and crouching low, a wicked looking revolver materializing in his fist. He shaded his brow and looked up, squinting against the early afternoon sun. "Unknowns have the high ground, you're men are in trouble."
Hernandez ducked as the now silent police captain shoved past him and down beside Larabee, drawing his weapon. Fred followed, pulling his own gun and scanning the top of the steep incline. Scrubby brush and stunted trees created a confusing texture, the earth, dry and ravaged by past rains, was deeply scarred, perfect for hiding opponents. He shouldered down next to Carson and noticed that Dunne had slipped out and was already circling the rear of the truck with two guns raised.
Turning to check on Larabee, he realized the man had vanished. Then he heard Chris over the headphones. "Keep low everyone. Vin's going for the high ground."
Now, how did Larabee know that? Fred craned his neck so that he could look down their truck to the following truck. It sat, equally abandoned behind theirs, no sign of any of the ATF agents, only the patrolman who'd been driving who was standing behind his open driver's side door, weapon drawn, staring up the steep bluff. Eyes tracking the man's line of sight, Fred caught a glimpse of the wide backs of Sanchez and Jackson, nearly a quarter of the way up the steep incline, just before they disappeared into a vertical crevice already lined with shadow. Of Tanner, there was no sign.
Hernandez went down to his belly and crawled forward towards the hood of the first truck, following Captain Carson who was moving fast, his body shimmying along disregarding the thick dust and rocks on the roadside. I'm getting too old for this. Fred checked his six, looking down the intersecting road that he realized was now in sight. In the distance, he could see a faint shape that might be a red Chevy Blazer, or might not. Following the road with his eyes, he found the roadblock ahead.
Above him, he could hear the sergeant on the radio in the truck, alerting the roadblock team of their danger. Hernandez turned his wrist to take a look at his watch, it was past three. With summer over, days would be shorter, but daylight should see them through this engagement. He frowned. Damn, I sound like I'm back in the military. He checked his gun and then rolled into a shallow draw at the roadside, still trying to stay with Carson since he'd already lost Larabee.
Somehow, he hadn't expected the radio silence of the team. After that one order to the team, there had been no further word from Larabee. No one else had spoken. Damn, these guys are worse than my spooks. Fred grit his teeth and began to edge toward higher ground.
Ezra insisted that they needed to open and inspect the backpack, claiming it was a gift. "He did ask if we were hungry."
Buck watched indulgently as his partner tugged open the strings that held the drawn-up mouth of the bag closed. From the way Ezra slowed at that point, Buck came alert and rose to his feet. As the southerner began to cautiously place one hand within the bag, Buck got a very bad feeling and rushed forward to yank Ezra's arm back out and free of the bag. "No! Wait!"
Ezra tried to shake off Buck's hand but the man was strong and held on tight. Before Ezra could object, Buck had pulled him back several feet from the dark, oversized backpack. Looking up impatiently into worried eyes, Ezra lost his irritation. "I don't think there is anything to be concerned about, Buck," he paused, reading Buck's denial in the contrary man's face, "there is no reason to think Henry has any ill will towards us." He tried to pick vise-like fingers from his arm to no avail. "Buck?"
Wilmington stared down into Ezra's face and could see that the normally suspicious agent was really convinced of Henry's nature. He bit his lower lip and slowly relaxed his grip on Ezra's arm. "Ez, we never met that guy before, he makes some music and disappears." Buck swiveled his head around, once more looking for any sign of the stranger, then looked back at Ezra. "And leaves behind his backpack. Seems too convenient to me, pard."
Standish listened to his friend's doubts and wondered at his own faith in the stranger, but then his eyes wandered back to the wall of images and he just knew that this was alright. It felt good. He'd been having some bad feelings himself, earlier, when they were still in the clutches of that foul group of miscreants, but they had escaped and his urge to run had dissipated. He stopped trying to break free of Buck and, instead, turned into the man's embrace.
"Ez?" Buck's face was a picture of confusion.
Ezra smiled up at the man who claimed to love him. "Thank you."
"For what?" Buck's head pulled back as he tucked his chin in towards his chest to better study his friend.
"For being so protective, so cautious, so caring." Ezra stood up on his tiptoes and reached up to draw Buck's head down further towards him. He smiled up at those dark blue eyes so wide and full of Buck's great spirit. "Thank you for giving me your love." He raised his own chin more and brought their lips together in a chaste kiss.
Buck stood absolutely still, letting Ezra initiate and control the kiss, but inside, his heart was singing. It took great restraint not to sweep Ezra up into his arms and consume him once more. His chest hurt, it was so full of his growing love for this darling man.
Ezra dropped back to his feet and smiled again, his fingers lighting running down the sides of Buck's strong face before coming to rest on the man's broad chest. "I don't know why, Buck, but I trust him."
Wilmington read the faith in Ezra's eyes and felt his own knot of worry begin to dissolve. He raised his eyes to the motionless backpack and otherwise empty room. "Alright. But, I open it." He took both of Ezra's shoulders in his hands and steered the man to the side before walking slowly back over to the satchel.
Ezra's earlier work had left the mouth of the thing gaping open, dark and mysterious. Buck poked at the bag with one foot, then stepped back. He wasn't sure what to expect, but there was no point in taking unnecessary chances. Wouldn't be too good to have a bunch of snakes jump out at them or something else. Who knew? Down here near the desert, might even be scorpions. He steeled himself and without looking back at Ezra, plucked one of the shoulder straps up, turning the backpack in the process and raising it enough so that some of the contents began to spill on to the ground.
Puzzled, he studied the buckskins that tumbled free, then an old wooden canteen, some small nondescript bags of tan leather, and some bundles. He grabbed the other end of the backpack and shook it upside down now, watching a final bundle drop soundlessly onto the dusty earth and rock floor.
Buck swung around to find that Ezra hadn't waited and was crouched down, unwrapping some of the dusty looking buckskin to reveal what looked like leggings and a shirt with light pattern of beading across the chest. This was just plain crazy. "EZRA!"
Standish looked up from where he was smoothing out the shirt. "Yes?"
Buck strode back over to his friend and with exasperation pulled him to his feet by hooking hands under his arms and lifting. Steadying his partner, he tilted his head and looked directly into Ezra's eyes. "What if there were booby traps?" He hesitated, then added, "Snakes? Scorpions?"
Disbelief in Ezra's eyes was enough answer. Buck grit his teeth. "Ezra! You could have been hurt!"
The heart-deep exclamation was enough to dissolve the stubbornness in Ezra's resistance. He felt as if something important was finally penetrating his reserves. Buck cared. Not just about a roll in the hay, not just making unasked for declarations of love, easy enough to say, but he cared about Ezra's well being. He was worried about his safety. Ezra didn't know how to explain his certainty about their mysterious visitor or his gifts, for that was what he was convinced they were finding, but he did know that he was making an important discovery now about Buck and about himself. He took a deep breath and stepped closer to Buck, pressing the side of his face into the man's shirtfront until he could hear Buck's heart beating deep within.
Buck was startled by Ezra's action. He stood silent now, staring down at the top of Ezra's head where it rested against him. Slowly, he brought up his arms and wrapped them around Ezra's shoulders. Inside, he felt a bubbling such as he hadn't felt in a very long time, a feeling that was climbing out of places it had hidden since childhood days with his mom, a feeling of warmth and joy. He crushed the man to him. "Oh, god!"
Ezra didn't protest, just rode out Buck's increasingly tight hold. After several minutes, Buck's arms loosened enough for him to raise his head and look up at the dear man. "See? This is a good place, Buck. Everything is alright." Ezra lowered his head for a moment, then raised it again, "And I think we will be too."
"We?" Buck's voice had deepened and held a smile.
Ezra blushed and smiled, "Yes."
Then the irritating man squirmed free of Buck's arms and squatted back down beside the tanned leather clothing he'd been examining earlier. Buck took a deep breath, shoulders rising and falling as he gathered his scattered wits, then he sunk to his heels beside Ezra.
"This definitely looks like it would fit you." Ezra held up the large shirt. He turned to raise the leggings which turned out to be full trousers with leather bits to tie up the front opening. "As will these."
Buck finally dragged his eyes away from Ezra's glowing face and looked at the offerings. They did look as if they'd fit. "Maybe, but-"
"We need to get out of our evening clothes." Ezra gestured with a wave of one agile hand to the disheveled black dress suits and now stained and grayish shirts, once white and crisp. He continued, motioning towards the leathers in his hands, "In these, we'd blend into the terrain."
Buck nodded slowly. "Okay. These might fit me, but what about you?" He'd only seen the one set of buckskins so far, likely ones that old Henry could wear himself. He reached out to finger the soft, pliant material.
Ezra poked an arm under Buck's outstretched one and plucked the other bundle of buckskin free. Buck waited. This was getting a bit spooky. If that other set of clothes would fit Ezra, it would be downright weird. It was almost with relief that he watched Ezra's face fall in disappointment as he unrolled an equally large set of even older looking buckskin clothing.
When Ezra held up the second large shirt, Buck's smile widened and he patted Ezra's shoulder consolingly.
"Don't worry, little guy, we can always roll up the sleeves."
He chuckled when Ezra sent him a dirty look. Taking the shirt from Ezra's unresistant hands, Buck acted on his suggestion and began folding up the long sleeves.
Ezra humphed lightly, acknowledging that his mysticism had perhaps gone too far. With a shrug of acceptance, he lifted the canteen and shook it. Hearing the slosh inside, he realized that he was very thirsty. Neither of them had eaten or drunk anything since their short dinner at the restaurant a lifetime ago. Mouth drier by the second, he hastily twisted the cap off the water container, and before Buck could stop him, took a tiny sip. Water. Untainted, unflavored, water. Cool and delicious! He wiped his lips with the back of one hand and then offered the canteen to Buck.
Wilmington's cry of warning died on his lips when he looked over and saw Ezra already drinking from the old canteen. Shit! He could have poisoned himself! Buck growled as he snatched the offered canteen from Ezra and brought it to his own mouth. One swallow and he relaxed. If there was anything wrong with it, he couldn't taste it, and now at least, if there was, they'd suffer for it together. Somehow, the together part was growing in importance with each passing second.
"What else are you finding, Ezra?" Buck's concerns had eased a bit when he saw the two changes of clothing would both fit Henry. Seemed a bit less twilight zone and more just a puzzlement.
Ezra's busy fingers unwrapped a second flute, this one less decorated and not yet finished, wood still roughly carved. As he flipped the piece of thin leather open, a sharp-bladed woodcarving knife fell to the ground and a small wood awl. "Tools of the trade, it seems."
Ezra's voice sounded curious and thoughtful to Buck. This was a side of the man that he'd not yet met and he was finding it endearing. Face it, Buck, you've got it bad.
Tanner watched from the top of the bluff as the four policemen at the check point all began to rubberneck and drop to the dirt near their two patrol cars. Someone had finally warned the poor saps that they were at ground zero on this one. Vin quickly finished tying off the laces of the lookout's boots. It hadn't taken any effort to slip up behind the man, put him down.
Now it was just a question of getting him bundled up so that Tanner could move on. Using the laces from the man's boots, he had already restrained his wrists behind him and now, his ankles. The Team Seven sharpshooter lowered himself to his belly on the rise and carefully set up his sniper's rifle, grabbed from their weapons locker in the transport just minutes earlier. Casually, he shoved his prisoner back further away by pushing against the top of man's head with his booted foot. He barely spared a glance to do it, eyes ranging over the rough terrain to spot other targets.
Nathan tapped Josiah on the shoulder and gave a warning with hand signals to drop left. He kept low and climbed over Sanchez's retracting leg, letting his body skim the rocky rubble in front of him. Just beyond the shadow of the narrow crevasse, someone sat perched on a boulder. Jackson was behind the stranger and jerking him back with an arm around his throat before the man even knew he had company. It was a moment's work to lash his hands together with his ankles in a classic restraint, using the man's long dirty headscarf for a gag. Nathan peered out and located his next objective, another ambusher idling just past the boulder. Jackson flashed a deadly grin, white against his face, before flowing over the rocks toward the man.
Josiah could see that Nate had things well in hand. Sanchez had already begun climbing and decided to move back away from Nathan's intended prisoners, there were probably plenty to go around. Eyes flaring with fierce amusement, Josiah flexed his biceps and then pulled himself up to the next ledge on the crevasse wall. From there he could see several routes upward, one of which had an unusual silhouette. For a big man, Josiah could move very quietly, even over rough surfaces. The hidden watcher had no chance to warn anyone.
Sanchez had no trouble restraining this one, you didn't get a fuss from someone unconscious. Wiping his hands on his knees, Josiah sat back for a moment on his haunches, evaluating the surroundings before picking another likely spot for a perp. The Team Seven profiler made himself one with an image of smoke and drifted upward, face serene, eyes dancing from stone to stone.
Tanner nodded at JD Dunne who had just scrabbled up onto a neighboring high ground. A brief, small cloud of dust was the only sign that the youngest of their team had just subdued another of the opposition. Vin quirked a tiny smile at JD and then turned his attention back to where Chris Larabee was now closing in on the checkpoint. Relaxing his shoulders and tightening his pressure on the trigger of his rifle, Vin waited patiently. JD had his back now.
Larabee could hear the police captain, Carson, breathing hard right past his shoulder. He ignored the noise and rolled into the next slight depression of ground, using what cover he could. Chris was nearly all the way to the roadblock now, and he could see the whites of the eyes of two of the officers who were staring at him over their revolvers. Huffing out a breath of anger at the lack of skill among these patrolmen, he waited for Carson to join him. He had to make sure that those men out there knew he was one of the good guys.
Fred Hernandez had dropped away from Carson and Larabee when he realized they intended to head out into the open and meet up with the exposed patrol officers. They didn't need him. He was still in deep shadow at the edge of the draw, just beyond where their abandoned trucks still stood. Seemed a likely spot for someone to hide. Fred drew his gun, silencer automatically screwed on as he studied the area. Then with more skill than Larabee would probably give him, he sidled deeper into the shade and began edging toward the further end of the draw. He kept his pistol up and ready.
Dressler had retreated to the rear of the action, no point in becoming personally involved in the confrontation. There might be bullets flying shortly and he had no intention of being hit by a careless shot. He looked over his shoulder to where their helicopter squatted behind the bluff. The pilot was leaning against the nose, smoking. Irritated, Ermo rose to his feet from the crouch he'd maintained as he crept back from the ambush. He began to walk toward the helicopter, anger making his steps quicker. Behind him, he heard a shot fired. It was a sharp, loud bang that could not have come from a weapon belonging to his men. They didn't have any rifles with them. The first sound he should have heard was to have been the mortar round. Gait changing to a trot, he waved both arms at the pilot.
Vin took aim again and sent a second shot into the road surface in front of the red SUV, watching as the driver slewed the vehicle to a stop and he and a passenger dove from their respective sides into the dirt. Looks like those boys know a little something about survival. Vin grinned tightly and swung his rifle back around towards the bluff below him, looking for another target. Instead, he saw his team begin to rise up from their positions.
"Check in." Chris was coming to his feet, helping Captain Carson rise as two of the uniformed officers with them walked out to the young men crouching near a red Chevy Blazer that Tanner had stopped.
"Hernandez." Five men smiled wolfishly at the sound of their temporary teammate's clipped response. Man has some salt, Vin thought.
"Clear?" Chris waited again, a hand on Carson's shoulder to still him for another minute. The affirmatives all around had Larabee nodding, before saying, "Hope you boys kept a few of them breathing. We need information."
Before anyone could answer, they all heard the rattle and roar of a helicopter lifting off just beyond the edge of the butte. Vin spun and cursed, ducking as the machine swooped low over his head. He brought up his rifle, but waited, asking, "Chris?"
"Stand down, Vin. JD, you got it?"
"Got it." Tanner looked over his shoulder to where Dunne was shouldering a long tube-like weapon. A wisp of smoke came from the rear of the tube when the agent jerked back slightly. Vin followed the thin smoke trail that flew from the weapon and traced an arc up to the helicopter. Instead of hearing an explosion, nothing happened. Vin raised an eyebrow. Could have sworn JD hit that thing. Damn, it was big as a barn going over us. Vin looked his silent question at JD who stood in plain sight now on the rise just below Tanner's position.
JD wiped his face, sweating from the fast climb and adrenaline rush of taking down a man, then shooting a helicopter. He saw Vin turn to stare at him, looking curious. He grinned, face dirty from the sweat and grit, his smile shining through as he mouthed one word. "Bug."
Ezra found that some of the mystique of their temporary hideaway was fading now that he stood drooping in Henry's much too big buckskins. He looked sideways at Buck who was on one knee beside him, silently turning up the cuff one more fold on one of the sleeves. And silently laughing. Disgusted at his situation, Ezra was not happy. "Mr. Wilmington, I'm glad to see you find this amusing."
The acerbic tone had Buck's head coming up and the laughter subsiding to an affectionate smile. "Ezra, no matter what you wear, you look good to me." Then he stretched up and hooked a hand around Ezra's neck, pulling his friend down enough so that he could plant a firm kiss on those sweet, and, at the moment very pouty, lips.
Buck released his hold as Ezra broke their kiss. He studied the flushed face and saw only acceptance and arousal. With a grin, Buck tried to reel Ezra back in.
"Stop!" Ezra shuffled backwards away from his amorous companion. At another time, he decided he would welcome Buck's advances but just now was not the time. Breaking eye contact with the devilishly good looking Wilmington on his knees in front of him, Ezra brushed at the soft, fine leather sleeves of his new attire, grimacing at the dropped shoulders and triple-folded cuffs. It had been a good decision to switch into Henry's clothing but was it too much to ask that the man be a bit smaller? Then Ezra stole another look over at Buck. Wilmington was climbing to his feet, the buckskins fitting him as if tailored for his long, beautiful - when did I start thinking 'beautiful'? - body. Buck was like an image from some history book, a mountain man of the Old West. Ezra was charmed.
Buck, resigned to keeping the old libido in check, pushed up from the earthen floor to stand and swing his arms slightly, testing the fit of the tunic and pants. Nice. He lifted one leg, no pull. Yeah, this would work. He hadn't realized that he and Henry were near the same size. His hands brushed the intricate pattern of beadwork covering a small area of the front of the tunic, with tiny feathers hanging from the bottom edge of the decorative work, like a small, soft fringe. The beads were all earthen colored, reddish-brown, brown, tan, gray, white, and black, with a smattering of tiny turquoise bits. The feathers were under-feathers, all light brown with white fluffy, downy edges, none longer than two inches. He admired what he could see, peering down at the geometric patterning upside down. Touching the feathery fringe lightly, it reminded him of Ezra's soft chestnut hair and his eyes rose automatically to seek out his companion.
Ezra stood looking at him. There was an affectionate light in those gorgeous green eyes. Buck had to suppress a laugh, though, at the picture that Ezra made in the too large clothing. With cuffs at sleeves and leggings turned up, waist cinched into the baggy trousers, tunic hanging down to his knees and shoulder seams resting on his biceps, Ezra looked more like a waif than the tough undercover agent that Buck knew he was. "Eh, Ezra. Looking good there."
Ezra made a face at him and then smiled ironically down at his outfit. They'd put him in the older costume, the leather so supple that it easily folded back, like cloth. The butternut coloring had faded to an indeterminate dust color. Any decorations had long since vanished, but tiny threads still hung from the front of the tunic, together with slightly less faded coloring on the leather, subtle hints that once this too was a fancy shirt.
"I seem to be the second class citizen here." Ezra spoke dryly.
"Sweetheart, you're first class, all the way." Buck stepped close and placed one arm around the smaller man's shoulder and back and giving him a light hug. He didn't press, knowing that Ezra was right, this wasn't the time, much as he wished it was. With an unrepentant peck on Ezra's cheek, Buck looked up and around the crumbling adobe room. The wall away from the back rock wall was broken with a fair-sized opening. He released his gentle hold on Ezra and walked over to look out.
To his surprise, it was still full daylight. The sun had moved, no longer shooting rays of direct light into the ruin complex, but it must still be fairly high in the sky, he thought. Henry's visit and disappearance had lulled they into a distortion of time, Buck thought, one hand coming out to grip the smooth old bricks that remained in an uneven, toothy display.
He felt rather than saw Ezra come up beside him to look out at his shoulder. "Are you packing?" Buck murmured.
"Yes." Ezra lifted the folded hem of one trouser leg to reveal his ankle holster, still holding a small revolver. "It seems our captors never even checked. A bit of overconfidence."
"Yeah, same for me." Buck put one booted foot up on the debris near him and tugged back the legging to pop out the pistol that sat in the top of his short dress, ankle boot. He reset it after checking it, then turned his head to jerk it back towards the room. "Those carving tools might come in handy, too."
Ezra nodded thoughtfully, straightening up again. "Yes. And we still haven't eaten, I suspect that there are some provisions in that bag."
"Ezra-" Buck started, warning in his tone.
"Buck, I don't know why, but I did - I do - trust Henry." Ezra stared towards the back wall, where the pictographs had dimmed in the altered light. Shrugging off the sense of mystic harmony that wanted to settle on him like a cloak, Ezra rubbed his hands together. "We will need to replenish our energies before we start."
Buck eyed his friend assessingly. "Are you up to it?" The concussion was less than twenty-four hours old.
Ezra lifted his chin and lightly touched the back of his head. He closed his eyes and grimaced. Then opened them and blinked. "Yes. It still hurts to the touch, but my head is functioning again." He flashed a dimpled smile at Wilmington, "And I think my brain has caught up as well."
Buck's face softened into a smile. "Glad to hear it." Then he moved over to join Ezra at the abandoned backpack. Rubbing his hands together, he squatted beside it and said, "We'll see what else he left us. Then," Buck looked up at Ezra, "then, we get the hell out of Dodge here," he gestured to the ruined adobe room, "and go back there and see what we can do."
"I concur." Ezra folded himself down into a cross-legged seating position across from Buck and helped him untuck the unmarked cloth and leather bundles. Unrolling a particularly lumpish pack, and eyeing the jerky and biscuits inside with satisfaction, Ezra added, "It is time we took back control on our situation. Time to put Mr. Dressler and his crew of miscreants in their proper place."
"Yeah, behind bars." Buck plucked a piece of the jerked meat from the dry sticks on Ezra's lap and sniffed it. Testing it with his tongue, he found it spicy and sweet. With a secret smile, he cast a glance up at Ezra. Spicy and sweet like you. Aloud, he said, "Tastes okay." And he bit off a piece.
"Can you track it?" Chris leaned over JD Dunne who was frantically tapping at his laptop keyboard, sitting on the tailgate of the first truck, legs swinging madly in excitement. Larabee kept one hand firmly on Dunne's shoulder, as if to keep him from flying off the truck in his obvious excitement.
"Wait - wait - wait," JD chanted, slowing and using the thumb ball to guide his cursor now. "YES!" he pointed to the screen and Larabee could see the tiny white blip flitting slowly but steadily across a schematic grid. "Got him!"
Chris looked up and met the eyes of his men, who stood in a relaxed circle around JD and him. Even Fred Hernandez was blending into the serene air that always topped out the team after action. Well, all the team except Dunne. Chris smiled back down indulgently at his young genius. Quite a team.
"Agent Larabee?" Carson, the highway patrol captain appeared at Josiah's shoulder and with an apologetic look, squeezed into the team's inner circle between Sanchez and Jackson who moved slightly to make room. "We've got those men all secured. Do you want to talk to them or to the Mosher boys?"
Larabee could see the two young Israelis standing casually beside their red SUV at a distance. Neither looked too upset at the events. Must be a way of life for them, he thought with regret. Shaking his head at the way the two men reminded him of Buck and Ezra, he answered, "No. You can interview them. Probably should take them into protective custody until this is over."
He turned his head towards where the terrorists were being forced to kneel in the dirt, each handcuffed with arms behind their backs. They were all dressed in desert camouflage and face paint. Carson's men stood over them. This had been like a military operation and that made Larabee very concerned. His two men were still out there somewhere. "We need to talk with your prisoners."
Carson stood straighter, "They are under arrest, Agent Larabee. They have the same legal rights as-"
"As snot." Tanner stalked into the circle from where he'd been lounging beside Dunne. "Captain, they know where Ezra and Buck are. We'll give them back to you. My word as a Tanner." He folded his hands across his chest.
The deadly look in the young man's eyes did not reassure Carson who huffed up. Before he could answer, another voice interrupted.
"CIA, Captain." Fred Hernandez reminded, coming closer from his place on the far side of Sanchez, and flipping out his ID. "National security issue. You can take the prisoners after we interview them." Hernandez paused and caught a subtle movement from Larabee, then continued, "And we can do that right here. Won't take long."
The captain hesitated. He did sympathize with these agents, two of their own were missing. And if they hadn't acted so decisively, so amazingly fast, then his men and those two tourists would have been captured, or wounded, or dead. Tightening his lips, he turned away and strode out of the group, shouldering back past the two big agents, Sanchez and Jackson who smiled at each other with what looked like carnivorous anticipation and let him through without comment. Taking a deep breath, he looked back over his shoulder and said succinctly, "Nothing shows when you're done."
Larabee met the man's look with one of his own. With a single nod, he answered, "Agreed."
Carson came to a halt and watched, still only half-turned toward the ATF team and CIA agent. Watched, as the wolves stalked over to the group of sullen prisoners who immediately and sensibly cringed back on heels. The captain swallowed hard and faced forward. He had to explain things to the young men who waited so patiently at their vehicle, and he had to draw off his own men - for now.
Josiah sat in the dirt facing one of the captives. It had been arranged to use the transport trucks as a screen so the other captives couldn't see what happened during the interview. Sanchez had spent considerable time, for him, staring at the men cuffed and kneeling on the ground. As time ticked by, they began to show signs of irritation, impatience, anger, and, fear. He picked his man and had Tanner and Jackson frog-march the captive around the back of the truck. He followed slowly, wanting to give the rest time to think about what might happen.
He hid a small smile as everyone flinched at the sound of gunfire, one shot after another, behind that first truck. Then, the truck rocked as they all heard the sound of a body's impact against the side panel. Josiah didn't look back.
Rounding the truck, he watched as Vin stepped out a distance of about fifteen feet and then turned and ran full tilt at the truck. At the last minute, Tanner leapt into the air and twisted his body so that both feet hit the side of the truck with a resounding crash. The truck rocked on its tires again.
Nathan, who held onto their prisoner by his collar, shook the man and frowned, his free hand poking the ground with an enormous blade. Must be Nate's Bowie knife, haven't seen that one in a while, Josiah thought as he eyed it and the open weapons locker half out of the rear of the second truck. He strolled over that way and rummaged around. JD and Vin had packed everything apparently. He reached beneath some gas masks and drew out a simple weighted sandbag with leather grip. Sanchez stared at it, lost in thought as he tapped it against his palm. Another crash and the truck's suspension groaned this time. Vin's going to hurt himself soon.
Josiah turned and walked over to Nathan and sat down facing the prisoner. This was the one that had shown fear most clearly. Josiah cleared his throat and began to speak in simple Arabic. They'd picked up that much already. The men were foreign and the few curse words and commands that had shot back and forth before they were restrained had been in that language.
When there was no answer, Josiah waved casually. "No matter. You are 'pig'."
Fear became anger in the dark face across from Sanchez. A silent snarl formed. Then Jackson threw his knife in the ground just in front of the man and he cringed back, anger forgotten.
"Pig?" Josiah had the man's attention back and a sullen look. "Where is your base?"
Nothing. Josiah looked over at Vin. "Get the fix from JD."
Tanner nodded and left quickly. Josiah rubbed his hands together and then dropped them to his knees as he sat there cross-legged. He leaned forward. "Nathan, hand me your knife."
Nate licked his lips and glanced down at the man sagging against him. He yanked his favorite throwing knife out of the dirt. I'll have to get that sharpened when we get home. Ezra and Buck are going to owe me. He paused. Damn it, they're fine. He flipped the knife from hilt to blade in his broad palm, right next to the prisoner's face, then proffered it to Josiah.
"Thanks, brother." Josiah toyed with the weapon, poking the sand and dirt in front of him. Hurry up, Vin.
Just then, Tanner appeared around the end of the first truck. He loped over to Josiah and squatted, whispering in Sanchez's ear. "About forty miles due south from here."
"South?" Josiah's accent was atrocious, he knew, but he also knew that it was understandable and the man's widening eyes proved it. "Why thank you, piggy!"
"NO!" the scream in Arabic was loud and hoarse. The man understood what was being done. He struggled in Nathan's grip, trying to rise, to run.
Nate rolled to his feet in one smooth motion, grabbing the terrorist's arms in a tight grip and shoving him toward the trucks. Jackson relished the image of this man's face when he realized the others would think he'd told them everything.
Josiah stood up with a helping hand from Vin, who patted him on the back. The two exchanged grim smiles as they trailed after Nathan and his prize.
It was all the patrolmen could do to restrain the rest of the prisoners as the first was forced to walk back into view, still screaming, "NOOO!" and shaking his head vehemently.
The rest began to scream and thrust up to their feet, cursing the first one. Larabee, standing to one side of the Highway Patrol cars from the roadblock, nodded at Sanchez and Tanner. They'd gotten confirmation. That's all they needed. And, they'd prepared a bit of divisiveness among the prisoners. It would make interrogation of the rest much easier for the police and Hernandez's people back in civilization. Right now, they had somewhere else to be. Forty miles, due south.
JD, standing at Chris' side was zipping up the nylon tote for his laptop. He'd open it again when they started moving. Just had to wait for their own helicopter, courtesy of Fred. He'd been on his cell, and then borrowed Captain Carson's radio, and finally rejoined them with the news that a chopper was on the way. Time, thirty minutes.
Carson had watched the prisoners after one was taken away by Larabee's men. He'd been worried when the gunshots went off, more so when the truck was apparently used to toss the prisoner against, several times. But the CIA agent just kept a firm grip on his shoulder and kept shaking his head when Carson would have moved to intervene. Jeb Carson had been reduced to watching Agent Larabee. The man never blinked when the truck rocked for the third time. The young agent at his side, Dunne, crouched over a laptop and hadn't even looked up.
When Tanner had come out briefly, he had gone directly to Dunne and conferred quietly before trotting back over to the trucks. The man never spoke to his boss, nothing. Carson knew he wouldn't run any operation like that. But when the three other ATF agents came back, dragging a semi-hysterical prisoner, it seemed as if they'd had some luck. At least, if the reactions from the rest of the prisoners were anything to go by. And it looked like Larabee could keep his word. There wasn't a mark on the prisoner, well, unless you counted the dampness at the crotch of his trousers. From the smell, that had been self-inflicted. And finally, Jeb Carson laughed.
"Ezra! Watch where you're going!" Buck couldn't believe that Standish, who was a good mountain climber, could be so careless. The man's eyes were constantly returning to the hidden adobe dwellings that they'd climbed back out of minutes earlier. It wasn't a really dangerous climb down, but you could break an ankle climbing out of bed, dammit, and they were scaling down the bluff face right now. And Ezra was still wearing his dress shoes, smooth soled.
We have to remember how to get here, Ezra thought, eyes straying back up the steep hillside to the ruins again. He'd never come across a reference to this site, never seen any reproductions of those particular pictographs before. This was a find! He slipped on the broken rock under foot and had to grab for new handholds. But then, of course, he thought, troubled, if this was a secret, then he was honor-bound to keep it. Henry. Henry, or Tonto, was the key. He didn't answer Buck's warning, just shifted his hold and felt downward with one foot, gaze still vague as his mind raced. Henry was real. The backpack was real, the clothing they were wearing was real. The food they ate was nourishing, the water refreshing. The music sublime. Henry was real. Wasn't he? Ezra reached for a new hold and lowered himself another foot.
They reached the bottom of the steep bluff and studied the small stream that probably was called a river in this dry part of the world. It was deep enough and swift enough that it had carried away Ezra's 'bug'-infested cummerbund wrapped around a piece of wood. Sunlight was striking off to the side now, high up, the tiny valley, almost canyon, was in deep shade. Evening would be setting in here soon. It would cool off fast.
Looking downstream, Buck saw no sign of the bundle. Probably far away by now and just as well if those creeps are trying to track us. He turned to Ezra who was also studying the water. It was about the same depth as the night before, mid-calf, but looked less challenging in the late daylight.
"Leather doesn't like water."
Ezra's tone was dry. Then hot green eyes looked up at Buck and Wilmington's pulse rate jumped into a race against the sudden heat in his blood. Buck licked his lips and hesitated. It would be so easy to agree to those suggestive eyes. But. But the shits that had dragged them out in the middle of the wilderness were around somewhere. It wasn't safe, and Ezra knew it too. Taking a deep breath, he ventured, "We can roll up our pant legs, Ez."
"Well, you can." Ezra eyed his own, already folded leggings. "I shall simply increase the thickness of my unstylish cuffs."
While not exactly cheerful, Buck could sense acceptance in Ezra's voice. He relaxed slightly. Too soon. Ezra was suddenly directly in front of him, tipping his head to the side and meeting Buck's eyes. "I'll do yours," Ezra paused and let his gaze wander downward, "if you do mine."
Ermo frowned in confusion as he glimpsed the nearly silent capture of his men below when his ride swooped low overhead. He could see two extra police trucks parked askew on the intercepting road and his men being dragged from cover by a group of strangers in civilian clothing. Who were they? Why were they interfering? Uneasy at his ignorance, angry at his missed opportunity at the Israeli boys for hostages, he sat back and tightened the safety harness on his hips. Now they would have to use those two firemen after all.
As for the Palestinians below, good riddance. A few less of those devils to deal with wouldn't make his life a hardship. The gun dealer settled down, plans already forming. With a grunt, he stretched forward beyond the pilot to snatch the radio microphone and pull it back to his mouth. Shouting over the helicopter's engine and blades, he called to the co-pilot, "Connect me to base!"
Chris stood beside Captain Carson and Agent Hernandez as his boys loaded up the old Huey that Fred had drummed up out of thin air. From the flashy red paint on the sides, he gathered it was part of a flying circus show. It was all he could do not to sneer. Fred probably wouldn't take that too well, and right now, he needed Fred.
Carson had sworn at the helicopter that swept in and landed with a decided hop. The CIA agent claimed it was government business but, damn, he knew Clem Fortnight and the man wasn't any fed that he'd ever heard about, just a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants air jockey. Half the time, so tanked up that he flew upside down in his bi-plane, maybe even backwards. And this old relic from 'Nam was unlikely to do much more than bounce from one X to the next at the county fairs. Yet, here was Clem dropping in out of the sky and looking nigh on obnoxious he was grinning so damn wide. Jeb Carson shook his head and wondered if Agent Hernandez really knew what he'd called up here.
Clem Fortnight, veteran and covert operative from bygone wars, couldn't believe his luck. His grey-blonde hair was plastered to his bony skull under his old aviator cap with earflaps and black goggles. His off-white, alright, dirty gray, silk scarf was wrapped three times around his long neck and still trailed off a good three feet behind - and flew out nicely in the wind when he had his birds airborne. He was grinning with his teeth clamped tightly around an old stogy and leaned out his side of the Huey to wave widely at the circle of men closing in on him. "Come on, come on! Ain't got all day!" His shout was faint over the thud-thuds of the blades as they slowed.
Vin cast a sideways look at Josiah and Nathan when JD cheered and grabbed arms around a duffle and his laptop and charged for the chopper that squatted next to the road. Sanchez laughed outright and smacked Tanner on the back. "Just like old times, Brother Vin!"
"Maybe for you, Josiah." Vin drew up a pack of supplies he'd unloaded from the truck, and then watched carefully as Nate hoisted one end of the weapons locker and Sanchez shouldered up the other.
"We got it, don't worry, Vin." Nate smiled reassuringly at Tanner as he adjusted his grip. His height balanced Josiah's.
The team sharpshooter was carrying his sniper rifle now and simply shrugged it back on his shoulder and waited. He'd follow them on board, make sure that locker made it in safely. Some things shouldn't be bumped too hard.
"Looks like your men are ready, Larabee." Carson stifled an urge to guffaw at Clem who had jumped down and was striding over towards them, one scarecrow arm extended with hand open. Jeb figured he was aiming at Larabee and figured there was no way that the ATF agent would let Crazy Clem anywhere near him.
Then that quiet CIA agent simply stepped in front of Larabee and took the offered hand. Carson mentally shrugged. Too bad.
"Name is Fred Hernandez, CIA." He flipped open his leather wallet badge with his free hand. "My people contacted you, Mr. Fortnight. Glad you could help us out."
"Whoo-eee!" Clem pumped Hernandez hand and then flashed an unrepentant grin at Chris Larabee who was exuding displeasure and a dim glare. "Howdy there, friend. Name's Clem Fortnight. You with Mr. CIA?"
"Larabee, ATF." Chris really didn't have time for this lunatic. Maybe he should just ditch the fool and let Josiah loose on that bird, looked like the kind Sanchez had nursed through the end of the war in Southeast Asia.
"Yeah. Got it. Waco, right?" The Fortnight winked broadly.
Chris bit back his first answer. He'd give him 'Waco' alright. Hell, the only wacko here was this walking string bean in a poor man's Baron von Richthofen outfit, Waco be damned. Chris gritted out, "Not likely. We're tracking terrorists. They've got two of my men."
The thin face, full of smiling creases, abruptly folded in on itself, the laughter wiped clean and with a tilt of his head, Clemson Fortnight ceased to be a buffoon and became another dangerous man. "Just tell me where." He folded his arms across his thin chest and pulled his chin back, "Flew plenty of missions behind the lines. Not all of them rescue." He looked briefly toward Carson who was blinking at the transformation, then reconnected with Larabee's flat hazel eyes. "We'll get 'em back."
Fred looked between the two men, seeing the recognition between two old soldiers pass back and forth. Gotcha. He smirked over at Carson, then jerked his chin toward the helicopter. "Chris, Clem, let's go."
The other two both turned to Hernandez as if waking from a trance and the twin nods had Fred shaking his head with a grin. "Let's do it!" he urged, starting forward. Larabee and Fortnight swung in behind him and the three strode back toward the waiting chopper.
Carson watched them go, amazed that it had been less than two minutes since Clem had jumped out of his still cooling bird. Hell, the blades hadn't stopped turning yet.
As it turned out, in the dimming light of day, Buck spotted white water foaming around large rocks just upstream from their position. Last night, in the dark, they'd not seen them. Now, they could use the largish flat rocks as stepping-stones. He stopped Ezra with a touch on the man's shoulder as Ezra stooped in front of him to help with turning up the leather leggings. "Ez, wait." When those beautiful green eyes looked up at him, Buck's mouth wet dry. He cleared his throat. "We don't have to do that. Look," he pointed at the natural causeway, "we can cross up there."
Ezra rose to his feet, dusting his hands and staring up the waterway. How had they missed that? Of course, neither of us has been thinking too clearly. He cast another glance up at the nearly invisible ruins above them and swallowed. I'll be back.
Turning to Buck, Ezra checked the man's stance, the heavy backpack with their own clothes, the provisions such as they were, and Henry's other possessions, resided on Buck's broad shoulders. He'd been willing to make up a temporary pack and take part of the burden but Buck would have no part of that. Had argued that symptoms from Ezra's concussion would probably still catch him unawares as they moved.
This caring Buck, loving Buck, was beginning to breach Ezra's defenses. He found himself wondering where a relationship with the man might lead. He had to shake himself out of his musings as Wilmington shifted the big pack more comfortably and began picking his way along the eroded dry earth bank that was still crumbling into the small riverbed. Ezra followed, keeping a trained eye on their surroundings. Watching Buck's back.
Water isn't as high as it might be. Buck stopped at the edge of the wider spot, where a tumble of rocks created a possible dry 'bridge' over the fast running water. Mindful of the smooth bottoms of his dress boots, he began to test his footing as he stepped out onto the first rocks of their crossing.
Ezra frowned at the wet glisten of water on the lower rocks. Most probably slick. If only Henry had managed to leave some better footwear, even moccasins would be better than his stylish Italian leather shoes. Centering himself, and with a last suspicious look around at the high grounds and narrow cut, Ezra stepped out on to the rocks that Buck had just vacated. Buck was already halfway across the water.
Ezra placed his feet with care, aware that his balance was still shaky. He tried to concentrate but that only made his head begin to swim and darkness thicken at the edges of his vision. "Buck?"
Wilmington had just reached the far bank and turned swiftly at the hesitant call. "Ezra?" He saw the problem immediately and shrugged out of the big backpack in an instant. Then he was reaching out to grab a hold on the teetering man in front of him. "Got you!"
With a firm yank, Buck pulled Ezra to the bank, where he stumbled slightly. Buck caught him under the arms and steadied him. Looking down closely into Ezra's face, he could see a hint of pain and panic. "Easy, sweetheart, we made it." He gathered the man in against his chest and held on. Ezra melted against him, no resistance this time at all. Buck smiled into Ezra's tousled silky hair. Even now, Ezra smelled wonderfully of musk and sandalwood.
Buck hugged the man whose grumble was muffled against his chest. "I know. But Ez, you gotta humor me. Any chance I get, you in my arms is my first choice."
Ezra's head came up and green eyes met his. The serious expression on Ezra's face had Buck nearly faltering before attempting a confident smile down at the man. Guess we're not there yet. Buck hugged a bit tighter, watching those green eyes lower a bit, then he stood back, still holding onto Ezra's arms to make sure he could stand on his own.
We're definitely going to have to get back on track. He flicked hair from his eyes with a toss of his head and slowly released Ezra's arms. Soon as we get past all of this crap with that gang of terrorists. Buck's dark eyes sought out the sky, still blue and empty far above them. Wonder where the boys are now.
"Waaa-hooooo!" Clem couldn't contain that wild scream as he pushed the old lady as fast as her rotors would spin. With the nose tilted slightly down, they were speeding cross-country towards a blinking dot on the boy's computer screen. He leaned over to peer at the small screen. "No problemo, little buddy!"
JD looked up at the exuberant cry, trying not to think of another man who would have said much the same thing. God, he couldn't believe the crazy ass things that had happened since he and the guys decided to help out Buck with Ezra. He took a settling breath and refreshed the screen, double checking the tracking device signals. Everything was green. At the speed that Wild Bill here was pushing out, he took a peek at the tachometer to verify things, we'll be over the target in ten minutes.
"Chris!" JD had to yell over the engine noise as he turned in his seat.
Larabee was in a huddle with the rest of the team and Fred, they were poking around in the weapons locker. All except for Nathan who was busy strapping on his knife harness. Whew, haven't seen Nate use that in a long time. He tried again, louder, "CHRIS!"
Chris Larabee snapped his head around to look at JD. "WHAT?"
JD waved his boss closer, hoping to avoid a damaged throat from yelling. Chris leaned back into the team huddle for a moment, then patted Josiah's and Vin's shoulders, checked Nate's progress with a look, gave Fred a nod, and turned away to move up beside his youngest agent.
"Tell me." He spoke loudly but didn't have to shout now.
"Ten minutes to target." JD checked his data and then corrected himself, "Make that about seven."
"Good." Chris clamped an approving hand on Dunne's shoulder and turned to face their pilot. "Clem!"
Fortnight's wide gray eyes looked magnified through the aviator goggles when he swung his head around to face Chris. Larabee moved closer and spoke as clearly as possible. "We need to take a swing around the target zone and drop three men at a good access."
He looked out the front glass shield and took in the hilly dry country below. Not much natural cover growing but the terrain was rough enough to make this work. Clem was still watching him when he looked back over. With a gesture towards the back, Chris continued, "Two of my boys will stay up here with you. And, Mr. CIA, too." Chris liked the nickname and his lips quirked in a stifled grin as he saw Fred look up in the back and make a face at him. Larabee tapped JD's seat. "Josiah is a pilot, has worked these birds before, in 'Nam. He'll sit co-pilot with you."
Clem frowned and opened his mouth to object, but Larabee held up a staying hand. "Just in case. We'll be going into hostile fire, most likely." Chris watched for any resistance but Clem just stared back, so Chris kept going, "Josiah will have a little box up here with him, with presents for all the bad little boys down there." Chris pointed down with a repeated stabbing motion and gave a nasty smile. Clem's face dissolved into a laugh of appreciation.
Chris wasn't finished though. "Vin Tanner is my sharpshooter." He jerked a thumb back into the open deck behind the cockpit seats. "He's strapping himself in on the deck by your port hatch. He'll be needing some good ops for sniping."
"Hell, Chris! I can fly this baby into the ground if we need to, and I sure as hell can get your boys in position to drop the goodies and pong the crap out of the targets." Clem let the Huey drift to the side, noticing the boy's hand signal. They were nearly at the enemy base. "We still covert?"
Chris nodded. "Until my other two men and I drop." He shook JD's shoulder. "Pack it in, JD, and come back. Time to go."
Clem hummed to himself, soon as the first round was fired, he had some music to hit the speakers with. It had been a while. He popped an eight-track into his stereo deck and spat out his stub of a cigar. Time for a new smoke and all that jazz.
Ezra felt as if the world had been passing him by at supersonic speeds lately. Everything was a blur. Up until meeting Henry. A Henry who called himself Tonto and played a wooden flute in ancient Anasazi ruins. I can't get that music out of my head. Ezra tried to concentrate on Buck's tall shape in front of him as they moved up the hill and away from the fording spot on the small river.
Buck chose that moment to stop and twist around so that he could check on Ezra. His open face was ruddy with the fresh air, the dark slashes of mustache and eyebrows and the thatch of near black hair just seemed to emphasize how different they were. Buck is everything real, earthy. And I am - not. Ezra gave Wilmington a small wave so that he'd be reassured and turn back to face forward again.
Then Ezra's hands crept up his arms and he rubbed them at a sudden chill that had nothing to do with the climate. What is wrong with me? And why is Buck interested in me? Ezra's mind returned to that night, was it only last night? When he'd been stood up, again, by Greg. And then Buck had arrived, like a white knight, ready to sweep him off his feet. Greg made perfect sense. Greg had already done that to him before and had been showing signs of restlessness. But Buck? Just then Buck dropped to his belly up ahead of Ezra, one arm out and back, making a quick downward motion.
Ezra shook his head as if to clear it of his unhappy thoughts and quickly hit the ground, edging to one side, away from a direct line of fire with Wilmington's form. Trust. That has to be part of any equation. His brain was NOT going to let this go, he thought resentfully, eyes flicking from spot to spot along the crest of the hill in front of them. Something had alerted Buck. And he did trust Buck. Ezra bit his lip hard. Pay attention!
Buck rolled clear of the bulky backpack. Even though it was a dark color, it would show up as a silhouette against the late afternoon sky if he kept it on as he crawled up the rest of the way to the top of the hill. Having disposed of the pack, he spared a look for Ezra who had moved to the side and was coming up, nearly even with him already. Buck gave him a nod and turned back to the top of the hill. The noises that had him playing soldier-boy were louder now. Sounded like at least two, maybe more, people climbing the far slope of the hill. That would have been their track, near straight line back to the camp they'd escaped from last night. He raised his head slightly as he realized that the sounds were moving closer but to his right, towards Ezra's position.
From a distance, a faint sound of a helicopter could be heard briefly. Ezra hugged the ground, confident that the buckskins they were wearing were good camouflage. He could hear someone, correction, several someones coming towards them up the other side of their hill. Then a radio crackled and a loud voice acknowledged, in Arabic, an incoming message. Ezra tipped his head to listen and concentrate, he hadn't used Arabic in years.
Buck grew alarmed when he saw Ezra's head lower and his eyes close. What the hell? He moved swiftly up the hillside now, half-crawling, half-crouching, suddenly desperate to intercept the incoming bad guys. He knew they were trouble, heard the foreign lingo now as someone started using a radio interface. Shit, Ezra! They sounded like they were heading right for him. Buck's small hideout gun was in one fist, the wood carving knife from Henry's pack in his other.
He reached the rocky top of the broken hill, keeping low, the buckskins the same color as the rocks and dirt around him. Three men. He counted the dark heads bobbing up the hill at an angle to him, one man was concentrating on a small box, likely tracking those bugs they'd gotten rid of. Damn. Must be the closest way to get to the river from that camp. So much for throwing them off the scent. The second man was watching the first and the last one was looking around casually, talking into a portable radio transmitter. At least they aren't too alert yet, must figure we're still a ways ahead from the tracer signals. Buck's leg muscles tensed as he prepared to charge out at their flank. He fought off fear for Ezra, right in their line of movement. If anyone could handle them, it was Ezra. And he wouldn't be doing it alone. Buck's hands unconsciously gripped his small weapons tighter and he began to move.
Chris dropped to the ground, the sounds of JD and Nathan dropping behind him quiet, firm thumps. He spun to check them as Clem's chopper lifted back off the ground so quickly that observers might not have realized he'd even touched down or that any passengers had left. He spotted a feisty Fred Hernandez, hanging from a harness next to the opening, an automatic rifle held capably in his hands and then he raised one to wave at Larabee, gone in a moment with the swinging rise of the Huey.
With a quick nod to Nate and JD, Chris faded off to the perimeter of the camp, JD would take the immediate lookout post they'd spotted, Nate would head northwest around the far side. Chris had decided their youngest would do better with immediate action. Jackson was good at rough terrain surveillance and offensive action under covert conditions. The man, with his knives, was a potent force in these conditions. Chris figured that Nate would probably take out two to every one he or JD got. He dropped his thoughts as he saw signs of the camp ahead, his first goal to disable the enemy's helicopter, rotors unmoving but engine still cooling at its make-shift landing spot.
JD was excited and calm all at once. He hadn't seen that much action with the ATF yet, his years as a rookie cop in Boston giving him a sense of confidence despite the unfamiliar setup. He dropped his gear softly to the ground, quickly hiding it among a cluster of large rocks, not quite boulders. He could see his target. The man was staring up at Clem's bird in confusion. Not the one you expected to see, huh? JD flung his hair back and settled a black ball cap, backwards, on his head to hold the shaggy mop in place and lifted a sap he'd selected as his first line weapon. He dashed up behind the man. With his forward momentum, the swinging weight had even greater force and the man fell in a silent heap. JD was beside him in seconds, hands busy securing his prisoner, eyes jumping from spot to spot, looking for other danger.
Larabee had downed a man doing guard duty by the chopper. He wiped sweat from his brow with one short sleeve of his black tee shirt. Even though the temperature was cooling with the approach of evening, he'd opted to leave his jacket on the chopper. He was wearing a vest, they all were, and that added enough insulation as far as he was concerned.
He crept up to the big machine. Josiah had told him what to do to temporarily stop it from working. His eyes moved constantly, looking out for their missing boys. The camp was a jumble of pitched tents, boxes of supplies, some all-terrain vehicles and what looked like a dune buggy. He could see all that from the roughly cleared area that was being used for the helo-pad. The men in sight were all standing and craning their necks up to look at Clem's bird. It had gone way up and was circling high above the camp. Chris tapped his earplug as he heard JD's whispery voice check in. Then Jackson's breathless voice followed, sounding remarkably cheerful.
Nathan took out the first man with knife to the shoulder, followed by an uppercut with his fist. The second one had been reflex, the man ran in before he could get to his feet. So he'd thrown a second blade but this time it caught the attacker in the chest. Man was dead before he hit the ground. Nathan couldn't feel any regret as he saw the automatic weapons on both men's belts and the big dagger in the dead man's hand. He felt good, it wasn't often he got a chance to do field work. He was always playing backup and medic. Not that he minded, but for the first time in a while, he really felt like one of the team again. He raised his tiny mike to his lips, a smile forming, moving away from the downed terrorists, checking in with Larabee.
Larabee jumped down from the chopper's open hatch, that bird wasn't going anywhere soon. He looked up. "Now Vin."
A popping sound, high in the air, drifted down. The lookout at the top of a nearby bluff pitched forward and crashed to the ground thirty feet below. The rest of the camp reacted, full of noise and panicked movement now. Like stirring up an ant nest. Chris watched as men scurried around, ducking for cover. Still no sign of Buck or Ezra. He ground his teeth in frustration. Into his mike, he growled, "Go Josiah!"
And Clem's helicopter swooped back in low over the camp, which suddenly erupted in gunfire - and explosions. Streamers of stuttering automatic fire traced up into the early evening sky, just short of the chopper's dancing path. Above the cacophony of small weapons' fire, came a grinding, squawking noise projected by a loudspeaker system on the helicopter.. It quickly clarified into full throated orchestral music, extremely loud.
As the Huey slowly advanced down the camp, dropping a string of smoke bombs and small explosives, Fred's borrowed automatic rifle burping out one side of the chopper and Vin's rifle fire peppering out the other at the few still visible men running in confusion, Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries boomed out over the chaos. Smoke and flames rising from scattered packs and bedrolls had Chris Larabee pausing to grin up at the chopper. That crazy asshole! He laughed outright and charged into the melee'.
JD flashed a look of admiration upwards at the madman running their air attack, "Cool!" He was enough of a movie buff to recognize the scene they were playing out to Clem's musical accompaniment. Damn, a real-life Apocalypse Now! He stalked into the drifting clouds of smoke, ducked as dirt flew up in another small explosion, and brought up the butt of his gun to knock down a panicked man running right past him.
Ducking and dodging the wild shots being pushed out by the men running madly through the camp, Nathan grunted and puffed, glad that Josiah was using very small charges on the explosives. Unless they shoved one up someone's ass, the tiny bombs weren't much more than directed fireworks. He sidestepped another burst of white smoke, coughing and dragging up his gas mask. Need to get these men contained and down soon. He was worried that so far there'd been no sigh of Buck and Ezra. Two men emerged from the next explosion, one with tears streaming down his face, the other screaming what were probably obscenities. Nate, running right at them, caught both and swept their heads together in a satisfying, hollow-coconut sound. Both men collapsed, unconscious, on the ground at his feet. He stood, catching his balance, and wiped his hands on his shirt, then flinched at a too close burst from Josiah's pyrotechnics and headed back into the fray.
Chris was getting frustrated. He'd traversed the camp, watched as JD and Nate dropped men with ease, knocked down a few of his own, and saw others falling to their knees, arms raised in obvious surrender, but nowhere did he see his missing men. He pulled close his mike, "Josiah, tell Clem to set it down. And, Josiah? Tell him to put a cork in the 'muzak'." Larabee grinned as the swell of music abruptly cutoff.
Vin took his shot and dismissed the lookout's fall, already scanning for new targets. He heard Fred's weapon begin firing, as agreed, after Vin's first shot. They had Josiah riding shotgun upfront to make sure the run went down the middle. He picked off a man running toward the perimeter, firing an Uzi, the man dropping with a bullet in the leg, then Vin corrected his scope slightly and took aim on another. The whole time a small smile played on his lips. When Clem threw music on, he began to hum along.
Fred Hernandez jerked his head up when the loudspeakers on the helicopter kicked in, up here it was deafening, as if the engine and rotors weren't enough. Then he recognized the music and rolled his eyes. With a final deadly glare at the back of the pilot, whom he could see up through the open hull, jigging around in his seat at the controls, Fred shifted down on his belly and opened fire again. He sent a riff of bullets chasing the heels of three men dashing across the camp. He didn't want to do a killing shot, just keep the panic going so that their ground personnel could mop up. Ground personnel? Hell, what was he thinking? This wasn't a military op. Just then, Sanchez began dropping smoke bombs and small charges out the side vent window up front. Smoke and flames leapt up towards the Huey and Hernandez, sweat suddenly running down his forehead and off his nose, swallowed hard, squinting into the mess below. No, this wasn't a military op, this was a war. What the hell had he gotten himself into? He fired another burst.
"Once more, waltz on back, brother," Josiah yelled into Clem Fortnight's ear, waving a finger in a circle in the air. The pilot, nearly bopping in his seat, gave Sanchez a grin, a thumbs-up, and pulled the big old bird around, leaning into the turn and dipping the Huey's nose a bit.
"YEAH, BABY!" Clem screamed over the thunderous strains of Wagner, the crash of explosions and the snapping of small arms fire. He yanked a forty-five out and up into the air, pulling it free of where he'd had it stuffed under his belt. Firing indiscriminately out the open door beside him, Fortnight chewed on his cigar, and waggled his eyebrows above his goggles. He reined in the chopper and circled the old dame around again, letting her give a gay jiggle to her tail on the way. Flash, lady, flash! He spat out the cigar as the firing slowed below and began to yodel.
Josiah leaned half out his own open door, grinning widely, dropping his explosives and chanting an old riverboat crew's raunchy ditty from his 'Nam days. Then Chris came on his earplug, grounding the Huey and asking for an end to Clem's musical accompaniment. Acknowledging the order, Sanchez swung around and tapped Clem on the shoulder. When the pilot looked back over, Josiah pointed at the ground and then added a cutting motion with his finger over his throat and a nod at the eight-track. Clem grinned back at him, switched off the sound, and dropped the bird like a stone, right in her tracks.
Running straight at them, pushing off from the ground and the dimming light early evening, Buck caught two of the three men and brought them down. One would not be getting back up, his head hitting a rock. Wilmington smashed a backhand, fisted with his small pistol, into the second man's jaw. That man, too, fell to the ground unmoving. Only then could Buck check on the third man.
Ezra rose up in front of the men coming over the top of the hill, he could see Buck flanking them and moving fast. A distraction of a moment was needed. With the skills of a master, Standish spun on one leg, the other out straight and high. His heel connected with the point man, whose head snapped back as he collapsed on the hillside at Standish's feet. Ezra looked up to see Buck subduing the other two men in a quick one, two move. Hardly breathing hard, Buck trotted back down the hill to Ezra's position and without pause, swept Ezra up into his arms and fierce kiss. His hands were hampered by still gripped weapons, but he held on tightly by simply crushing Ezra in the circle of his arms.
Ezra's arms, trapped in Buck's, hung down. He managed to tilt his head to more comfortably receive the passionate kiss being pressed upon him. His body was bent over backwards by the sheer overwhelming embrace and lavish kiss. Giving in to Buck's advance, he waited passively for the passion to ebb enough for him to assert back some control. Finally Buck's voracious attack on his lips eased to repeated nips and licks, the arms holding him ceased to be iron bands and became looser restraints. Ezra was able to turn his head aside and shrug himself out of the hold without hurting Buck. Wiping at his bruised lips with the back of one shaking hand, still holding his little two-shot in that hand, Ezra carefully retreated another few steps, eyes hooded, watching Buck closely.
Buck was stunned. At himself. At Ezra's response. Oh, god, what have I done? He straightened up in an adrenaline-drunk stagger and clumsily shoved his gun in the waistband of his pants. The knife simply fell from his hand where it hung at his side. Oh, god. "Ezra?" Buck licked his lips, mouth dry. "Ezra, I'm sorry."
Ezra Standish stood perfectly still in the gloaming, arms akimbo, eyes gleaming softly. His defensive posture was not lost on Wilmington who raised one empty hand in what felt like a futile gesture of apology.
In the silence of the moment, both men heard the scuffling of feet and someone panting. Reacting with professional aplomb, Standish shifted his gaze and plunged forward onto his stomach, arms stretched out in front, both hands holding his small pistol.
Buck, who had been standing with his back to the top of the hill, spun around, but his heel caught on a stone and he was pitched forward on to his knees. Before he could push himself upright, someone was brutally grabbing his hair and yanking his head back at an awkward angle, making him choke at the sudden twist. A hard metal circle of pressure hit his throat and he knew a gun was being pushed hard against his exposed neck. Aw, damn it all to hell anyway.
"You will drop that revolver if you value your friend's life." Emro was still panting, but that didn't stop him from sounding deadly and determined.
What had seemed so clear a moment ago, blurred. Buck! The silent cry echoed in Ezra's head as his fingers, suddenly sweaty, squeezed at his revolver. Then other shapes began to appear over the hill behind Dressler and Buck, more of Dressler's men. With a sense of finality, Ezra lowered his weapon to the ground and released it. He pushed up to his knees with both hands and then raised them slowly into the air.
Dark blue eyes met his. The pain and sorrow that he read there healed his hurting heart. What had seemed like an attack by Wilmington, changed into an effusion of love mixed with panic and he realized that he had over-reacted to the moment. With a sense of peace at odds with their current circumstance, Ezra smiled into those deep wells of regret and saw a spark of hope light in response. He felt his skin warm and his heart begin to sing. For the first time since last night, when Buck Wilmington unexpectedly materialized at his dinner table, Ezra understood just how much the man cared. His lips parted as his thoughts seemed to burst into words that absolutely needed to be said at that instant. "Buck! I do!"
Buck had lost track of his own situation as he stared at Ezra. His heart beat faster as he made a connection with those mystic green eyes that had stolen his soul so long ago. Be true to yourself, he thought, that's what they've taught me. I found myself in your eyes, Ezra. How can you ever forgive me for breaking trust with you?
His vision began to swim as tears built up, nearly choking him. And then he read those beautiful eyes and saw his future, brightly promised there. The tears that had threatened a moment before dried in the heat of new hope and love returned. He forgives me. Buck breathed in, the pressure on his throat was mere irritation, and when Ezra spoke, Buck knew exactly what Ezra was telling him. I love you too.
Buck smiled back at Ezra and raised both hands, cocking his wrists. His long, strong fingers abruptly wrapped around his captor's wrists and clamped down, even as Buck's shoulders hunched and his biceps swelled. The motion, when it came, was so fluid that to an observer would seem as if the other man had decided to fly up and over Wilmington's head in a forward summersault.
Ermo screamed in startled surprise to find himself tumbling through the air. He pulled the trigger on his gun and heard the retort just before his head crashed into a partially buried boulder on the hillside. Dressler crumpled to the ground limply, his skull crushed like a rotten melon. The pistol fell from lifeless fingers to Buck Wilmington's knees.
Buck scooped it up and dropped down into a shoulder roll, ending up against Ezra's thighs. It had happened so fast that Ezra had yet to move. He could hear shots fired by Dressler's men just as Buck felt one of Ezra's hands come down to rest on his shoulder, firmly supporting him. Buck fired at near point-blank range and with brutal precision, hitting and killing the first three of the four men that had followed Dressler over the top of the hill. He didn't hit the fourth because, by then, Ezra already had. They waited, frozen and poised, both holding their weapons at arms' full extensions, facing upslope.
Chris stood in the middle of the camp. Around him were the smoldering remnants of the terrorists' bedrolls, supplies and equipment. Three bodies lay in a row with blankets covering them. The rest of the men were handcuffed, or tied, when they ran out of cuffs, and sitting in a silent row of their own. Chris rubbed the back of his neck, trying to ease the tension he felt. From the weapons and explosives they'd found, anyone could see that these men were not involved in any kind of legal activities, but right now that didn't matter to Larabee. What mattered was that Buck and Ezra were still missing. Chris looked down at a scrap of fine linen with entwined E and S in white-on-white in one corner. It had been found on the ground near one of the campfires. His lips firmed into a straight line as he crushed it in his fist.
Josiah was interviewing the prisoners, one at a time, beyond the second helicopter where it sat abandoned at the helipad; he was oblivious to the stained wrapping around one forearm, where he'd been clipped by a round. They needed answers. Sanchez kept a peripheral eye on Tanner as the man merged with the darkness; his presence revealed only by the light he held low on the ground. Vin had given Larabee a look, then silently padded out of the camp and was now circling it, using a high-powered portable halogen floodlight to look for tracks or sign.
JD, looking a bit ruffled, collar open and face and neck blackened from a roll through the ashes of one of the dead campfires, was already hooked up and trying to hack into captured equipment. Smears of ash criss-crossed his shirt where he'd wiped dirty fingers before starting to work on the electronics they'd found.
Arms folded, a deep frown on his face, Nathan stood over Josiah's shoulder and glowered at the captives. He could see Fred, who was playing guard duty, send an occasional uneasy glance over toward where he and Josiah kept disappearing with different captives.
Leaning nonchalantly on one wheel strut of his Huey, Clem Fortnight brushed his thin stringy hair with an absent-minded air. His goggles hung around his neck and his cap was stuffed into his belt along with his forty-five. This wasn't over yet and he could feel the anger building in the men he had transported here. It was a tangible thing. He hadn't seen or felt anything like it in a very long time and it was like coming home to that place of waking nightmares, the unending, sleepless hours of combat. Clem's eyes drifted upward to the emerging stars in the darkening sky.
Chris Larabee's voice sounded thin and taut in the dark. "If Vin finds a trail, or the others find a trace, can you fly at night?"
"Do birds shit on babies' heads?" Clem let his eyes lower to meet Chris Larabee's burning stare.
When no one else appeared, Ezra slumped down on Buck for a moment, more a feeling of relief than exhaustion, yet that is what he felt also. Melted against Wilmington's raised shoulder, chin tucked into his neck, Ezra became aware of the dampness, the heat. The blood. "Buck! You're hurt."
It was as if Wilmington had been waiting for that signal to feel it himself. The throbbing that had been his pulse as his heart beat rapidly in the heat of battle became the throb of pain as blood oozed from a bullet burn along the underside of his jaw. He raised a hand to touch the spot only to find Ezra's hand already there, pressing in against the blood flow. He pressed on Ezra's damp hand, feeling the stickiness of his own blood there. With a sinking sensation, Buck slowly folded down onto the ground.
Ezra followed him down, mentally cursing the dead men who had inflicted this wound upon his friend. The light was nearly gone now, a deep red glow, a dying sun, burned the edge of the tall bluff that hid the Anasazi ruins above them and across the river valley.
Hastily, Ezra took the hand that Buck had pressed upon his and applied it directly to the wound. He needed to get something to stop that bleeding with more finality. Easing Buck to the ground, he hesitated, then brushed a hurried kiss across one high cheekbone before crawling downhill to where he believed their backpack had been left. It was so dark now that he wasn't sure he'd even find it, but kept one hand out ahead of him, arm waving from side to side as he bumped over the rough ground. He ignored a new, ragged pain in his raised arm, a building sharpness that didn't matter. Buck was hurt. Rocks cut into the leather leggings, digging into his knees, leaving bloody gouges behind. The palm of the hand that supported his weight was becoming torn and tender, but he rushed on, nearly falling down the hill.
With relief, his hand brushed the lump of black nylon that was Henry's pack. Snatching it up, he hauled it onto his shoulder and then pushed to his feet unsteadily. One arm hung down now, refusing further orders. With struggling lurches, Ezra pushed himself back up the hill to reach Buck's side.
Chris spat on the ground and watched as Sanchez and Jackson hauled another prisoner behind a truck for interrogation. So far, they'd gotten confirmation that the leader was actually not a part of this group, he was a gun runner named Emro Dressler. JD had run a profile on Dressler when they'd first heard about him from Fred Hernandez yesterday evening. The research had come up with pings on the international front with very little known about him in the United States. He dealt with European, middle European, and near Eastern contacts.
Fred Hernandez had logged in with his people at that point and was able fill in more details now. Dressler had tried to break into the market with certain extreme Palestinian groups by promising access to the Israeli border by kidnapping the sons of a prominent intelligence officer for Israel. They had known some of this already, but now they also confirmed some of the names and faces of the terrorists against their prisoners. At least they were all on the right track.
Vin had cut trail heading away from camp, two men first, and judging by shoe size, they could be their missing friends. Looks like Ez and Buck got loose, took off for the hills. Vin frowned over the second set of tracks. Buck's and Ezra's tracks were overlaid by at least four other sets of tracks. Tanner regretfully informed everyone that he could do no more until morning, dark was setting in. "Need more light than some flashes can give me, Chris."
Larabee leaned against Clem Fortnight's bird, sharing smokes with the itinerant flying circus performer. Clem had listened to the briefings as the men on Larabee's team would come up and report to their leader. By now, Clem had a better sense of the team dynamics and new respect for Larabee's driving determination to save his missing men. The other four members of the team he'd met seemed just as focused and willing to go full out. Clem puffed a perfect smoke ring out over his head and then tapped the cigarello against a bony thumb. Usually smoke Camels, unfiltered, but these brown beauties of Larabee's are addictive.
"If you want, I can get the other bird up and running again," he offered, staring up at his third consecutive smoke ring as they slowly rose and stretched into thin vaporous ghosts.
Chris, actually enjoying the companionable silence with the pilot, stood up and scratched the back of his neck. Josiah could probably fly the Blackhawk. Digging into a pocket of his vest, he drew out several engine parts. "Here." He handed them over to Fortnight. "Do it."
Sketching a two-fingered salute like he'd seen Larabee's team members execute, Clem caged the bits in the fingers of one hand and pushed away from his Huey. The other helicopter was newer, but he recognized the parts and would have no trouble putting them back. Might even be a hoot to take that beast up for a spell, Sanchez had said enough that he knew the big man could fly his Huey.
Nathan Jackson walked across the camp, between fires that Vin had lit, to where Chris waited. Something about the purposeful way that Nate was striding had Tanner and Dunne up on their feet and trailing after him as he headed for Larabee. Fred Hernandez, keeping on eye on the other prisoners and using one of the camp's high tech laptops, looked up, saw the movements and abruptly stood. They've finally found out something. Fred didn't bother to shut down, just left his work after checking the bound captives and started walking over. Having Dressler out and the terrorists captured, his own job was done. But, somehow, Larabee's mission, to find and rescue his men, had become Fred's. Something's got to break soon.
Finally. Chris folded his arms over his chest and waited impatiently for Jackson's report. Nate came right up to stand in front of him. "Tell me."
"They put bugs on our boys, then let them escape." Nathan rubbed at one of his shoulders, his weariness showing. "Seems Dressler wasn't too well liked by these boys. But, had pretty good ideas. He didn't know who Ez and Buck were, thought they were innocents. So he figured they'd wander around out there in the wilderness and be easy to track back down with the bugs. IF he needed them."
Chris' anger began to build higher. "You mean, if the Mosher boys weren't taken."
"So, if they got the Moshers?"
Nathan looked around the circle of intent faces. JD looks a lot older than yesterday, face lined with ash, he must have rolled through one of the dead campfires, and he's got a bruise on his right cheek. Vin Tanner's eyes are bleak, almost gray, he looks pale in the firelight. Nate could see Vin's mouth twitch, anger barely contained. Even Fred Hernandez, our CIA man, looks unhappy. Jackson didn't bother looking over his shoulder to where he could hear Sanchez striding out now, dragging their final interviewee. He heard the thump as Josiah flung the unfortunate man onto the ground. Nate met Chris' flat eyes. "Then they were going to just let them die out there."
"You need some help?"
Ezra flung himself around, covering Buck as much as he could, hand up with his peashooter ready, and his eyes wide open. It was Henry, he realized with relief. Henry stood there, lower down the slope, holding a smoky torch. Sagging down, he caught Buck's wrist as Wilmington also raised a pistol in Henry's direction.
"Stand down, Buck." Ezra lowered his weapon. "Henry! We could use the light."
The tall thin wanderer crouched down, and produced a second torch that he ignited from the first. "You have only to ask." He passed it to Ezra's out-stretched hand.
Ezra took the bound cluster of cactus spines that burned brightly enough to give them some light and smiled. "Thank you, kind sir." He held it up to see Buck's neck, studying the graze with care. New relief surged through him as he realized it was a flesh wound and although it bled profusely, was not life threatening. Planting the end of the torch in the loose, rocky soil, he pulled his white dress shirt from the pack they had taken from Henry earlier and grabbed at it with his teeth.
"You are hurt also." Henry's calm voice was so matter of fact that it took Buck a moment to register what the strange intruder meant.
"Ezra?" Buck pushed himself up to a seated position, one hand clamped on his still bleeding nick under his jaw. "Where are you hurt? How bad?"
Standish, busy destroying his good shirt with teeth and one hand, had a choice, he could spit out the shirt and answer, or keep working. Ezra sent a telling glance at Buck and ripped another strip from his shirt.
Buck's eyes were racing over his friend's form. He's only using one hand. Dark blue eyes traveled to the still arm, hanging at Ezra's side. Shit, it's that trick shoulder of his, likely out again. "Dislocated?"
Green eyes closed and a short nod followed.
Henry, who had said to call him Tonto, not that it seemed to do him any good, poked his torch into the ground and left it behind as he crawled to Ezra's side. "Let me see."
Before Ezra could react, the man had laid large spidery hands on his shoulder and upper arm. Ezra felt the warmth pour into his body from those two points of contact. He stopped fiddling with the shirt and tried to turn his head.
"Be still, friend Ezra." Henry's voice was low and quiet now, all sense of jest and quiet good humor gone. Then he moved very, very fast and powerfully.
Ezra gasped. Intense, stabbing pain shot through his arm, shoulder and chest. And was gone. Leaning forward to swallow harshly without taking his tongue with the action, Ezra breathed through his nose and let a whimper leak from set lips. And Buck, bloody Buck, was in front of him, catching him.
"Got you, Pard."
Feeling light-headed with the easement of pain, Ezra bowed his head for a moment. When he looked up, Buck's face was there, eyes alarmed. "I'm fine now." Ezra turned his gaze towards Henry. "Thank you."
"And your friend, Buck?"
"Buck!" Ezra returned his attention to Wilmington with a cry of alarm as the man swayed. With care, he guided him down on to his back. "I'll get that bleeder tied off now. Just rest." He caressed Buck's face, and, regardless of his audience, Ezra bent down over Buck and pressed his lips to Buck's forehead. Bloody fingers came up to stroke his cheek.
"I will." Buck's voice sounded hoarse. "I trust you, Ez."
"Then they were going to just let them die out there," Larabee repeated slowly, eyes rising murderously towards the row of bound captives.
Josiah came up behind his team, overhearing Nathan's final comments and Chris Larabee's deadly repetition. Before things got out of hand, and he had no doubt they would, Sanchez interrupted. "Chris, wait. There's more." He bobbed his head at Jackson, apologetic for sending him off too soon. The little weasel they'd been questioning started spouting off boasts, just after Nate moved off. "Seems their temporary boss-"
"Dressler," JD confirmed.
Josiah nodded, "yes, Mr. Dressler." He went on, "anyway, Dressler arrived just a short while before us and took off with a team, tracking our missing lambs."
"Using the bugs they planted as homing beacons!" JD growled, fists on his narrow hips.
The rest turned to stare at Dunne for a moment.
Chris re-appraised his opinion of their youngest, boy is getting tougher. Chris looked over at Vin. "Confirms what you saw."
"Yep." Vin's mouth curved down further, his only expression lately. "But won't help them any because I still can't track them 'til daylight."
JD's head snapped around to Vin. "Wait! You don't need to. Not if I can find the frequency of the beacon." He was already hurrying away from the group, headed back to his computer.
Chris watched him go. He checked the remaining faces in the circle. "Look around the camp, maybe there's a back up tracking unit."
Everyone took off for the various bundles, packs, and equipment scattered around the camp. Some of it was badly singed from their attack, but all the fires were out now except for the controlled campfires.
We got a chance now, anyway. Chris headed for a nearby stack of boxes and a camp desk. These guys seem fond of their toys, maybe we'll get lucky again.
Ezra concentrated on preparing a pad of folded cloth from his destroyed dress shirt. Before he could press it against Buck's neck wound, long thin fingers appeared in his view, holding some rather greenish weeds clumped damply.
"This poultice will help." Henry knelt beside him, holding out the compact mass.
Without question, Ezra took it. He smiled his thanks and turned to Buck who lay on the ground, looking very pale. "Buck, I'm going to dress your injury now." He gently plucked Buck's blood-slicked fingers from the gouge. Blood immediately began to well out of the deep groove again. Buck held in a low groan, a growling vibration the only sign of his distress.
Quickly, Ezra poured water from Henry's canteen into the flow, diluting it momentarily. He pressed down the poultice and watched the flow break off with satisfaction. Flicking another look of gratitude at Henry, he applied his own folded bandage over the poultice, then held that in place.
This will be a bit awkward. He studied the position of the wound, directly under Buck's jaw. It would be impossible to apply much pressure by tying it off - he'd strangle the man. Direct pressure was working but how to maintain it? Ezra puzzled.
Again, Henry was there, taking a bundle of heavy leather from his pack and his carving knife from the ground where it had dropped from Buck's fingers some time ago. "This will help," he murmured. He swiftly cut off wide pieces of leather, like hand's width-long rectangles. With a delicacy that seemed bred into those long, spidery fingers, he placed the leather around Buck's neck, creating a segmented collar. The leather, only slightly flexible and with un-tanned backing, stuck to the drying bloody neck. It was easy to wrap a long piece of Ezra's shirt around Buck's neck now, providing pressure to the poultice without cutting off Buck's air or dangerously digging into arteries. "There!"
Ezra stared in little short of awe at the man's skillful creativity. He looked up into deep black eyes. "I thought you were a musician."
"I am many things, friend Ezra. Some even call me a shaman."
"You ARE a shaman."
Henry smiled without showing any teeth. "So some say."
Ezra remained silent, staring directly into those dark eyes. Time seemed to slow for him. He could hear Buck's breathing evening out into sleep. Funny, I've never been able to hear that well before. The air around him seemed to dance with tiny lights. Embers from the burning torches? He slowly sank down onto his heels from where he'd been kneeling beside Buck. His skin felt uncomfortable, itchy and his fingers prickled. He swallowed and it was like trying to drag an enormous lump down his throat. The air thickened and became liquid, like silky water and sound began to distort, his own heartbeat growing louder. He lifted heavy arms and tried to reach out to touch Henry.
Seemingly oblivious to Ezra's distress, Henry was now seated, cross-legged, facing him. Henry pulled his 'borrowed' pack into his lap and carefully removed the clothing belonging to Ezra and Buck, piling it onto the ground between them.
As Ezra's vision blurred further in the liquid air, he watched, unable to make a sound, as Henry picked up two bundles of buckskin that Ezra hadn't notice before and tucked them away in the backpack. Funny, that black nylon doesn't look like nylon anymore. Ezra stared at the surface of the pack in the flickering light of the torches and realized it was treated animal hide, deep black, and not nylon. But, he'd touched it earlier and it had been that synthetic fabric, he was certain.
Henry had the pack tied up now and was raising his long flute to his lips. When had he pulled that out? Ezra's mind seemed only able to produce questions. He tried to shake his head and found it strangely immobile. Henry began to play another haunting series of riffs, not a tune so much as a musical conversation. And then he began to fade away.
Ezra stared at the empty space in front of him. No Henry, no backpack. An old wooden canteen sat on the ground. And two piles of clothing, his and Buck's, their dress outfits, neatly folded, except for Ezra's shirt which still rested in his lap, shredded.
With a shiver, Ezra looked down at himself, able to move again. The air had become air again and by the light of the two smoky torches, he could see fairly clearly within the halos of their glows. He and Buck, who lay sleeping beside him, were naked.
"Not sure what this is." Nathan's large hands held a small black metal box with two dial faces on the top surface, a small button glowed red below them. He held it out to Larabee.
Chris studied it without touching. Then turned to call out, "Josiah! Vin! Get over here."
The other two men arrived within moments, both immediately looking to the small box cradled in Jackson's hands. Josiah spoke first, finger to his chin. "Where did you find it, Nate?"
Jackson jerked his chin over his shoulder, "Over there, next to the short-wave radio station they set up."
"Promising." Sanchez mused, leaning closer.
Impatiently, Nathan shoved it into Josiah's hands. "Take it. I haven't any idea what it is."
Josiah weighed the device in his hands and then Vin's were there, tapping at the top. "Vin?"
"Think this might be set up to do tracking. It's got a range finder and a directional signal." Tanner sounded very sure of himself and Josiah simply handed it on over.
Vin bent over the box, fingers unerringly finding two toggles on the opposing sides of the small control boxes. With a click, the light on top went to green, and both dials leapt to life. JD had arrived by now and was peering over Vin's shoulders, fingers itching to touch but respecting Vin's prior claim. JD whispered, "Yeah! This is it!"
"Could just lead us on a wild goose chase," Nathan warned.
Josiah flung an arm over his dear friend's shoulder and murmured, "I'd rather chase a goose than sit here on my hands, brother."
Chris was already turning away, only to come face-to-face with Fred Hernandez who had quietly stood back, listening and observing. "You can track them down with that?"
"Hope so." Chris was anxious to get past Hernandez and to Clem who was lounging over by the Blackhawk. He was mindful of Fred's help so far and willingness to turn a blind eye when needful. "Your people coming in?"
"Should be here in a few hours." Fred looked down at his watch, then back up at Larabee. "I'll have to stay. Watch these prisoners. Report out on the action."
"We need to go."
"I know." Fred offered his hand. "Just in case you don't get back this way. It's been an honor."
Chris accepted the hand thrust out at him and smiled as he held it. Fred was alright. "It's been real." He said the rest with his eyes, the sure look shining with his respect for the other agent. Chris tipped his head towards the row of captured terrorists. "Be careful. We'll keep a radio frequency open to you, holler if you need us."
He raised his head and called over his shoulder, "JD! Set up a two-way with Fred here, we need to keep a line open. He'll be alone here for a few hours." They could see Dunne salute and hustle off in a different direction, already intent on his new task. On the spur of the moment, with his free hand, Chris pulled a worn cardholder out of his hip pocket and teased a dog-eared personal card out. "This has my cell, home, and office numbers on it. If you ever need a favor, ask me." With that, Larabee released his grip on Hernandez's hand and walked off toward the old Huey.
Fred stood still as the members of Team Seven of the Denver ATF moved quickly around him, gathering their gear, Josiah Sanchez re-checking the restraints on the prisoners, JD Dunne hefting his laptop and a couple of portable walkie-talkie radios. Vin Tanner was still holding the tracking device and moving in Chris Larabee's wake. He could see Nathan Jackson striding quickly around the perimeter, checking for something, he wasn't sure what, but guessed for stray gear or weapons.
Within three minutes, all five members of the ATF team were boarding the old Huey. Apparently Clem Fortnight had opted for the chopper he knew for the night flight. The old engine roared to life, landing and navigation lights exploded in bright colors and the huge rotor blades began their wop-wop-wop beat, quickly revving into a blur and high-speed thudding sound.
"Vaya con Dios, amigos." Fred said under his breath as he threw a two-fingered salute at the Huey. He held the walkie-talkie that JD had tossed him moments before and felt as if a very important part of his life was leaving on that chopper. It was a funny feeling. Not one he'd ever had on a mission before. He stood and watched as the well-lit machine rose smoothly into the air, nose still slightly dipped. His grey - black hair whipped loosely about his head. Around him, loose bits and pieces of the debris of the camp spun to life in the whirlwinds thrown off by the chopper. "God speed."
Ezra blinked repeatedly. Faintly, it seemed as if he could still hear that flute, a haunting echo in the night, sheer black now. The twin cactus stick torches continued to sputter with a cheerful reddish-yellow glow, casting Buck's skin a golden color. Somehow, Henry's disappearance, even their nudity, didn't really bother him. He shivered slightly, but it wasn't as cold here as he'd expected it to be. As if they were in a protected pocket when he knew they were on an exposed slope facing a sky full of shining stars. Ezra arched his back, hands falling to his ankles where he sat on them. Unselfconsciouslynude and one with nature, he stared up at the huge bowl of heaven, mapping the constellations in his mind as he picked out the stars, most white, but some faintly yellow, blue, red, or even green. The air must be so clear out here. We'll have to come back and not just to see those ruins again. He didn't even notice the 'we.'
I wonder if Henry was real. He touched himself, fingertips scraping up over his ribs and on up to brush his hard nubs high on his chest. Absently tweaking the nipples, he watched the moon rise over the rim of the bluff across the river from them. The giant face pockmarked and washed in an ivory-orange glow. Around him, indistinctly, shapes began to emerge from the dark. He shivered again. It was definitely getting colder.
Buck woke easily, comfortably from a happy dream of Ezra smiling at him. He wiped his eyes and tried to twist his neck to see. The discomfort of the home-made neck brace woke him completely. It was dark, a torch burned nearby. He was lying on the ground. He was bare-assed naked. He sat up fast, wild-eyed. "What the hell?"
Ezra's quiet word slowed Buck's rapidly beating heart. He awkwardly turned toward the direction of the sound of Ezra's voice. And inhaled sharply. Ezra was rising to his feet, in the torchlight. His nude body rippled with the dancing light of the flames, his gorgeous, perfect body. Buck was entranced all over again with the man. Ezra was a bit short, but sturdily built, his brown hair lit with hidden red and gold highlights from the firelight. His smooth skin seemed to gleam as it stretched tautly over hard muscles. A thatch of reddish hair curled around a ruddy dick that was stirring even as he watched. Buck licked his lips and felt his own heat answer it as Ezra leaned down to touch a hand to Buck's raised face. Buck watched as the muscles rippled across with movement. His mouth watered to follow the trails that his eyes blazed.
"Ez, not that I'm complaining, but why are we naked?"
Ezra hesitated. He really didn't have an answer. Instead, he shrugged and gestured to two piles of clothing that Buck could now see near them on the ground. "Our suits are here." Ezra stole another look at Buck's magnificent body, laid out gloriously on the ground in front of him. He let his treacherous body dictate his next action as he knelt back down beside Buck and smiled at the man who was stealing his heart. "Perhaps they should stay there for a bit?" He dropped one hand to Buck's stomach and let it slide lower.
Buck arched up at Ezra's touch, a groan changing to a pained cry as rocks bit into his shoulders. "Shit, Ez, we can sure pick places to get acquainted, can't we?"
Buck's rueful tone had Ezra smiling. He gently cupped Buck's slightly wilting manhood, feeling the heat of it, the silky soft sheath to the heavy thickness within. Leaning down, Ezra placed a butterfly kiss on the very tip before releasing Buck and carefully climbing to his feet.
Looking down, he found he still wore his socks and shoes. Chuckling at the absurd picture they must make, nude except for footwear, Ezra offered his hand to Buck.
Buck saw the direction of Ezra's glance and grinned as well. Damn, it was a strange world. He let Ezra pull him to his feet, grateful for Ezra's strength that partnered his beauty so well. Upright, Buck pulled Ezra close and wound his arms tightly around the smaller man. This feels so damn good. I'm going to love this man 'til the day I die. "Ezra Standish," He whispered against the southerner's ear, his love easy to hear in the few syllables.
"This feels just about perfect, sweetheart." Buck had never expected to be this close to, this intimate with, his dream lover so soon. The craziness of the last twenty-four hours was allowing him a closeness that he had intended to build toward over a very long time. Ezra was a skittish fellow and Buck had fully planned to court the man with delicacy and prolonged ritual. Instead, they'd been kidnapped, imprisoned, escaped, entered a twilight zone of weirdness, and come out the other side of the rabbit hole intact, though clothes-less. His lips quirked into an upward curve as he hugged Ezra warmly.
"If only my posterior felt as good as you make my anterior feel." Ezra sighed into Buck's shoulder, kissing it lightly, loving the care with which Buck touched and held him closely. He shivered despite the heat of Buck pressed against him, "Buck, my derriere is freezing."
Buck's hands slid down to cup those lovely buttocks, giving them tender squeezes, before acknowledging how chilled they were. "We can't have that!" He kissed Ezra's nose, smiling into those jade green eyes. "Guess it's time to put our clothes back on."
Teasing green eyes twinkled up at him. "I wager you never expected to be saying those words."
"And," Buck found Ezra's lips and nipped at them before drawing back to smile again, "I hope I never have to say them again."
Ezra shivered once more, unable to stop himself. He could feel Buck's skin tremoring lightly beneath his hands where he encircled the tall man's waist. It was time they got a bit warmer, this was fun but very unwise. He pushed back from their union and turned towards their clothing. With a flirtatious glance over his shoulder, he suggested, "I could dress you and you could dress me?"
Buck grinned, rubbing his arms with chilling hands. "We'd never get past my skivvies, Ez." He tossed a nod off towards the silent bodies that littered the slope, "And this isn't the audience for it."
Sobering, Ezra nodded in agreement, and began to pick through his pile of clothing. He could see Buck bend over to do the same. Oh. With a regretful sigh, he pulled on his boxers and then trousers. Buck was mirroring his movements. They'd both be clothed soon, though Ezra would be missing his shirt. His undershirt and jacket would have to do, he decided, not for an instant regretful of the shredded shirt that now helped bandage Buck's neck wound.
Picking up the canteen that had somehow been left behind by the vanished Henry, Buck gestured towards the camp of their captivity, some distance away still. "Think we should head on in still?"
Ezra paused in the act of buckling his belt and raised his head to look in the direction that Buck had waved. After a thoughtful moment, he shook his head and met Buck's eyes. "No. We overcame these men but more might be behind them. I don't fancy meeting additional opponents in the dark and we need these torches to see anything at all."
"Then, back to the ruins?" Buck sounded reluctant.
Standish stood straight and cocked his head to listen. From a distance, he could hear the soft sounds of Henry's flute, like a fading echo. "We follow the music," he decided, looking to Buck.
Doubtful, Buck listened too. He could hear the simple chain of notes, not really a tune. Definitely not coming from the ruins or the direction of the camp they'd fled. Seemed to be coming from the south, which was the way the river flowed. "Then we follow the river."
"The tracks headed due west." Vin watched as JD fiddled with the tracking device that he'd surrendered to their mechanical wizard.
JD looked up briefly before studying the two simple dials again. "Maybe, but the transmissions on those bugs, if that's what we're reading, are coming from the southwest." He raised his eyes to look over at Chris Larabee, standing braced in the doorway to Clem's cockpit. "Chris, I think they must have been following a trail, maybe some canyon paths. With the 'copter, we can go as the birds fly, straight to the signal. No need to try to follow a trail we can't even see."
Chris nodded once, eyes moving to Vin's for agreement that he found. "Okay then. Southwest." He turned and relayed the heading to Clem and Josiah up in the cockpit.
With floodlights dancing over the ground, the Huey flew low and slow, over rough terrain. Clem, Adam's apple prominent as he stuck his head forward, was watching ahead and below, with Josiah acting as co-pilot now, equally on guard. It wouldn't do to end up smashed against the face of a mountain or trapped in a narrowing canyon. With a sweeping curve the Huey banked and headed out in the new direction.
Nathan lay belly down on one side of the deck, Vin on the other, both with night vision goggles on, like the ones they'd issued to Josiah and Clem from the weapons locker. Nate and Vin were watching for any signs of Ezra and Buck, or any of the team that Dressler led, that had left the camp before they got there.
Somewhere out in this wilderness, their teammates had run from captors, and were possibly now battling for their liberty and maybe their lives against bad odds. Chris Larabee grimly went forward again to lean over the backs of Clem's and Josiah's seats with knotted fists. He wore the last pair of goggles, JD didn't need them since he was monitoring the tracking device.
"Approaching the signal!" Dunne hollered over the engine.
Chris swiveled his head to check on JD. The young man was standing up, feet spread wide, staggering closer to the front now.
"And slow down!" JD worked the tiny box held like a Gameboy, then looked up with excited dark eyes, shaking his head back to flick his long bangs from his eyes, "Stop! We're right overhead now!"
Clem hovered the Huey over the rough ground, he and Josiah staring out the front of the chopper, looking for any signs of the missing men. A white water river, small but fast rushed through a depression between two low hills and then spread out into a wide valley just beneath them, the water becoming a boggy-looking smallish lake. The hills were relatively barren, though not very inviting.
Vin strained to see anything. He could make out several coyotes running rapidly away from the helicopter's loud noise and bright lights. The scraggly brush below was bending over in the wash of backwind from the chopper's blades. He saw nothing to hint at their boys.
Nate pushed himself further over his edge of the open doorway, toes hooked into a crack in the deck where two pieces of sheeting no longer met. Even hanging out under the empty sky, he couldn't see any sign of either Buck or Ezra.
Chris tapped Clem Fortnight on the shoulder. When the man turned to look up at him, he said, "Can you set her down here?"
Clem looked down again. He'd landed in worse places. "Yeah." He shoved a stick of bubblegum into his mouth with a momentarily free hand and began to chew in earnest.
Josiah took a deep breath and held the second set of controls, ready to back Clem's actions.
Clem moved with clean, Spartan competence and the bird gently touched down on one of the hills, rocking briefly before coming to a rest at a slight tilt on the uneven ground. Fortnight killed the engine, letting the blades slow with their own grand sweeps, leaving the lights on for now. With a ticking and popping noise, the Huey shut down.
Slowly, Larabee's team began to rise from their positions in the Huey. Vin and Nathan had to unstrap, Vin's free hand tugging at the webbing while Nathan's hands, used to delicate surgical work, swiftly unfastened his own harness. JD was crouching over his tracking device as Jackson crawled across the floor to Tanner and assisted him with the final buckle of his harness, then both stood, swaying slightly, disoriented at the unmoving floor.
Vin still gripped his sniper rifle in one hand, as he had instinctively since the helicopter dropped down from the sky. Now he caught it with his other hand as well and slipped out of the bird without a word, lowering himself gracefully to the ground, eyes, still enhanced with night vision goggles, scanning the surrounding barren hillside. No sign of life.
Chris patted Josiah on the shoulder and when the man looked back, he signaled him to come. When Clem made to follow, Larabee held up a staying hand. He yelled over the sudden silence, voice dropping as he finished, "Stay here. Be ready to go at our signal."
Fortnight frowned, eyes straying to the empty landscape in front of his bird's nose, but then turned back to Chris and gave a nod and thumb's up. He slumped down in his seat, already focused on the instrument panel, flipping switches and tapping dials.
Chris hopped down to the main deck and stepped aside for Josiah to follow. He was just in time to see Vin disappear out one of the open hatches. Nathan was busily gathering things from their locker and stuffing what he'd found into a satchel. Chris caught a glimpse of white. First aide supplies. He nodded, lips tightening. Hope we don't need that stuff. He gave a short, light snort. Hope Ezra and Buck don't need it either. He tapped JD on the head where the younger man was hovering over his simple tracking device.
Dark eyes flicked up to meet Chris'. "The signal is pretty strong to the northeast now, and close." JD gestured toward the marshy lake. He swallowed hard, adding sadly. "It's not moving at all anymore."
Chris bowed his head for a moment, then nodded and looked out the hatch into the darkness. By now, Josiah was sitting on the sill of the deck, a large automatic rifle in his capable hands. "Josiah?"
"Nothing, Chris." Sanchez didn't bother to turn around, answering through his mike. Everyone could hear the resignation in Josiah's tone.
"Vin?" Chris raised his head, unable to see his sharpshooter who was already out there, prowling around somewhere.
Over the small earphone, Larabee and the others heard Tanner's quiet response. "No one around that I can spot. Chopper likely chased off all the wildlife, place is like a ghost town."
Reaching into the locker for a large weapon for himself, Chris spoke into his mike. "Alright, we do this nice and slow. Nate, you and JD stay close, cover him while he finds those bugs out there."
"Roger." Jackson's voice was all business. Chris could see the big man push up from where he'd been kneeling over the locker. Jackson shouldered his satchel of medical supplies and moved easily over to Dunne who was intent on his instrument even as he crouched down to a seating position at the edge of the decking, feet already hanging over the ground below.
"I'm on it." JD sounded distracted.
Chris realized that the agent was focused on his primitive mechanism and really not watching where he was. "JD!" Dunne's head came up sharply, eyes turning to where Chris stood. "Keep close to Nate, he's got night goggles on, he'll watch your back."
"Ok." Dunne's head swiveled back and down to watch as his hands fiddled with dials, then he simply dropped off the deck to the ground only a few feet below. Chris watched as Nathan followed, one hand acting as a pivot for the big man as he swung himself over the side. Larabee noted the weapon in Jackson's free hand, confident that the medic and agent was ready to protect Dunne.
Sanchez had preceded the other two agents and that left Larabee alone in the helicopter with Clem Fortnight. Before leaving, he moved back to look up to where the pilot sat, like a statue now, staring out over the nose of the Huey. "Clem?" He had to call loudly.
Fortnight looked back and down at Larabee. His long thin form twisting at the shoulders to look down the gangway and short ladder from the pilot's deck.
Chris tossed up a small mike and earpiece. "Here." He watched as Fortnight easily caught it. "It's set for our frequency." He'd only known the pilot for a few hours but didn't doubt the man was trustworthy. "Monitor us. Be ready to hit the lights." They might need the helicopter's floodlights before this night saw dawn.
Clem pulled off his soft cloth helmet and poked the earpiece into one ear, then clipped the tiny mike to his collar to the right of his chin. He spoke into the small microphone. "Will do."
Hearing Fortnight over his own earpiece, Larabee gave a thumb's up, then gripped the metal hatch rim with both hands tightly. He met Clem's eyes, and spoke softly, knowing his men would also hear this. "We aren't leaving until we find our boys."
Clem saluted briefly, then turned back to continue his nearly blind scan of the area. He'd hit all the interior lights as soon as he'd secured the instrument panels and set things for a fast start-up and lift off. Now, getting used to the dark, he was able to see the darker shapes of the men moving cautiously down the hillside toward the small lake. There was no other sign of life. Doesn't look too good, he thought, tapping his fingers on his knee.
Chris swung around, brushing his lank blond hair back with one hand, and shuffled rapidly out of the narrow gangway and into the lower hull area as soon as he'd finished with Fortnight. He moved quickly, economically, arming himself and dropping out of the chopper. Adjusting his goggles as he settled on the rocky ground, he quickly spotted his men.
Vin was far in advance, already stalking along the edge of the marshy ground fringing the wetter swampy lake. JD and Nathan were moving together, slowly but in a direct line. Josiah was off to their far side, swiveling with each step, clearly keeping watch on his brothers. From his vantage on the hillside above them, Chris looked out over the landscape.
It was so still. No breath of air stirred, no night sounds. Gripping his long-range rifle tightly, he took off down the hill, skimming the uneven ground with unexpected delicacy, his SEAL training locking in as he moved stealthily forward. He swiftly reached Dunne and Jackson's position. They had stopped moving at the boggy edge of the lake, where the small river, really a large stream, fed into it, current slowing into eddies among tall stands of river reed.
Both men were standing fully now, staring down at something as Chris came to a stop beside them, eyes traveling three-sixty, before resting on his men. Jackson had a hand on Dunne's shoulder, and JD was simply staring at the water, his small black box tracking device now hanging at his side from one hand.
Chris straightened up and followed the gaze of his agents. And swallowed hard. Caught among the stiff reeds was a silky, soggy cummerbund, caught around a misshapen bit of old wood. The two things bobbed in the gentle push of current. In the quiet of the night, Chris could hear the slosh of water as he stepped down into the marshy lake and reached for the satin pleated bit of fabric. He could tell by the color that it was Ezra's. He couldn't stop himself from clutching it, dripping, up to his chest with one fist as he raised his eyes to the night sky, giving in, for just that one moment, to despair.
"Ouch!" Ezra's cry stopped Buck in his tracks. It was followed in short order by, "Damn it all to hell anyway!"
"Ezra, what's wrong?" Buck half-tripped as he staggered around in the ankle-deep stream, his boots skidding on the uneven river stones hidden under the water. He flailed his arms widely to re-catch his balance, only to find his partner sitting in a woebegone wet huddle in the stream, still cursing, but now in another language. If Buck were to hazard a guess, he'd have said German. He could see that Ezra was holding on tightly with both hands to his left ankle, extended before him in the rushing water.
At this point, Ezra relapsed into English again. "Shit, shit, shit!"
Buck slogged back up stream to Ezra. Bending over, he touched one shivering shoulder. "Ez, what happened?"
Flashing angry green eyes glared up at him through tossed chestnut locks. "I - fell - down." Ezra's face contorted in an involuntary wince. "Damn it! I twisted my ankle." Pain drowned anger as the eyes dropped again to study the injured joint.
By now, Ezra was shivering non-stop and Buck was deeply worried. "Ezra, we have to get you up out of the water."
Before Buck could continue, a hand reached up and grabbed his collar, jerking his head lower. "I know that," Ezra bit out, still enraged at fate. He released his hold on Buck's collar and took a deep, stuttering breath. The water was cool, but in the night air of the desert, it was enough to make him feel as if he was freezing. Beneath his hands, he could feel his ankle starting to swell. "I know that," Ezra repeated more slowly, sadly, then looked back up at Buck who still loomed over him.
"Aw, shit, Ez." Buck moved in, placing his feet carefully, then hooking his hands under Ezra's arms. "Here we go." With effort, he lifted Ezra up and swung them around, lowering Standish to the ground on the bank of the stream. Sliding a bit, he stumbled his way up out of the streambed as well, to heave himself up beside his wet friend.
"Let me have a look." Buck reached down and pushed Ezra's claw-like hands back from his ankle. The wet trouser leg was shoved up and clung to Ezra's calf, his ankle, still clothed in a fine silk sock, was beginning to show signs of swelling. "Yep, looks like you may have sprained it." Buck leaned back, contemplating Ezra's ankle and the mess it put them in.
Ezra sighed and leaned back also, bracing himself on his elbows. He stared down at his ankle, then raised his eyes to study the stream. Buck had tossed his torch on the bank when he turned back and it flickered uncertainly on the weedy sand bank. His own torch had met swift death in the water. He watched resentfully as it floated serenely down stream, not even a wisp of smoke rising from the bundle of charred cactus spines. "I don't think I can walk on this," he muttered disconsolately.
"No, don't think you can." Buck rolled over to his side and gathered Ezra to him. Bundling Ezra in his arms, Buck smiled down into frowning green eyes. "Guess that just means I'll have to carry you." He dared a tiny kiss on Ezra's nose.
Ezra wrinkled his nose at Buck's kiss, even though he felt a flash of pleasure at Buck's casual intimacy. He licked his lips and looked downstream. The narrow valley, not a canyon simply because the walls were too gentle, continued around a bend and out of sight, taking the growing waterway with it. It was turning into a true river, albeit a small one, ahead. They'd decided to wade in the water for a while to disguise their tracks in case more of the terrorists followed the first batch to find them.
It had seemed like a good idea at the time. His lips quirked in a half-smile of resignation. Shaking his head, he met Buck's sympathetic look, those deep blue eyes that gleamed in the torchlight. "I think you may have to." There wasn't room on the banks for two men to walk side-by-side, and for Ezra to even attempt to walk, he'd need support.
Buck began to rub at Ezra's arms, then his back.
"Oof! Buck, what's that for?" Ezra grunted, his grouchiness coming to the fore.
"Getting the circulation going again. Don't want you to get a chill."
"Too late," Ezra answered crossly.
With supreme good nature, Buck laughed quietly and smothered Ezra in a kiss, hugging him tightly. Several grunts and growls emerged from the clutch. Finally, Buck pulled back enough for Ezra to raise his head again.
"Buck!" A thoroughly tousled Ezra grumped up at Buck.
Wilmington let Ezra go with another grin and climbed to his feet. Standing braced he offered Standish a hand. "Let's go, sweetheart."
Ezra clasped the offered hand and was hauled to his feet, correction, foot, as he stood stork-like holding up his injured ankle. Balancing precariously, he teetered forward.
Buck took advantage of the move, pitching a broad shoulder into Ezra's belted waist and lifting. He stood shifting his weight a bit until he was certain he had a good grip on Ezra in a fireman's carry. Much as he might like to carry Ezra in his arms, he was realist enough to know he'd never make it far that way. With Ezra's not insubstantial mass perched directly on his shoulder, Buck's skeleton's frame acted as a natural brace for them both. He wrapped an arm around Ezra's legs at the knees, careful not to knock the injured ankle. He could feel Ezra squirming a bit. He lightly smacked that fine looking ass that now sat just to the side of his face. "Settle down there, Ez."
"MISTER Wilmington!" Ezra's outraged tone made Buck grin again. "You will refrain from taking such liberties with my person."
Buck daringly patted the nicely rounded derriere this time. "Don't know, Ez, you make it mighty tempting."
Ezra's body stiffened in Buck's grasp and then he was shocked by a sharp pain to his own butt. "Ow! Ezra!" Buck grit his teeth and shook his head. Hell, Ezra had pinched him but good.
"Let that be a lesson to you," came floating back up from Buck's rear. Then a soothing pat turned into a rather seductive rubbing motion and Buck shivered, but not from the cold.
"Okay, I learned my lesson." He hugged Ezra's body closer and took a tentative step, interrupting the gentle fondling going on at his rear quarters. With more confidence, he began to walk up stream, this time on the bank. He cast a regretful glance at the now smoldering torch, then up at the sky. It was beginning to lighten. Good thing. Fixing his sights on the bend in the river, Buck began to plod up stream.
"No." That was Josiah, who had finally circled in close to where Nathan, JD, and Chris stood. He breathed out the word in pain.
JD interrupted the moment, having brought his borrowed tracking device back up to view. "Funny, I'm getting two signals from this."
Larabee straightened and lifted the soggy cummerbund up to examine it closely. Well, I'll be damned. He plucked two small electronic bugs from the inside surface of the cloth, each neatly pinned in place. Holding them out in his hand, he met the eyes of the other three men. "They sent those creeps on a wild goose chase after all."
Josiah gave a watery chuckle and Nathan grinned, his eyes nearly disappearing into the folds of his widely stretched cheeks. He nearly crushed JD's shoulder under his large hand. Dunne simply nodded slowly at Chris and his own wide smile began to grow.
Vin materialized beside them, "Vin, coming in." He raised one eyebrow at the bugs in Larabee's hand and then at the cummerbund in his other. "That Ez's?"
Chris nodded, beginning to look jovial. "Yes." He raised the bugs into the air, "And these were both pinned inside."
"Both, eh?" Vin's face cracked into a sly grin.
"What? What was pinned inside?" Clem's voice wailed over the earpieces of the team.
The men exchanged grins now and Chris spoke into his mike. "Ezra or Buck stuck the bugs on a piece of cloth and set them adrift in the river."
Silence reigned for a moment, then Clem's high-pitched hoot of laughter echoed down the wires. "Sweet!"
Chris Larabee looked up the small riverbed with calculation. The men around him followed his line of sight, all of them thinking the same thing.
"So we just hike up the river?" JD asked aloud, then looked over his shoulder at Clem's Huey, and changed his question. "Or, do we hitch a ride up with Clem?"
"Neither." Chris waded to the slippery low bank of the marshy lake and accepted Vin's crossed arm grip for a pull up out of the watery muck. He spoke into the mike. "Clem, you can stand down for now. We're going to set up camp here until full dawn, have some chow. It's too dark to see much and we might scare up the wrong folks if we go upriver blind."
Josiah and Nathan had already turned away and started back for the chopper. There would be plenty to do to set up a temporary camp here. Vin stood silently, head cocked to listen to the night. Sounds were returning now, the Huey's entrance seemingly forgotten by the night dwellers of this place. He could hear peepers and night birds, a slither that sounded like a reptile of some sort dragging along the ground, and then, yips of some coyotes up the far hill from them. Tanner did not sense any other human approach to their little lake area.
JD turned back to face his boss, still unsure and very worried about his best friend, Buck, and, of course, Ezra. "Chris? What if the wrong folks are up there and get to Buck and Ezra first?"
"JD, we can't continue to operate in the dark on unknown terrain." Chris was patient with his agent, the young man might be well versed in urban conflicts but he hadn't the military training to recognize the need to sit tight, learn the area. "We'll scout things out at daybreak. Then, head upstream on foot." He raised a hand before Dunne could object to that, "The helicopter is too noisy. We need stealth until we know the situation. Dressler and some of his men took off and headed after our boys before we could stop them. If they found them, we may be faced with an armed rescue still."
Slowly JD nodded, not happy, but accepting.
Vin turned back to them. "I'll be back, just going to wander upstream a bit. See what's what around that bend."
Larabee paused in the act of folding over Ezra's abandoned cummerbund, still dripping. He met Tanner's eyes in the dim but growing light. "Alright."
Buck lowered Ezra to the ground carefully. "Easy there, sweetheart."
Standish bit back a cry of protest, grimacing instead, as his ankle touched the earth. It hurt like hell, throbbed unmercifully and was now grossly swollen. He held his left leg out straight to keep the pressure off the injured ankle and settled himself on the sandy riverbank, rocking his hips into the shallow depression that Buck had scuffed out with one foot. Buck must be exhausted. They'd come at least two, maybe two and a half miles so far along the uneven and treacherous bank. Ezra lay back down and stared up at the gray washed predawn sky. A few brave stars still twinkled, one seemed to glow, perhaps a planet? He rolled his head to one side and watched Buck who had dropped to the ground beside him.
Buck swung his arms widely, letting the shoulder muscles loosen, then arched his back as he sat upright on the ground at Ezra's side. He flexed his arms next, straightening them both and stiffly working his hands, extended at furthest reach. He'd have to carry Ezra on his other shoulder when they started up again, the first one ached now. He relaxed and fingered the segmented leather collar around his neck. With resolve, he began to unwrap the cloth that bound it, he had to check the bullet graze. If the bleeding was really stopped, he could manage a looser, lest chaffing bandage. Concentrating on his task, he was taken by surprise when Ezra's hands were suddenly there, helping.
"Ez! You shouldn't-"
"What? It's my ankle that's hurt, not the rest of me." Ezra lightly slapped Buck's big hands away and gently picked at the dried, stained bandaging. He was sitting up on one hip now, braced with his good leg, half-twisted around to reach Buck's neck. He mentally cursed himself for forgetting that Buck was also hurt, shot. With care, he pulled the wrapping free and began to peel back the segments of leather that Henry had applied a lifetime ago.
"Buck? Can you dampen this in the water for me?" Ezra handed over the stiffened cloth. He could less painfully remove those leather bits if he could use a bit of water to break their adhesion to the skin.
"Sure." Buck accepted the cloth and raised up onto his knees, awkwardly slipping free from Ezra's hands. He crawled the few short feet to the water's edge and dunked the fabric, then squeezed the sodden cloth before handing it with a long arm to Ezra.
"Thanks, now come back here." Ezra gestured to his side.
Buck sighed and scuttled back, easing his tired body back down beside Ezra, neck extended in his friend's direction. "How's that?"
"Fine." Ezra absently patted Buck's cheek, before applying himself to his work once more. He didn't catch Buck's eyes widen or see the gleam of pleasure he'd provoked.
Buck felt warm inside. Despite all the craziness, Ezra was becoming more casual around Buck. Or, maybe because of it? Didn't matter, he decided, as long as Ezra kept on calling him 'Buck' and touching him so easily with affection. Think we might have a good shot at a partnership here, Buck thought with a calmness born of exhaustion. He looked out over the water and let his eyes travel downstream. That's when he noticed it.
"I can't hear the flute music anymore."
Clem hunkered in the doorway of the big Huey, knees knocking his chin as he passed bundles down to Josiah Sanchez. The packages were being tossed to him by Jackson, who was further into the helicopter, digging into the ubiquitous locker that the ATF team had lugged on board yesterday. He could see JD Dunne sitting on a low hillock, laptop on his crossed legs, tapping away. Beyond him, Fortnight could just make out Larabee, the team leader, standing at the edge of the clearing the team had created by removing rocks and nature's refuse from old floods. Larabee was standing with his back to the Huey, arms folded on his chest and staring out over the marsh to the mouth of the small river.
Clem strained to see. Another packet hit him on the arm and he nearly toppled off his perch. "Whoa!" He caught the bundle and gave Jackson the eye, but the big agent was looking down at what he was sorting in the locker and didn't notice. Shrugging, Clem spit his bubblegum out to the side onto the ground and dropped the package into Sanchez waiting hands. Josiah was grinning up at him knowingly so he stuck out his tongue at Sanchez, then grinned back cheekily and turned just in time to catch the next pitched packet before it brained him. With a huff, he dumped it out of the Huey to Sanchez. 'Tinker to Evers to Chance', he muttered to himself, and began to softly hum 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game.'
Chris squinted. The sun was finally rising. Beams of light streaked the sky and scattered wisps of cloud began to glow pink, orange, and gold. In the light, he saw an infuriating nothing. No sign of Tanner who had vanished nearly an hour earlier, with only the comment that he wanted to head upstream a bit. Where the hell are you, Vin? Chris lifted his shoulders with a tightly indrawn breath and held it. And where are you, Buck? Ezra? His fingers dug into his biceps and he continued his silent watch.
The light was growing steadily now, the sun rimming the hills to the east. Careful not to do too much damage, Ezra started by soaking the pad of cloth with Henry's poultice beneath. He inhaled sharply at the mess of weeds, brownish green with dried bloodstains, that he uncovered. Pressing the wet fabric that Buck had given him against the poultice, he gently eased it away from the skin of Buck's neck. And pulled back in surprise.
"Ez?" Buck's eyes were slanted so far around to see Standish that the whites showed across the tops.
Ezra met Buck's eyes and smiled. "Whatever this stuff is that Henry gave us really worked." Ezra barely touched the rough but healing scar with a fingertip. He looked up again. "This is amazing. It's nearly healed and no signs of infection, no redness, no heat."
Buck craned his neck pointlessly, knowing he couldn't possibly see the injury but trying nonetheless.
"Stop." Ezra's hand caught Buck's chin in a gentle grip. "That won't do you any good and might tear at the wound." He released Buck and looked down, examining the springy poultice in his hand, which seemed to consist of moss and unidentifiable bits of herbs in a clingy mass. "Maybe I should replace this for now," he mused more to himself than to Buck, "I am not sure what it is but it must have some remarkable properties to leave your injury in this state."
Buck relaxed his shoulders that had instinctively tightened as Ezra peeled back the covering on his gunshot wound. "Any chance you can fix it in place without the whole collar?"
Fingering the poultice, Ezra looked at Buck's neck consideringly. "I could perhaps wrap a support around your head instead of your neck, as long as it provides enough pressure to hold the poultice in place."
Smiling encouragingly, Buck rubbed one of Ezra's arms lightly. "That might work, Pard." He worked his jaw. "I really need to get the bracing off my neck, it's beginning to hurt," he admitted.
Ezra found the leather bits of the segmented collar came off easily with the help of the damp cloth Buck had handed him. Then he tugged Buck's shirtfront free from his trousers and worked to tear off a section from the tails. "Fresh cloth," he explained as he worked.
Within a few minutes, Buck was bandaged again, this time looking like he had a very bad tooth ache, the strapping tied around his head with a rather artistic bow resulting in two 'rabbit ears' poking skyward. Ezra had to smile at the effect. That had Buck raising both eyebrows and twitching his mustache. Now he really did look like an oversized rabbit and Ezra fell back on the ground with a snort that dissolved into a helpless giggle as Buck peered down at him with pursed lips.
"What?" Buck reached up and touched the new arrangement, realizing that he must now look rather silly. Seeing Ezra in helpless amusement on the ground made Buck happier than he'd been in sometime. He repeated his earlier action, twitching his mustache from side to side and watched Ezra's giggles escalate as his friend began to roll on the ground. Buck grinned and leaned forward, intent on encouraging this wonderfully free and laughing Ezra with a tickle or two.
Before Buck's itching fingers could touch, though, Ezra's amusement came to an abrupt end as his injured ankle struck the ground unwisely. "Oh!" With a jackknifed action, Ezra was sitting up again, clutching at the newly reawakened pain, laughter forgotten. His hair fell forward as he huddled over the hurt, looking remarkably young.
Buck was a rangy, tall man, and he had no trouble reaching out to wrap an arm around Ezra's slumped shoulders and pull the man close. "Ezra, take deep breaths." He pressed his lips to Ezra's brow and kissed there repeatedly, murmuring soft words of comfort.
Gradually, the throbbing ache eased and Ezra was able to think past the pain. He realized that Buck was holding him closely, kissing him softly on his forehead. With intentional daring, he lifted his face up to let his lips meet Buck's. Regardless of the fading pain, Ezra deepened their kiss, his lips opening to invite Buck inside.
At first, it was more a feeling than a sound, but gradually Vin decided he was hearing music. Not a recognizable tune or anything like that, but man-made sounds, from what sounded like a simple flute. Tanner stopped and listened. Definitely coming from further upstream. He was standing on the rough bank of the river that was rapidly becoming a rough stream, smaller but more vigorous, white water curling around the odd boulder poking up from the streambed. The hillsides were close, creating a gentle canyon-like effect, the ground dry, nearly barren. He could see the looming mountains rising up behind the range of low hills here.
"Chris?" He activated his tiny mike and muttered into it, hesitant to break the calm of the dawn or lose that thread of elusive music.
"Vin! Everything alright?" Chris' voice sounded tense and Tanner suddenly realized he'd been gone for a good hour.
"Yep." He looked around. "Haven't spotted any sign of the boys, but there's someone out here."
"What do you mean?" Now Larabee's tone was clipped.
Vin shook his head even though he knew Chris couldn't see. "I'm nearly a mile up stream now, and I can hear some kind of flute playing."
Chris could see the rest of the men slowly standing up around their small campfire, all with heads cocked in listening poses, clearly focused, like him, on Vin Tanner's words.
"You hear music?"
"What I said." Tanner scratched at his chin, feeling the bristles. They'd been out on the hunt overnight and none of them had shaving gear along. He listened again, silent, pulling his listening plug free. He could hear Larabee's tiny voice and palmed the earphone. The musical notes faded then strengthened. Definitely coming from somewhere up ahead. He returned the plug to his ear. "Think it might be Native American, though I'm not sure what."
"Indians?" JD's voice broke in breathlessly.
"Maybe." Vin shook his head again. "Quiet." He listened to the curl of sound, like an invitation to follow. The impelling feeling of need to answer the call began to grow, but Tanner was able to resist for a while more. "There's something not quite right about it."
"Get back here, now." Larabee's voice was harsh, the order clear in his tone. When he didn't get an immediate answer, he spoke again. "Vin?"
The men looked at each other around the fire, eyebrows rising in concern. No one broke the silence, all of them waiting to hear Tanner's voice again.
"VIN!" Chris started walking up the riverbank without even realizing it. There was no answer.
Josiah grabbed up his rifle, he already had his pistol in his shoulder harness. He turned and snatched up JD's body armor with his free hand and tossed it to the boy who was still frozen beside the campfire. "JD, snap out of it!"
JD caught the bulletproof vest and shrugged it back on without comment. He'd been the only one to take his off, wanting to stretch and scratch while they sat eating nutra-bars and sipping coffee. Behind him, Nathan Jackson was kicking sand over the small fire.
Clem had his forty-five in his hand and was already starting across the clearing towards Larabee's disappearing back when Sanchez caught up to him and hauled him to a stop. "Clem."
Josiah waited for the impatient man to turn and face him, then continued, "Go to your bird and wait for word. We may need aerial cover before this is over, or just a lift out." Josiah's pale blue eyes were serious as he stared into Fortnight's. "We need you there."
The pilot sagged in Josiah's grip, his elastic face reflecting his resignation and acceptance. With a silent nod, Clem trotted off to climb into his Huey and wait and listen.
The remaining men of Team Seven headed up stream, following their team leader.
Vin breathed out slowly and lowered himself to the ground, legs crossed. He stared up at the hillcrest to the south and east. A dark silhouette had materialized up there, and as Vin watched, the figure shuffled in almost ritualistic fashion along the ridgeline, heading north.
The man, for it seemed to be a male, was tall and thin, all leg. He lifted each foot very high as he stepped ahead, lifting his knees nearly to his chin. Impossible to say what he was wearing against the backlighting, except that it looked to be simple tunic and trousers. And a pack on his back. Or, he was humpbacked, it really wasn't clear enough to see. Moving forward, bent over, with arms raised, Vin could see he had a stick up to his face. Since the sounds of tonal music came from that direction, it seemed likely he was playing a flute. Vin sat, mesmerized, his body unconsciously swaying to the uneven beat of the strange musical flow.
". . . Vin!"
It was the third time that he heard Chris' voice faintly on his earpiece, that Vin finally woke enough from his trancelike state to answer. "Chris?"
Larabee moved faster, nearly running now. He could hear the rest of his team coming up behind him. Vin's voice was soft, uncertain. Not at all like his sharpshooter's usual crisp, terse responses on the wire. "Vin, stay put. We're coming up behind you." Chris concentrated on his footing as he asked, "Are you hurt?" Then a pause, no answer, "Are you alone?"
"Alone?" Vin watched the musician dancing along the hill. Tanner's head swayed with the musician's movements. Vin blinked and sighed. He bit his lower lip and pushed himself up to his feet uneasily, turning to track the figure now directly across from him. "No, I'm not alone."
"Do you have opposition there?" Chris' concern came through with the fierce demand.
"No - no, I don't think so." Vin narrowed his gaze and watched the figure begin to diminish into the distance. "No, it's alright."
Chris began to slow his pace to a ground-eating trot, and then rounding the bend he'd reached, he saw Tanner. Vin was standing still, staring fixedly up at the hill line, towards the north, upstream. "Vin!"
Moving slowly, as if still trapped in the molasses-like stupor that had grounded him, Vin turned toward his best friend and smiled.
By now, Josiah, Nathan, and JD had caught up to Larabee and were trotting single file behind him. They spread out along the narrow riverbank, all looking at Tanner in confusion.
"Hey, Vin! What happened?" JD rushed his words, thoughtlessly usurping his team leader's moment.
Chris' lips quirked in a half-smile, relief calming him as he saw for himself that Vin was alright, if acting a bit strangely. When Vin didn't answer Dunne immediately, he said quietly, "Vin, report."
Vin Tanner looked back over his shoulder at the empty, silent hillside, then turned to his boss and teammates who had come to a stop in a half-circle facing him. "I'm not sure I can." He shook his head once, his thoughts clearing rapidly now. His crystal clear blue eyes sought out his friend's narrowed gaze. "Chris, I just had the damnedest thing happen. It felt like a vision." He looked self-conscious as he dropped his eyes to his hands, clamped together in front of him.
"A vision?" Josiah's hopeful and interested tones seemed to break the spell the men were under and Nathan laughed softly.
"You sleep walking, Vin?" The deep voice of the medic prodded Tanner.
"Nope." Vin raised a hand, shooting a look of good humor at Jackson's tease, and rubbed the back of his neck. Then he looked up at the others again with a sigh. "I heard music from a flute, like ceremonial stuff-"
"More Indian stuff?"
"Native American, JD." Nate corrected, moving closer, watching Tanner.
"Yeah." Vin nodded indiscriminately at both men. "Not like regular music, no tune you could hum, nothing like that. And I saw a man."
"Where?" Chris was instantly looking beyond Vin, rifle coming to the ready.
"Gone." Vin gestured mildly behind his position. "Looked like, well," Vin shook his head, "Looked like maybe a man from the past."
Josiah folded his hands over his chest and tipped his head to the side. "Your past?"
"No, no," Vin shook his head, then picked up his rifle from the ground where he'd abandoned it without thought earlier. "From long ago, from times ancient, from around here."
"I think you might have seen Henry." Ezra's voice was slightly breathy as Buck let him slide down to the ground from his stomach-perch on Buck's shoulder. Slipping down the front of Wilmington's body, Ezra made no move to separate from Buck's loose support, simply turning within Buck's arms and smiling at the others.
Five men stared back in shock. None of them had heard or seen their friends' approach. It was as if they were afraid to move or speak for fear of causing this illusion to vanish.
Buck, who realized that they'd surprised their team, smiled slowly and met Chris Larabee's eyes. "Glad you could make it, Old Dog."
"Good to see you too." Chris walked the short distance to his long missing men and smiled at them. "Both of you." He touched Buck's shoulder, as if to make sure they really were real, then cupped Ezra's face briefly, smiling into shining green eyes. "Welcome back."
"Are we good?" Clem Fortnight's voice muttered down the wires.
Vin, gliding closer to their recovered friends, answered first. "Yeah, Clem. We've got 'em."
"Stay on alert." Chris Larabee stood back from his two men and spoke quietly, knowing everyone except Buck and Ezra would hear. He looked on upstream speculatively. There'd been something strange going on before he and the others arrived and it still hadn't really been explained. And then, there were the missing terrorists, and the gunrunner, Dressler. He waited as his men came together, knowing that Nathan Jackson would do a quick eval and let him know if they faced any extra problems.
Josiah, toothy grin in place, enveloped the two men in a large bear hug as JD Dunne patted Buck's back energetically. Vin had come close to the men but didn't touch, just smiled and smiled, arms folded over his chest. Proximity suited him just fine.
Their medic-trained teammate, Nathan Jackson, stood back waiting for Josiah and JD to get through their obviously needed reunion so that he could check out the boys. When Sanchez showed no signs of letting them go and Buck and Ezra seemed content to let the celebration continue, he cleared his throat and spoke. "Guys? Hey, guys?" Heads swiveled his way and he continued, hands on hips. "I need to look them over now." Then his dark eyes flashed up to meet first Buck's, then Ezra's. "Welcome back."
Twin broad smiles answered him, and then Buck, who had Ezra still in the circle of his arms, tightened his grip as Standish began to fold downward. "Whoa, there, Ez." Buck hoisted Ezra back up with arms slipped under armpits and turned to Jackson. "He's hurt his ankle, I think it might be sprained. Oh, and he's recovering from a concussion, too."
Ezra craned his neck to look back up over his shoulder at Buck's face so close beside him. He could see the man's deep blue eyes twinkling down at him and he silently mouthed, "Betrayer!" But sweetened it with a smile, then faced Jackson. He missed seeing the shadow darken those now beloved eyes at the single word.
Buck swallowed hard as Ezra turned away again, still secure in his hold. They had some unfinished business between them, and Ezra's humorous comment brought that back for Buck. He knew that sooner or later, Ezra would return to the events before their kidnapping. And he would have some hard questions to answer. Please, god, don't let me mess up then. Unconsciously, he tightened his grip just as Ezra spoke to Jackson.
"Buck was shot." The last word came out with a slight gasp as Buck squeezed him unexpectedly, but he continued anyway. "Just a graze across his neck under his jaw. You need to look at it." He paused, knowing that Jackson was listening intently, as were the others. "And he might have a slight concussion too."
Josiah Sanchez's smile had faded as he stood free of the two men, listening to their simple litany of injuries. Nothing too severe, but it hurt to know that they'd been in harm's way without back up. His fists clenched at his sides and he looked both men over closely.
Buck had tucked in his chin to look down at the top of Ezra's head. He cocked an eyebrow at Jackson and added, "You'll need to check out Ezra all over, he got roughed up a bit at the start. Those guys didn't take kindly to his sharp wit."
That earned him a glare of narrowed jade green over Ezra's shoulder and he couldn't resist. He pecked a tiny affectionate kiss on the upturned nose. Then regretted it as Ezra's eyes widened and he could just see that magnificent brain ticking over with the fact that Buck was being casually intimate in front of their teammates. Oh, oh.
Chris looked over all his men and spoke in a low voice. "Ezra? Buck? Do we need to watch our backs?"
Buck raised his eyes to meet Larabee's. "We got a group, including their leader. Guy named Dressler. Their bodies are back up the river." He jerked his jaw over his shoulder and then winced as the slight wound on his neck was pulled.
Nathan saw the reaction and moved in.
"JD, Vin, head on upstream. Find those bodies. Watch for any others out there." Chris waited for them to get going. The younger men sketched out short, two-fingered salutes, and with final smiles for their newly found friends, moved out in quick step. Turning to Sanchez, who was already at Jackson's side, ready to help, Larabee asked, "Josiah, can the Huey land here?"
Sanchez didn't even have to look around before shaking his head in the negative. "Nope, not enough level ground, hillsides are too steep. We'll have to go back to Clem's position."
Clem's voice interrupted at this point. "Hey, I can pick you all up with a dropdown line or two."
Larabee considered this briefly and tipped his head toward Nathan who was now crouched on the ground beside Ezra's ankle. Nathan seemed to feel the attention and looked up. He shook his head negatively. "Be better if we just carry Ezra out."
With a nod, Larabee spoke into his mike. "Thanks, Clem, but Nate thinks we can hike out so stay at your position."
"Roger that." Fortnight's resigned voice prompted smiles from Sanchez and Larabee.
Then, Chris and Josiah stood and waited. Jackson had gotten Ezra onto the ground so he could take a better look at the ankle and Standish was sitting there quietly, answering questions in a low voice. Buck dropped to the ground beside him, as if unable to be separated by any appreciable distance. He still had one hand on Ezra's nearest shoulder.
When Nathan finished gently probing the badly swollen ankle, he spoke directly to Larabee. "It's not broken, but it is badly sprained. He won't be putting any weight on it for some time."
With a pat at Ezra's knee, Jackson leaned up to lightly push Buck's jaw skyward. The tiny river valley, nearly a canyon, was now getting sunlight and he could see dark bruising spreading from beneath some primitive bandaging. He made no comment on the cloth tied around Buck's head but carefully untied it and let it fall away so he could peel off a pad and poultice that he found beneath.
Nathan held the poultice cupped in one hand, pushing away his curiosity firmly, and squinted at the torn flesh under Buck's jaw. There was no swelling or redness here, none of the infection he would have expected. In fact, he could see that it was already scarring over, a narrow groove showing where the bullet had blazed a trail. Stitches would take care of properly aligning flesh and prevent the scar from becoming permanent. He looked closely but didn't touch.
Pulling some first aid medications from his satchel and a large self-adhesive bandage, Nathan quickly applied them, leaving Buck free of the now unnecessary extra cloth bandages. He stared into those bright, dark blue eyes and they seemed clear, pupils even. "Needs a few stitches, but there's no sign of infection." He glanced at Ezra who was watching with concentration. "You did a good job, Ez." Then he lifted the fascinating poultice. "What did you use? For that matter, I didn't even know that you knew any herbal medicine." Jackson's last words were more a second question than a statement.
Ezra, reassured that Buck was alright, sagged back against Buck's strong arm that had magically reappeared at his shoulders. "I have no idea what's in that green mess." He shrugged lightly, fitting himself more closely to Buck, and folded his hands over his stomach. "Henry did that."
Puzzled, Nathan poked at the fibrous mat in his hand, while Josiah's and Chris' eyes met across the tops of their three friends' heads. "Henry?" Josiah mouthed to Chris.
"Ezra." Chris hunkered down on his heels to meet Standish's eyes levelly, "Who the hell is this 'Henry'?"
Fred Hernandez toyed with his two-way radio, courtesy of the Denver ATF team. It was a temptation. It was a violation of regulations. It was an honor bound duty. He stared at the silent communicator. To call or not to call. It really wasn't a question.
Around him, men paced angrily, stood stoically, heaved laden boxes of evidence into waiting canvas-sided trucks, an entire convoy of them. The prisoners had been taken away some time ago, airlifted out by a very nasty FBI contingent. Territories had been trespassed and agencies were in high level 'discussions.' It was only the fact that an entire cell of active terrorists had been identified and captured that allowed Fred to continue working the case. He smirked at the fibbies that pontificated just yards away, sharing theories with a cluster of early media point men. This was quickly turning into the kind of circus that he and his men didn't need.
His own small team had done the preliminary interrogations. Well, the first ones that counted. No one was talking about the ATF team's own questionable turn at the prisoners. The thing was, they'd gotten a final head count. And, nine men were missing. Dressler himself was nowhere to be found and eight of the Palestinian terrorists were absent from the camp when he and Larabee's team had captured it.
Most of his men were already on their way to the nearest airport on a transport that had landed before the FBI convoy and air contingents hove in.
He'd had to do a bit of interesting tap-dancing until some former judge up in Colorado, now an Assistant Director of the ATF units there, intervened. Fred had no idea how AD Orrin Travis got involved originally, but he had a sneaking suspicion that Christopher Larabee knew the answer to that one. Thanks to Travis, the ATF was quickly fading into a forgotten partner to the action.
Fred Hernandez had drawn in his resources again and produced a backwoodsman by the name of Panther Pete. Pete knew this area as well as any, hunting mountain lions and wolves for a living. Fred raised an elbow high into the air as he rubbed at the back of his neck. Where do we find these guys anyway?
Pete tracked the sign that Vin Tanner, one of Larabee's men, had found. So far, Pete had located Dressler, dead, and seven other men, also dead. From the sign, he told Hernandez that two, maybe three men had been involved and fled afterwards. Of the original terrorist splinter group, one remained unaccounted for and Fred's tracker said the man's tracks disappeared, like those of the men under attack, into a small stream near the location of the bodies. Pete had reported that he had not yet found sign to show where any of those men re-emerged.
The man, Panther Pete, made no comments on the perpetrators who took out the dead men. But Fred had no trouble making a guess that was really a certitude and said nothing aloud. Seems like Chris Larabee's missing men could defend themselves pretty damn well.
Fred reminded himself that the terrorists were from desert-like country themselves and would be right at home in these arid and semi-barren surroundings. The missing man was probably still on the trail of Larabee's own missing teammates. Hernandez felt a headache coming on. One finger tapped unconsciously at the two-way radio that he'd been contemplating as if it was Yorrick's skull.
"Sir?" Hans Gartner, one of the FBI agents remaining with their cleanup crew, stood in front of Hernandez, looking anything but respectful.
"Agent Gartner." Hans sniffed and touched his carefully knotted tie, looking pointedly at Fred Hernandez's rather scruffy looking, slept-in clothing. Hans raised his hands and smoothed back already perfectly slicked black hair. "We do have this in hand now. If you and what's left of your party would like to leave?"
Fred shifted his weight, heel digging into the sandy ground under his added pressure, and forced a full-wattage smile at Gartner. "Agent Gartner, if you are certain your men can tidy this all up?"
If the other man could read the false bonhomie, he gave no sign, simply preened again and nodded sharply. "Of course. In fact, let me remind you, if the FBI had been informed of this cell in the beginning, we could have stopped the kidnapping of federal agents and prevented the plotting activities of these criminals on our nation's soil."
Seizing the moment, Hernandez nodded silently and gave a hand motion to his second in command and single remaining agent here. His assistant was consulting with the returned Panther Pete, and waved back. The two stood over by a small, borrowed helicopter, little better than a traffic bug, with one large Plexiglas-bubble and four seats. The pilot was another borrowed resource, though not as colorful as Clem Fortnight. He was, as his tiny helicopter suggested, a local traffic reporter for a radio station. Fred sighed.
Leaving the prick, 'Agent' Gartner, behind, Hernandez wended his way through the remains of the camp to where his men stood beside the small helicopter. He could see the pilot still inside at the controls. Stopping past all the activity and out of immediate over-hearing range, Fred finally lifted the two-way to his lips and clicked the transmit switch to 'ON'.
"Chris!" JD's alarmed shout interrupted Chris Larabee as he spoke with his retrieved agents. Everyone turned to look upstream to where Dunne was bounding back, Tanner right behind him but angling up the near hillside in a swift, purposeful lope.
Larabee rose to his feet, feeling a new tension at Dunne's anxious expression. He snapped out, "Report."
"Fred just called in." JD came to a staggering halt in front of the gathered men, quickly braced by Sanchez with a large hand on the boy's heaving shoulders. JD held out the small walkie-talkie that he'd had clipped to his waistband. "I told him we had Buck and Ez. His men report that at least one terrorist is still on the loose, maybe heading our way."
"CLEM!" Chris spun around and shouted even though his throat mike would reach the pilot they'd left behind. He understood instantly why Vin had taken the hill and was already disappearing over it in the direction of the Huey.
"Right here, boss." Fortnight's voice was clear and unafraid. "Figure there's a wild bogie out there, huh?"
Everyone except Ezra and Buck could hear him. Those two simply watched and waited, still huddled together on the ground beside Nathan Jackson.
"Yeah." Chris moderated his tone in slight embarrassment. "Tanner is coming over the hill, heading to your position. Get out of the bird and dig in, find cover."
When Chris turned back, Jackson was helping Buck get Ezra on his feet. Foot, Chris frowned. Before he could say anything, Nathan had shoved his nearest shoulder into Standish's belly and flipped the man easily up onto his shoulder in a fireman's carry. Buck looked a bit disappointed, but picked up Jackson's satchel and kit instead.
"Alright, we do this by the numbers." He eyed his men, they were all tired but looked alert. "JD, point. Josiah, right flank. Buck?"
"Left flank, got it." Wilmington tossed Jackson's stuff to the man who caught it one-handed and hooked it over his free shoulder. He stole a quick look over at Ezra.
"Nate?" Chris bit out.
"Right up the middle." Jackson's placid response had the others smiling. Ezra, hanging upside down was busily checking the load on a pistol he'd purloined from Nathan's stash. He knew how to keep his weight centered to prevent himself from over-tipping Jackson so he was leaning out precariously over Nate's spine, but he wanted to be ready to watch the man's back and keep an eye on Buck, on the others. He raised his head stiffly and twisted his neck until he saw Buck Wilmington. Their eyes met for just a moment. Silently, promises were made and then Buck moved out and Ezra relaxed down onto Nathan's back.
"I'll be right behind you." Chris Larabee felt fully confident that he and his men could handle this. Taking the two-way up to his mouth, he keyed in transmit and greeted the man from the CIA. "Hey, Fred. Hear trouble's coming our way?"
Fred relaxed at the sound of Chris Larabee's voice. The man instilled confidence. Even though Fred was probably of higher rank among federal agents, he admitted to himself that Larabee was one of those born leaders that you just naturally followed. He spoke quickly, wanting to make sure that no time was wasted, sure that Chris would know what to do once he understood. "Yeah. We caught up to the shoot-out your wandering boys put on." He grinned good-naturedly at Larabee's snort, then continued quickly, "Seems that they missed one, though, and he's still unaccounted for. Took off with Dressler to catch up to Standish and Wilmington, only he doesn't know that's who they are."
"Fred?" Chris was getting frustrated, Hernandez might be a good man, but he was taking way too long to say whatever needed saying.
"Name might be 'Ali'. Anyway, he thinks he's on the trail of the Mosher boys."
"Shit." Larabee looked over to where Buck was tightening his earpiece, courtesy of JD earlier. Keying his mike, Chris spoke, "Buck? Ezra? We've got a wildcard out here somewhere hunting you two."
Wilmington's head shot up and his eyes flew to where Standish was draped over Nathan Jackson's shoulder. At that moment, Nate half-swung around, calling gruffly, "Ezra! Stop fighting me! I can't carry you if you start trying to shove yourself around up there!"
"Put me DOWN, Mr. Jackson." Ezra's voice, carried on the mike system now, sounded sharply in everyone's ears.
"Ez, calm down. We still got to get out of here." Buck moved back toward his partner.
"Everyone stops now." Chris didn't shout, but only with intense will-power. He hit the switch on the walkie-talkie again. "Fred, thanks. We owe you again. We'll be alert. See you in Denver?"
"You never know. Fibbies aren't too happy with me right now, gotta go. Watch your backs. Hernandez out." Fred closed down the radio and tucked it back into the small leather holster on his belt. Time to pick up his marbles and head for home.
Chris shoved the radio into a vest pocket. He eyed his men, all moving again, but low to the ground now and much more alert. Ezra had subsided on Nathan's shoulder after Buck's short command. Chris smiled. Looks like they got somewhere in spite of everything if Ezra's taking orders from Buck without complaint. He moved up closer to Ezra and Nathan, eyes moving constantly, ready to block any attack from the rear. He dipped his chin and spoke to the team. "Let's move it, boys," he flashed a feral grin, "with some attitude."
Vin topped the hill and skidded down the far side, ending up shoulder to shoulder with Clem who'd found cover at the foot of the hill near some stunted trees. "How you doing?"
Fortnight had both long bony hands clamped around the butt of his forty-five, the nose aimed at the dirt at his feet, but poised to rise. He tipped his head to the side and tossed a vivid grin at Tanner. "Doing just fine, thank ya." He sniffed the air. "Could use a joint about now."
Vin could hear the reminiscent longing in the older man's tone. He shook his head, those days of maryjane were long over on the job, but back in Clem's time, might have been different. "Sorry, no can do."
"And that's a damn shame." Clem kept his eyes squinted as he scanned the area, catching sight of Tanner joining in.
Vin swept the terrain with easy moves of his head, eyes picking out landmarks, mind quickly assessing and comparing shapes and shadows with each sweep, looking for the inconsistency, the change. There!
"Got him!" Tanner flattened, rifle bore coming in line with his unmoving head, eyes fixed on the head of a man, barely visible among boulders near the mouth of the river. "He's waiting for you guys, right before the lake, low, at your two o'clock."
"Everyone got that?" Chris' voice came on.
The others quickly chimed in. Nathan settled Ezra to the ground and then crouched low and ran ahead. Chris came up even with a rising Standish and shoved him down again with a firm hand on his shoulder. "Not this time, Ezra. Stay there."
Buck spared a look back to see Larabee moving past Ezra, and Ezra climbing onto all fours, intent on following, a pistol gripped in one fist as he began to crawl forward. Damn it, the man was a hazard to himself! Wilmington wasn't about to leave Ezra out there. He slowed and veered towards the center of their pattern.
"JD, drop back, copy?" Chris didn't want his man to be exposed to the shooter before the rest of them were there to help.
"Chris, I think I can sneak closer under his sights." Dunne was already down on his stomach and trying to emulate Vin Tanner's ability to ooze over rough ground.
"No." Chris' bark was just above a whisper. "Dunne, maintain your position."
"Yes, sir," came back with a sigh.
By now, Josiah, on the right flank had moved up hill slightly and was paused at the final bend of the waterway before the lake. From what Vin had said, he should be above and to the shooter's right, in the morning sun, a blind spot. Sanchez settled his large automatic rifle in his grip and kept moving, edging slowly closer to the open land beyond the hill.
"See him yet, Josiah?" came over his earpiece just as he spotted the same irregularity that Tanner had seen. Sanchez settled down, setting his sight.
"Yep." He fiddled with the gunsight. "Got him in the cross hairs."
Nathan had begun to edge to the side, closer to Wilmington's assigned place, moving up on Dunne. "JD," he murmured, "I'm on your right flank."
"Got you," JD whispered back, with a nod as he looked over his shoulder where he lay on the riverbank.
Chris dragged himself up beside Dunne now, having caught up with the younger agent. He tapped JD on the shoulder and they moved forward together.
Vin pushed up to his knees, keeping his rifle steady against his shoulder, eye squinting along the barrel. He ignored Clem beside him, knowing the man was watching out for him, though as far as they knew, there was only one shooter left. Want to hear that story later, he thought, watching the target who remained still.
Buck tore the mike off his collar and shoved it in his pant pocket then caught Ezra by the scruff of the neck. He had to duck back as Ezra's fist full of pistol whipped around. He caught it with his free hand and they rolled over together, down the riverbank and, with a small splash, into the water.
Ezra gulped in a combination air and water, sheer anger keeping him from gagging and cursing. Instead, he silently battered at Buck's hand with his own, angered by this sudden protectiveness. It's only my fucking ankle that's messed up! How dare he! Too much tension, too much emotional baggage and too many surprises, that's all he could later say to explain his next action. Ezra reared back, twisted around, opened his mouth and bit Buck on the ass.
Josiah sat quietly, legs crossed Native American style, upturned wrists resting on the sides of his kneecaps. He contemplated Oohm. It seemed safer than thinking about his teammates at the moment. Even that tiny chink was enough to cause a catastrophic flashback and his fingers, moments before delicately shaping two perfect circles, now curled back into fists. Dear god, things could have gone so very badly wrong.
Vin strolled over to the dead terrorist's body, Clem Fortnight ambling at his side, whistling god knew what. Vin tipped the body over with the toe of one boot. He counted three distinct shots, two body shots, not his, and his head shot. He had to give Clem credit, the man could shoot. Based on the angles, he figured the shot to the clavicle was Clem's. That meant the heart shot was Josiah's.
JD had fished the man's weapon out of the marshy edge of the lake and was stripping it down now. Better safe than sorry. Vin craned his neck to look upstream. He could see the cluster of others up there. From what he'd heard over the wire before things quieted down, he was just fine where he was, thank you kindly. He shook his head and grinned, spitting across the narrow river mouth.
When Buck shrieked, Chris had startled right up off the ground like he'd been hit himself. The gunman rose for the easy kill shot and was promptly perforated by two of Team Seven plus one crazy pilot. Weird arithmetic, but it had worked.
Chris dove back to earth at the barrage of fire and then climbed back to his feet, looking royally pissed, when Vin gave the all clear. Nathan was already charging back upstream to where Ezra and Buck were flailing around in the water. Chris had roared something to Josiah about taking charge and tore off after Jackson.
Josiah sighed and carefully uncurled his fists. Chris was still alive. Ezra and Buck, though rather unbalanced at the moment, seemed more or less intact. Josiah flinched and his fingers reformed the fists before he could stop them. The image of Ezra sitting up in the water with bloody canines exposed had taken the oomph out of Josiah. Right. Oohm. Josiah tried to concentrate.
Clem had taken one look at the mess up the crick and ambled back over to his waiting Huey. She really was a placid old cow, but very faithful. He patted her once on the nose and then sat beneath her in the shade as the sun continued to rise. Sooner or later these boy-ohs would all need a ride back to town, some town. He grinned and produced a twisted length of paper, tapped it on his knuckles and lit it with a long wooden match struck on his flight suit. He inhaled deeply, let himself roll down onto his back and held the sweet smoke inside. The good life was all around you, all you had to do was know how to appreciate it. Sweet.
JD joined Vin on the bank, wiping his greasy hands on his jeans. With a jerk of his head upstream, he asked, "Think we should go down there?"
"Nope." Vin turned and spotted Josiah sitting on a sunny rock outcrop on the hillside. He turned and moseyed up that way, ignoring JD's panting presence as the hill turned steep. Figure they had some time to kill.
Chris crouched in front of Ezra, arms spread wide, but not touching. Ezra had pushed himself upright to his knees in the flat riverbed, and sat on his heels. Hell, that had to hurt. From what Nathan and Buck said earlier, Ezra had a badly swollen ankle. Didn't look like he was feeling it now though. Chris frowned and duck-walked closer through the shallow whitewater. Ezra growled and Chris stopped. "Ezra. You need to calm down now."
Ezra's hands were fisted on his thighs. His shoulders were stiff and high and shaking, and his eyes radiated his ongoing fury. The greens blazed with his anger and Chris frankly had never seen his undercover agent look anything like this before. What was really scary though, was Ezra's bloody smile. Literally. His white teeth were rimmed with red gore. Well, maybe not gore, but definitely showed blood. Chris swallowed and rocked back on his feet, watching Ezra. Maybe he needs a bit more time.
"You need more time, Ezra?"
Ezra growled and his grin, which was starting to worry Chris, seemed to grow. Actually, as he studied it, he realized it really wasn't a grin at all, it was Ezra baring his decidedly bloody teeth. Jesus.
Nathan kept flicking stolen glances over at Ezra, contained for the moment by Chris. Hell, if I hadn't seen it with my own eyes . . . he looked back down at Buck's ass cheek. He'd dragged the dress trousers and boxers down once he finally convinced Wilmington to stop hollering and rolling in the river. Ezra hadn't actually penetrated skin, but he had torn the thin, fine cloth of both pieces of clothing.
"How bad is it?"
Chris' voice sounded remarkably shaky and Nathan's head came up sharply. He looked over at him and past him to Ezra. What the? Nathan already noted that only Ezra's upper teeth had made it to the skin, but they'd dug a healthy arc of impressions in Buck's gluteus maximus. So why was Ezra showing blood? Then he realized what happened.
"Old Buck'll be fine. That's likely Ezra's own blood, Chris. He probably abraded his gumline chomping down on this tough old ass." Nathan chuckled at Buck's muffled objection. To be safe, with quick, skilled hands Nathan was cleaning the bite marks with an alcohol disinfectant, swabbing the area with one hand, using his other to shove Buck's head back down. Again. This both settled the man and put a cork in his mouth. Whenever Buck caught a breath, coming up from the water, he began bellowing for Ezra again, with some rather startling threats. "Just get Ezra to rinse his mouth."
Chris eyed Ezra again. Rinse? I'll be lucky if he doesn't bite me too. "You done over there yet, Nate?" Chris was beginning to sound strained.
Jackson stared down at Buck's buttocks. This would be a hickey to beat all hickeys, he thought. Likely marked for life. The arc of tiny black and blue marks and associated bruising from the cloth forcefully rubbed against skin was very colorful already. Painful, probably. Life threatening, likely only to Ezra - if Buck gets a hold of him. Nathan shook his head at his thoughts, then glanced up and over to Larabee.
"Yeah, I'm done." He smacked Buck's ass on an undamaged section. "Get off me, Buck!"
Wilmington rolled over and off Jackson's knees and yanked up his trousers, glaring across the stream at Ezra. He wasn't yelling anymore and, seeing Ezra sitting there with an unearthly grimace and wet, spiky hair, his anger suddenly evaporated like a balloon deflating. "Shit."
Chris flung a scowl over his shoulder at Wilmington, then dropped forward onto his knees in the water in front of Ezra. "Ezra. You're freaking us all out here. Stop it." He spoke in a low undertone, meeting Ezra's stare head on.
With an inner curse, Chris watched the fury flicker and die and a calculating look enter Ezra's face. "Nope. No. No way, Ezra. Stop whatever it is you're thinking right now." Chris leaned forward until his hands rested on Ezra's knees. "You made your point."
He was still trembling internally, but he was starting to think again. The wave of red fury that had engulfed him was receding now and he spat out the taste of blood. His own from what Nathan had just said. Chris was watching him warily, having subsided into silence again.
With a single disdainful glance over at Buck Wilmington, Ezra met Chris' eyes and nodded slowly. "Okay." Succinct. To the point. Rather like his teeth had been. A bubble of laughter began to rise deep inside. It was funny. Now. He choked on the hoot and saw Chris begin to look panicked so he waved his hands helplessly in the air and the laughter finally pealed out.
"Oh, that's rich, Ezra." Buck's bitter tone only seemed to goad Ezra into further peals of laughter.
Chris caught him and stepped up out of the water, dragging Ezra with him, ignoring the man's continuing laughter that was now dissolving into giggles. Dropping Ezra on the riverbank, he flung himself down beside him and drove a hand through his wet blond hair, flinging it back from his face. He looked down at Ezra who was lying there chuckling more slowly and he shook his head.
"You know, Ez, you looked like a damn vampire there for a minute."
"I did?" An almost-smirk turned up the corners of Ezra's mouth and he sounded satisfied and curious at the same time.
They were the first conversational words that Ezra had said since he attacked Buck, and Chris found them reassuringly normal. For Ezra.
JD squatted on his heels, arms extended and resting on his kneecaps. It really was a pretty spot, the small river rolling around the bend into the marshy lake. The hillsides were dry scrabble, with only very stunted looking trees poking up here and there among a toss of boulders and rocky soil. He raised his chin toward the sun, nearly overhead now. He was dry, had dried out over an hour ago. It was nice, peaceful. Well, since Buck stopped yelling, and he'd stopped a couple of hours ago.
The rush of the white water over rocks, streaming out in a wide fan into the marshy water, made for a delta effect that Josiah hadn't seen since his days in the air over the Far East. He shivered, not from cold, but from a past that had a tendency to resurface, bringing with it ugly memories. His meditation had finally taken hold and he'd held a level of consciousness that had eased his tension after some reflections. Now, he was just lazing in the sun, enjoying being out of doors. He tipped his face back, letting his head rest on his folded arms, raised up behind him. Take it when you can get it.
Vin had enjoyed communing with nature for a spell, but he had a puzzle to solve and wasn't content to simply sit with the mystery. Once things settled down a while back, he'd wandered down to where Chris Larabee was sitting against a rough cut-out of bank, likely formed during a flood. It gave the blond some shade as the day heated up. Vin had nodded to Nathan who was wading in the marsh, pant legs rolled up to his knees.
Nathan winked and nodded back to Vin before returning to his foraging. He had already discovered several herbs that he'd only read about before. His night class on homeopathic medicine would be thrilled. He uprooted selectively, he wasn't about to strip Mother Nature, despite a pulse of avarice that tempted him with the excitement of these discoveries. He didn't even notice as Vin moved on.
"Hey, Cowboy." Vin slumped down beside Larabee.
"How much longer you reckon we've got here?"
Chris finally opened his eyes and arched his back, stretching before cocking a wrist to check his watch. "At least another hour, maybe two."
"Think I'll wander back up stream some more, see if I can meet up with that 'Henry' character."
Hazel eyes slewed around and the blond's mouth tightened. "Keep your mike on, and watch yourself."
"Sure." Vin stood up easily, his length stretching to full height as he twisted first one way, then the other. He lifted an eyebrow over to where Ezra and Buck sat, about twenty paces downstream, facing each other. Ezra's arms were folded over his chest and he had a stubborn set to his features. Vin nearly burst out laughing at the pleading look on Buck's face. Couldn't hear what was being said, but they'd been at it for a while now, ever since Chris laid down the law and sent them over there to calm down and make up. Vin turned to look down at his friend and boss.
Chris felt someone watching him and looked up to meet Vin's inspection. He shrugged, knowing where Tanner had been looking a moment ago. "They'll get there."
Vin nodded. Then, with a simple salute, two fingers to his temple, Tanner drifted off, picking up speed until he was slow-jogging along the bank, head turning to look left and right as he moved along.
Chris relaxed where he sat, watching Vin disappear around the bend in the little river. From what Ezra and Buck had said, this Henry character had only helped them so Vin was not likely in any danger. He turned his attention to the troubled twosome. Ornery. That best described both of them, which was why they were butting heads right now. He chuckled, Buck's finally met his match.
Leaning back on one elbow, Chris tossed a pebble lazily into the passing water. He kept his head turned slightly, listening for Clem's chopper to return. When Fred Hernandez had introduced him to the pilot, he thought Hernandez was wildly out of line, and then he got to know Fred . . . and Clem. Clem Fortnight was one of those jewels in the rough. Old enough to have a bucketful of experience, a lifetime of know-how and the balls to enjoy it. Chris snorted. Never thought I'd envy a circus pilot.
He turned over on his stomach, looking up in the direction of JD and Josiah. Those two had chosen to hang out up on the crest of the overlooking hill. Both seemed lost in sun worship. He closed his eyes again, feeling much as he imagined a cat might feel in the sun, lazy and content. The threat was over, the body had been removed by Clem's copter to the base camp of what was now the FBI. Thanks to Fred's, long-distance, running of interference, the ATF continued to be a misty background to the events. Clem's role with the CIA operative got him in and hopefully would get him back out of the camp, minus the dead terrorist. Then Clem was coming back here to give them all a lift.
Clem had warned him that he might have to do a fuel run first, but he'd be back before dark, even have some supplies if it looked like they'd have to spend the night. Chris had been in contact with Travis, too. So there were no worries about unauthorized leave or out of state duties. They'd ended up in New Mexico, of all places. Chris felt drowsy and pushed himself back up. With Vin out of sight, he had no intentions of falling asleep.
"Ezra, please." Buck's throat was aching and his voice was hoarse. He really wanted to rub his rear end, too, but didn't dare.
"We haven't even begun to plumb the depths of my displeasure, Mister Wilmington."
Buck blinked. "Shit, you were calling me Buck before."
"Before you decided I didn't have whatever you think it takes to perform as a qualified agent."
"Ezra, that's just not fair." Buck wiped at his face, weary and frustrated but not prepared to give up this fight. "I was worried about you. Admit it, you're still not a hundred percent from that concussion!"
"I admit . . . nothing!" Ezra's eyes flashed and he lifted his chin.
Buck decided to try another tack. He slowly reached across the void between them and touched the limp, faded bloom still miraculously pinned to Ezra's lapel. "Still got it, huh?"
Ezra dropped his chin and looked down in surprise, momentarily shocked out of his well-developed aggravation. He caught sight of the small, wilted orchid. The one that Buck had given him so romantically. Lord, he couldn't even begin to remember when. Could it have been only two nights ago? He stared at it, his arms falling to his sides and then one hand moving up to toy with the creped petals. He remembered very well what Buck had said then. And there was Greg, standing him up, again. Ezra stared at the tiny flower and sank into thought.
Buck sat back. Finally! Finally I got through to him. The man knows how to hold a grudge. Buck wiggled uncomfortably. Ezra was looking thoughtfully at the small flower so Buck held his peace. Please, please let him come around.
Ezra found himself examining at his life as he stared blankly at the tiny orchid. He had been so desperately hopeful with Greg, even after being treated badly several times. Buck Wilmington had been a total surprise. Since he'd joined the team, he'd admired the man's physique from a distance, rather the way a connoisseur appreciates a bottle of good wine, without sampling it.
Ezra contemplated Buck Wilmington in, he hoped, an abstract way. He ignored a heat growing below his belt as he tried to stringently examine the man. Buck had a sterling character, despite his flagrant flirtations. His heart was so large that it encompassed the whole team. Ezra could bring to mind many instances of Buck's selflessness when it came to Chris or JD, or the others. And me? Had Buck ever gone out of his way for me before that night? Ezra had to admit that Buck had helped out on more than one occasion, and not just on the job.
Somehow, the others were all involved in Buck's pressing of this suit. Ezra shot a suspicious glance over at Chris who sat peacefully upstream, gazing out at the world through sun-glazed eyes. Chris would never lie to me. Abruptly, Ezra stood up.
Buck was just getting ready to try again when Ezra jumped to his feet, nearly toppling over on his bad ankle. The man made a face and hobbled away. Buck got up and stood watching as Ezra stalked over to where Chris sat silently. Buck had a bad feeling about this.
Here comes trouble. Chris straightened, turning to watch Ezra's approach. No, not good. He mentally braced himself.
"Mr. Larabee." Ezra thumped down on the ground, setting his injured ankle out in front of him, one hand soothing the new throbbing that walking on it had caused.
"Ezra, you shouldn't be walking on that!" Nathan Jackson called out from the marshy bogs, quite a distance away.
Ezra closed his eyes briefly. Then with a look of the inevitable, waved weakly towards Nathan. When Jackson didn't yell again, Ezra breathed in relief, turning to check on their medic. He chuffed in amusement as he realized that Nathan was wading through the wet weeds bordering the small lake, looking down intently. It's a wonder he even noticed.
"When it comes to us, he sees everything." Chris' voice carried a degree of resignation that only a former patient of Nathan's could truly appreciate.
Ezra smiled. Then he settled himself and turned to study Chris.
"You wanted something?" Chris was not comfortable with a silent Standish. Never a good thing.
"The truth." Ezra didn't elaborate. He honored Chris Larabee that way. Chris was an extremely intelligent man and Ezra knew that Chris would understand what was being asked and would prefer simplicity and directness. Ezra could accommodate.
Chris bowed his head. Time to pay the piper. He scrubbed at his face with both hands and then lifted his eyes to Ezra's. The pale greens were clear and steady. No more anger or conniving. He nodded. "The truth." He cleared his throat and spared a glance back over at Buck. He could see the bleak look there on his old friend's face. This could all turn out badly and Buck knew it. But Chris wasn't about to piss in Buck's puddle. He shifted his gaze back to Ezra.
"Buck fell in love with you the day you walked in the door at our office." Chris waited a beat, then continued, "He talked to me about it right off." Chris' gaze wandered away from Ezra's blank face, following the soaring glide of a hawk in the clear blue sky. The bird became a speck as it circled higher. "I told him to keep his hands off."
"Why?" Ezra was amazed that he was calmly having this conversation with his boss.
"Oh, the usual. That sort of thing complicates life for everyone."
"'Sort of thing?'"
"An affair." Chris shrugged, then watched as the hawk plummeted earthward.
"So why now?"
Chris closed his eyes briefly, then opened them again. "He watched you all the time." A darting glance at Ezra's face noted that it paled at his words. "Quietly. I only heard about it when you got involved with someone he didn't approve of."
"That's when he'd come out to the ranch, shit-faced drunk." Chris began to play with the band of his watch. "And he only talked about it after he sobered up, come morning."
"So you and he talked about me?"
"You were driving him nuts, Ezra." Chris met Standish's eyes again. "He couldn't bare it. Then you connected with Greg."
"You knew about Greg." Ezra felt himself warming now, blushing. All my dalliances. All my indiscretions. Fodder for them. And Greg's infidelities. Ezra bit his lip.
"Yeah. Buck was crushed. Figured that Greg was perfect for you." Chris frowned. "Until he saw what the creep was up to on the side."
"Oh." Ezra's world was tumbling. All his careful façade at work had been meaningless. If Chris and Buck knew, then by now, the whole team knew. He licked he lips and felt his jaw tighten.
"Ezra!" Chris spoke quietly, but sharply. "It wasn't like that . . . whatever you're thinking right now. Buck loves you!" Chris inhaled deeply and continued. "He couldn't handle seeing you hurt again. That's when he came to me for help."
"And you gave it to him."
"We talked. He had long since convinced me that this was no fickle romance. He's heart-deep in your pocket, Ezra." Chris cleared his throat again. Got a feeling I'm going to be doing that a lot. "Somehow, the team got involved."
"Everyone." Ezra wasn't asking.
"Yeah." Chris saw the hawk rise again, something in his beak. He jutted his jaw out slowly. "They all know. We all care about you, Ez." Larabee switched his gaze back to Standish again. "You're one of us. So is Buck. Frankly, I think he could make you happy."
"So you took it upon yourselves to interfere in my life."
Yep. Knew it was trouble coming. Chris waited.
Ezra slowly turned to look over at Buck Wilmington, looking woefully discomforted and miserably uneasy. The man was literally twitching. And I bit him in the ass. Ezra couldn't suppress the wide smile that surfaced. He is a dear, sweet man. And he cares about me. He loves me. Ezra swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and blinked away a watering at his eyes. He took a breath and rounded back to Chris.
Ezra kept his smile as he quietly said, "Thank you."
It was a beautiful day, the sun was high now, a light, playful breeze kept things pleasant, the river was shrinking to a frothy stream, and Vin Tanner was in his element. He really didn't care if he solved the puzzle of 'Henry' or not. He was having too much fun.
Between battling with each other, Ezra and Buck had managed to convey a report on events, as they knew them, since being kidnapped outside of the restaurant. Most of what they told was the other side of the coin from the experiences of the rest of Team Seven, in hot pursuit. So the camp, Dressler, even the information on the Mosher boys, all of that was already known in the broad strokes if not the fine details.
The fascinating part had been their encounter with the stranger in some old Anasazi ruins, ones that Ezra claimed had never been made public, perhaps not located since their abandonment centuries earlier. He had been momentarily distracted from his disgruntlement with Wilmington, long enough to wax poetically over the pictographs in the ruins - and the flute music. Buck had simply grunted and said that 'Tonto' was hard to figure, but had been helpful. It had taken another round of grouching to discover that 'Henry' had asked that he be called 'Tonto'. Vin grinned in memory of Ezra and Buck nearly nose-to-nose over old 'Henry' and his flute.
Vin lengthened his stride from a jog to a lope and began to whistle lightly. As the hillsides steepened even more, forming a near canyon, he spotted the high, dark shadows on the far side of the stream. He came to halt and stared up. It was amazing how difficult it was to see the ruins from below. If Ezra and Buck had not described them, he doubted he'd have found them.
He keyed open his mike, grimacing as he remembered he's promised to keep it open. "Chris?"
"Found the ruins. Doesn't look too tough a climb. I'm going up."
"Won't be long." Vin could imagine the simmer at the other end of the wire. He began to pick his way across the stream on some higher rocks, a natural ford.
"If you're not back in an hour, we're coming after you."
Vin laughed aloud and leapt to the far shore, hands rubbing together in anticipation.
Ezra waited until he was certain that Chris was finished talking with Vin Tanner over the wire. He wasn't worried about Vin, those ruins were wonderful and Henry was marvelous. But, he could see the concern in Larabee's eyes as Chris released his throat mike.
"Now, about the surveillance."
"Surveillance?" Chris tried for innocence.
"At the restaurant."
Shit. Chris found himself looking down in embarrassment. "I cut it off as soon as Buck gave you the orchid." He sighed and waited, head still bowed.
Ezra was amazed. Chris Larabee appeared to be shamed by his and the team's actions. It gave Ezra another pause. Instead of tearing into the man with the indignation that had still been simmering, he sat silently, thinking.
When no acid comment was forthcoming, Larabee dared to look up. What he and the others had done was very unethical; they'd been swept up in the crisis that loomed for Buck and, yes, damn it all, for Ezra. Even if he didn't know it. Ezra was staring directly at him, but those green eyes were unfocused. He seemed lost in thought. "Ezra?"
Ezra shook his head, blinking and licking his lips. He raised one hand and his thumb stroked his upper lip as he took in the sight of a penitent Larabee. "So you *were* watching?"
Larabee shrugged. "Listening." He quirked his lips, "We had the table wired." He hesitated, then added, "And a camera on the front of the restaurant."
"All highly illegal."
"Yeah." Chris sighed. "Seemed like a good idea, at the time." He actually found himself smiling at Ezra. "We wanted to help."
"Five fairy godfathers?" Ezra smiled back, forgiving them all at that moment.
"Hey," Chris flashed one of his rare, charmingly off-center smiles, "Watch who you call fairy."
Ezra's raised eyebrow and half-affronted look had Chris flushing with new embarrassment as he realized how that sounded. Ah, shit. Larabee grabbed up some straggling weeds and tossed them at Ezra. "You know what I mean, you bastard." His affectionate tone was enough to soften the words, give them a friendly meaning.
Ezra grinned and blew out the tiny, almost powdery, mess of greenish-brown leaves and stems that had attached themselves to his lips and nose, waving a hand in front of his face at the same time. Before he could answer, however, they both heard the sound of an approaching helicopter and automatically reached for weapons as they looked up.
Vin scrambled up the pockmarked face of the steep hillside. In the daylight, he could see that the seemingly natural indentations were actually ancient foot and hand holds. Warm sun on his back, he was content with his exploration, happy to find such a treasure in the wilderness. The dry air and sweet smells of wild herbs, growing in snarls of old twisted roots near his climb route, were heady and stimulating. The sounds of tiny creatures, rattling and scratching away from him, kept him alert. He checked each hold visually before placing a bare hand in it.
Pulling himself up to the cave-like entry, he could see the clever way the adobe had been used to supplement nature's own shelter, a wide, deep natural cavern open to the small river below. How in the world Ezra and Buck had ever stumbled upon it, in their flight from the kidnappers, was beyond him. Vin was impressed. He dusted off his hands on his jeans and stretched, surveying the view from the entrance. Good defensive position if needed, high enough to avoid any flash floods, close to water. He stepped to the edge and looked up assessingly. The hill was really the bluff face of what seemed to be a plateau. Might even be more sign on top. Of course, anything there would have been even more exposed and had centuries to wear away with erosion. He shifted and used his heel as a pivot to face the dark behind him.
Chris offered Ezra his shoulder as a crutch and the two made their way back down stream. Buck had gotten to his feet and joined them, looking questioningly at Ezra. Ezra simply shook his head and reached out to touch Buck's face in a gentle admonishment.
"We will have to have a longer talk, later, my friend." He made sure that Buck could hear his reconciliatory tone.
Buck brightened considerably and cast a grateful glance over Ezra's head at Chris. Chris nodded once, then looked toward where Clem's Huey was crouching down by the little lake. "Ez? You mind coming on with Buck so I can go ahead?"
"No, that's fine, Mr. Larabee," Ezra pulled his arm from around Larabee's shoulders, giving them a light pat as he withdrew. He smiled warmly at Chris' startled look before the man moved on. Then, Ezra turned on one foot to face Buck.
"Here, Ezra." Buck lowered his shoulder in offering.
Carefully adjusting his hold to Buck's taller form, Ezra drew himself up and slipped one arm over the man's wide shoulder. "Thank you, Buck." He allowed himself the luxury of a moment's pause, to lean against the big man. Ezra was so relaxed and at peace, it was as if all the stress and emotional distress he'd felt was an old skin that he'd just shed.
Buck wasn't sure what Chris had said or done but he was eternally grateful. Ezra wasn't angry anymore. Buck had learned his lesson and didn't even have to work on suppressing the urge to offer to carry Ezra to the chopper. Shit, I'd probably look like mincemeat if I tried it. Buck took smaller steps, slowly, to accommodate Ezra's hobbling walk, happy beyond words to have his arm around that slender waist. Think this just might be heaven. He edged over a bit so that Ezra's body was close and warm against his and smiled out at the world, eyes disappearing as his cheeks rounded and his mustache nearly curled at the breadth of his smile.
Josiah and JD had climbed down to meet their teammates at the helicopter and Nathan waded up out of the boggy marsh, a stash of plant stalks, rootlings, and weed heads dangling from an open canvas sack on his shoulder. Just as Nathan dripped his way under the slowing rotors, Chris Larabee made it to the pilot's side window. He looked up, hands braced against the metal hull and waited until Clem stuck his head out.
"How'd it go?"
"No problemo, amigo!" Clem shoved his flying cap back on his head. "Got fueled up too, but to get anywhere interesting from here is going to take a whole hunk of time." He peered over the side of his bird. "I brought supplies in case you fellows want to spend the night here first."
Chris stood back and looked around consideringly. It would be nice to have a bit more rest before they headed back to Denver and a shit-pile of work. He spotted JD nodding vigorously next to Josiah and Nathan, both of whom were smiling in agreement. Nate motioned to his weedy collection, clearly signaling his desire to keep adding to it. Chris turned to watch Buck assisting Ezra up the slight slope to the helicopter. They could probably use some more time before the world comes crashing down around us.
"Sounds good. Thanks."
Before he could continue, Vin's voice came over the wire. "Cowboy! This is . . ." and the wire went dead.
". . . amazing!" Vin was crawling further into the petroglyph room and didn't notice when he scraped his tiny, wired mike against the old and oddly broken doorway.
There was enough natural light at midday to see the simple and dignified etchings into the rock wall at the back of the room. With one finger, he gently traced an antelope's stick figure. His eyes roamed over the complex pattern of animals, plants, objects and human figures. He was drawn to the dancing stick figure, hunched over what looked like a flute. "Kokopelli," Vin breathed out, unaware of how Ezra had reacted in the same way to the sight of the carving.
Sitting down finally, in front of the beautiful wall, Vin Tanner leaned back on both hands and crossed his legs at his ankles. "Chris, you and the boys gotta come see this." He waited for Larabee's usually grumpy reply.
Vin tapped the earpiece and the throat mike fell into his lap. "Shit." He took up the tiny device and could see it was sheered off, rock scratches on the plastic casing bit that remained. Well, hell, that meant company was coming. He rose easily to his feet in a sinuous uncoiling of lean length, then picked his way back through the broken and rough doorways through a series of small empty rooms until he was once more at the place where he'd entered the ruins. From here he could see across the small valley, and some ways up and down the small river. The sun was still up, it was early afternoon. He hadn't come far, so he watched expectantly downstream.
Chris frowned as he gripped the sling seat pole beneath his legs. On one side of him were Ezra and Buck. JD and Nathan sat facing them across the narrow aisle, on either side of the open doorway hatch. Josiah was up in the copilot chair again as Clem pulled them up into the air. JD swore that Vin had to have done something at his end to his wire because all the rest of them had fully functioning sets, even Clem. So what had happened to Vin?
Vin heard it before he saw the dark shape hover into sight above the river valley. Clem got back. Made it a bit easier on everyone. He began to climb back down the bluff. Won't be seen up in the shadow of the cavern and ruins.
"I see him." Josiah's slow, steady phrasing was reassuring to everyone. "He's on the side of a hill, looks almost like a bluff. Climbing down. He's by the river now, waving at us. Looks fine."
No one else spoke, until Chris leaned forward and tapped his mike. "Clem? Can you set down near him?"
"Can do." Fortnight had been studying the terrain and already picked out a spot right on top of a big mesa that Tanner had just climbed down. The valley was too narrow for his baby, and the hillsides were nearly canyon walls, but the high land offered an nearly tabletop level surface. Looked like an old kiva had been there once. He figured to land near it and motioned to Sanchez.
Josiah was startled by the artificial formation that Clem pointed out but nodded and gave a thumb's up. Then he spoke into his mike. "We're going to set down up above Vin, might be a good idea to lower someone first." He looked over at Clem who nodded and gave the universal thumb to forefinger OK sign. "We can send someone down a line to Vin. Pick him up."
"I'll do it!" JD's voice chimed in right on the heels of Josiah's suggestion. He sounded excited and eager.
Chris considered only briefly. "Go in armed, JD, we'll cover from here." Then he looked up, eyes widening as Clem slid down the access from the cockpit area and into view.
Clem smiled brightly at all, tossing his long silk scarf back over his shoulder and striding the length of the ship to the rear where he promptly popped open a storage unit. By the time Nathan and Chris had joined him, he was dragging out a rope ladder with pole crosspieces. It had weights on the ends.
No one said anything about the pilot's appearance in the rear. Chris mentally crossed his fingers that Josiah's flying talents were still up to date. He and Nathan hauled the ladder to the hatch where Clem fitted JD with a harness like a parachutist wears. Then he clipped a line directly to the harness and showed Jackson how to reel JD in with simple hydraulics by the door.
Standing over the open door, the roar of the blades still heavy above their heads, Clem gestured for Larabee and Jackson to drop the ladder over the side. JD stood watching, flexing his hands.
Ezra sat observing from the open circle of Buck's arms. No one had said a word when the two arranged themselves in a tangle on the bench and he was grateful now to have Buck at his back. It was frustrating not being able to be more help. Buck's hands tightened on his arm and hand. Ezra looked up, realizing that Buck's best friend, JD, was now at risk.
Buck, sensing Ezra's scrutiny, looked down to meet the questioning silence. "He's smart and he's tough. He'll be fine." The confidence in his voice didn't have to be faked, he believed it. Turning to his young friend, he called out, "JD, take it easy on Vin! He probably didn't break his mike on purpose." Then Buck flashed a wide grin to tell his friend that he knew everything would be alright.
JD was touched and smiled at the couple. He could see Ezra's eyes shining there, his head tucked in close to Buck's shoulder. Both men smiled back and waved. He waved in turn, then squatted as Clem guided him to the ladder that twisted like a demented snake at his feet. When he looked up, Clem was gone and Chris and Nathan were leaning over him, each bracing him on an arm. Chris gave the go sign, and JD started his descent.
"I'm on it." Clem slid into his seat and retrieved control of his old bird, tapping Josiah once on the shoulder as he passed. Once the other pilot was sure Clem had full possession of the controls, he released his set and peered out the side window to watch the lift.
Vin stared up at the Huey, hovering above him. Well, damn. A rope ladder fell out, unrolling as it dropped. Then JD was coming down.
Clem landed on the mesa with no trouble, flattening a few dry bushes. The team with him all called out their appreciation. Vin Tanner had made a point to climb up the access and thank him personally once he'd climbed up the ladder with JD's help and they'd swooped up and away from the tiny valley.
Getting out of the helicopter, the team quickly passed down and out the supplies that Clem had brought along with their own equipment and gear. Camp was set up within an hour and the Huey tied down in case of wind at Clem's direction. They were rather exposed on the open plateau.
As soon as the team had done some initial sorting and settling in, Josiah let Chris know he was going exploring, explaining about the kiva remains he'd spotted from the air. Vin chimed in asking to go along and soon it was everyone. Curiosity, both from Vin's non-stop descriptions of the ruins below and Josiah's of the kiva, had even Clem and Chris wandering in Sanchez's wake.
Vin kept a sharp eye for holes. He hadn't said anything but if Josiah was right, then there had to be a way to get between the kiva above and the adobe living quarters below. He suddenly realized that the others might not have figured this out. "Stop!" He licked his lips as his friends froze without question. Eyes swiveled to him. "Listen, I think there must have been some way up from the ruins to the top. Especially if that really was a kiva that Josiah spotted."
"So there may be a hole around somewhere?" Chris finished the thought.
"Yep. Only, might be hid, intentional or just from nature's way of it after so long." Vin shuffled one foot forward, testing. "Could just open up under someone who's not careful."
Buck instantly hauled Ezra closer where he was supporting him. Standish started to object. Foolish boy. A chance to snuggle and I should object? He let his arm pull Buck in closer too and felt an answering hug. Now we just lag back here and let the more adventurous spirits prevail. Ezra relaxed against Wilmington.
Nathan, who had been at Sanchez's side, took a tentative step forward again, tapping lightly with his foot. Beside him, Josiah did likewise. To their right, Larabee picked up a broken length of wood and tested the ground as if he had a cane. JD watched and copied the movements with a stick of his own. The men reached the broken circle of adobe bricks without incident. The structure had once been roofed over but all that was left was a circular bench backed by remnants of wall curving inward slightly as they rose. In the center was a jumble of stones that might once have been a fireplace. And, to the side, near a wall and what appeared to be an entrance, was a squarish hole. Dark and gaping.
"Found your way down, Vin." JD stood over it, peering into the darkness below.
Knowing where it was relaxed the rest of the men. Chris sat on the circular bench and was soon joined by Nathan. Josiah, JD and Vin wandered the ruin, looking closely at the structural details that still remained after centuries of abandonment and weather.
Buck helped Ezra over the shell's lowest wall point, stealing a kiss for his trouble.
"Easy, sweetheart, take it nice and slow with that ankle."
Ezra dimpled at Buck and then felt himself falling against the big man as they crossed the wall boundary. "Buck!"
Buck easily caught and braced Ezra, drawing him in for another body hug. "Got you." He kissed his friend sweetly and together they turned to look around the huge empty meeting chamber, both drawing in breath with awe and reverence.
Standing and sitting around the circle of the kiva, Team Seven and Clem Fortnight quieted until no one was speaking. Those who had been wandering about slowing found places around the curved bench, instinctively seeking out separate spots. A tranquil peace seemed to settle over everyone and gazes rose to the bowl of blue sky above them.
Josiah's voice was a bare whispery rumble as he broke the silence. "Back then, the kiva's roof would have been complete, only a smoke hole in the center, no sight of the sky." He stopped speaking and dropped his eyes to look around the circle of his friends. Each face was open, eyes raised still to the sky. With a bare smile, he went on. "This was a space of ceremonies. For seeking the presence of the spirits, for walking with them. Nature was very close to the people, spoke to them. Their dwellings and their lives entwined with the world around them."
Vin Tanner's quiet rasp seemed to rise from the dry earth in the silence following Josiah's words. Ezra shivered slightly and was comforted by Buck's arm hugging him closer as they sat side-by-side on the kiva's bench. Vin said, "I took a spirit walk once. Had to be purified first in a sweat lodge. Felt the cleanest I'd ever been, inside as well as out. Walked up into mountains with air so clear that it knifed my lungs and made my head echo inside."
No one said anything. The place seemed to demand that respect and even the wind was still. Vin smiled up at the warm sun on his face and shook off his vest, letting it fall to the adobe behind him. "I soared with eagles, ran with foxes, dug with a badger." He opened his shirt to the air, letting the dry heat cleanse his sweat away. "Had a vision." He felt no need to say more and no one else spoke.
Silence and sunshine swirled around the friends.
JD broke his hypnotic stare up into the azure field so pure that he felt as if he'd been drowning. With a blink or two, he looked around at his companions. All friends, these men he'd worked with for sometime now, and a new friend, Clem, who'd helped them rescue Ezra and Buck. He breathed evenly and his fingers fumbled with his vest straps then released them, his vest falling off. He pulled his sweatshirt off over his head and let it drop down behind him, too. The thin blue oxford shirt below was unbuttoned and fell off as well. The heat rising from the open, dry land, baked with the high sun, gave him a sense of deep ease, like times his mother had held him when he was a child, safe and warm. He raised his head again to the sun and closed his eyes.
Nathan felt a tiny alarm at the quiet way his friends were acting, all of them beginning to remove clothing there in the sunshine. He wasn't sure why he was disturbed by it, though. As he turned his head, he saw that Josiah, Chris, Vin, and JD had all removed their vests and either opened or taken off their shirts and jackets. Chris sat with his dark tee still on, but his weather breaker was nowhere in sight. Josiah's simple plaid flannel shirt was open, his v-neck white undershirt revealing curls of gray and black chest hair. His chin was raised so high that he seemed to be a flower soaking in the energy of the sun's rays. JD and Vin were both free of all upper clothing now. Vin's thin frame was tanned, he must spend time outside, Nathan thought, assessing the man's condition, skinny but not alarmingly so. JD was white, not a speck of tan. He shouldn't be sitting out in the sun like that. Nathan started to open his mouth, and then paused, feeling a need to give them all this moment of peace. He won't burn for a few minutes. I'll speak to him before it gets dangerous. The small alarm he'd felt faded away. His own fingers began to unfasten his vest and he closed his eyes as he shrugged out of it, savoring the heat of the sun on his skin as he opened his shirt too.
Buck and Ezra opened their eyes as one, beginning to feel connections that had nothing to do with the flesh. A soft kiss on pursed lips, chaste and dry, had them both smiling into each other's eyes. Then Ezra's sure hands were tugging Buck's rumpled tux jacket off and picking open the button studs on the, no longer white, dress shirt beneath. He had to weave his arms through Buck's because Buck was performing the same service for him. Jackets fell to the dusty adobe, and white shirts billowed around them as they rolled their shoulders and pushed their hands under the fine fabrics of their open shirts, fingers stroking lightly on warm damp skins quickly drying in the air.
Clem grinned around at the ATF men. He pulled off his silk flying scarf, his cap left behind in the Huey already. He pushed his jumpsuit off his shoulders and stretched, his old torn tee ignored. He scratched himself and reached for the sky as if he'd fly away. This was the best he'd felt in a very long time.
No one could say how long exactly they sat there in quiet communion, but after Vin finished speaking, no one else said a word. After a time, Nathan had edged over beside JD briefly, touching his rosy skin on one forearm and looking at the pink and white response meaningfully. JD had only nodded and reached back, picking up his pale blue shirt and pulling it on again, though he left it unbuttoned. Nathan had patted him on the shoulder and settled back away from him again.
Chris was the first to move, stretching and standing on stiff knees. He did a deep knee bend and felt his muscles loosen. Around him, the others slowly broke from their meditations, rising to do similar moves to loosen muscles and joints. As everyone stirred, a slight breeze picked up and the coolness was enough to have the men closing up open shirts or pulling back on ones that had been discarded. Reluctantly, everyone put back on their vests.
JD, closest to the dark hole in the earth, spoke first. "How about we all go down? Take a look at the ruins? See those carvings that Buck and Ezra found?"
"They're mighty fine." Vin spoke after clearing his throat, as if it had been disused for some time.
"Best everyone have something to drink first," Nathan suggested, gesturing back to their temporary camp.
Chris nodded for the group. It had been warm and dry but now he began to feel sweat cling to his skin, a slight chilling affect and his mouth felt like paper. "Good idea. There're canteens of water." He looked over at Clem. "How about we use your rope ladder to get down inside?"
"Need to anchor it." Clem walked over to the hole, looking at the stones that rose up from the ground on one side. "Looks like we could hook it over some of these rocks." His long thin frame was like a bird's against the sky behind him.
"I'll go get it!" JD was up and leaping over the rim of adobe in a moment.
"JD! Drink some water first!" Nathan's call was answered with a cheery wave of acknowledgement.
Buck helped Ezra stand and balance on his good leg. They helped each other into jackets without comment. Both remembered the coolness of the shadowy rooms below. Then Buck leaned in so that only Ezra could hear. "Are you sure you want to do this? We've already seen those pictures and that ladder might be a bit hard on your ankle." He rubbed Ezra's firm back possessively without even thinking.
Ezra arched into the stroking hand and nearly purred. He smiled up at Buck. "My arms are strong, I'll just lower myself that way and pull myself up afterwards." His clear green eyes met Buck's dark blue ones. "I'd like to see them again."
Buck tipped his head and kissed Ezra soundly before saying softly into his ear, "Then we go. If you need help-"
"-you'll be there." Ezra lightly cupped Buck's sincere face in his hands. "And I'm very glad of that." He placed a light kiss on Buck's lips and then licked them softly before pulling back enough to smile into Buck's serious expression. "I think I am already depending on it and, Buck, it's a good feeling."
Buck's face opened into a tender smile and his eyes dampened. With a full and happy heart, he gently wrapped his arms around his love and held them close for a moment. He thrilled at the feel of Ezra's answering pressure. He felt as if he was growing taller right there, at least ten feet tall by now, and his throat inexplicably closed up tight so he couldn't answer, but somehow, he knew that Ezra understood. He swallowed with difficulty and rubbed his face on Ezra's shoulder to brush away tears that had squeezed out. Dreams do come true.
Chris watched quietly as Buck embraced Ezra and they murmured together. When he saw the look of happiness and tenderness bloom on Buck's face, Chris nodded with satisfaction, feeling a bit warmer toward life himself at that moment. It had been a long road for Buck, for Ezra, too. Two lonely souls in need. Fortunately, Buck had known exactly what he needed, wanted, from the day that Ezra P. Standish had walked into their Denver office. Chris wondered at the fine hand of fate that had led him to Atlanta and one badly used undercover operative.
As he picked up a canteen and took a sip, he continued to surreptitiously observe these two friends of his as their bond grew before his eyes. It had been worth it, he decided, as he thought back over the months of his private counseling with Buck, his final concession that, yes, Greg was not the right man for their Ezra. He passed the canteen to Josiah who smiled back wisely. Man knows exactly what I'm thinking, likely thinking the same thing too, Chris thought as he leaned against the hull of the chopper and watched all his men pick up small supplies and take some water.
Buck was helping Ezra with a deft degree of reservation now. He won't make that mistake again. Chris suppressed a grin as he thought about the way Ezra had responded to over-protectiveness. Glad my ass was outta there by the time Ezra had his second wind. He paused in thought. Does Ezra realize how we all accept, hell, approve, of them as a couple? Hope our little talk helped. Chris stroked his stubbled jaw and moved to pick up an extra flashlight from the small pile at JD's feet.
Dunne had fished out the store of hand torches from the locker that he and Vin had filled and lugged along with them on their 'adventure.' Chris looked back as Nathan came up beside him and gave him an elbow nudge, smiling and nodding to where Buck was hovering over Ezra. They watching knowingly, seeing the way Ezra was humoring Buck's extra careful handling.
The hole led down into the first room that Ezra and Buck, and later, Vin, had entered from the river's bluff climb. None had noticed the dark opening because it came out in an alcove to the rear of the first chamber, it's small window of light masked. Once everyone was down, Vin led the way through the series of empty rooms to the wall of old carvings.
As the men filed slowly into the room of pictographs, Josiah set down the large camp lantern that Clem had pulled out of a storage bin in the Huey. He fired it up and the warm glow supplemented the sunshine from the crumbling open wall across from the stone engravings. Whistles and hums of appreciation were the only sounds as everyone found a place to sit and view the wall.
With a smile on his face, Ezra leaned back against Buck who had seated himself directly behind Ezra. He had wanted to come back here but never expected it to happen so soon. To share the experience with his teammates was just icing on the proverbial cake. He nestled his head comfortably against Buck's chest and relaxed, his eyes tracing the elegant designs carved centuries earlier.
Buck held his friend close and stared at the engravings over Ezra's shoulder. Ez thinks these are pretty special. He began to study them more closely, interested in seeing what Ezra saw in them. The array of herd animals, a lizard, two desert tortoises, and a coyote were the first things he was able to identify. Then he saw the picture of Henry. No, of that cocoa-something creature.
"Look over there, Ez." Buck pointed to the dancing flute player. "Looks like old Henry."
"That's Kokopelli, Buck." Vin's comment met with nods of recognition from Josiah, Ezra and Nathan. Chris raised an eyebrow in interrogation, but it was JD who spoke.
"Kokopelli." Josiah spoke in his clear voice, dry as dust. "He is a very popular figure of Native American myth. Perhaps a god. He was known for his mischief, his music, his dance, and his affinity for lovers - being also associated with fertility."
"Well, he sure was friendly to us." Buck chuckled. "Helped out quite a bit."
"So, where is he?" JD's impatience was reflected in his quick question.
Buck craned his neck around the room, seeing all his friends and Clem, but no sign of their visitor from the night before. "Don't know."
"Oh, I imagine he comes and goes." Ezra didn't seem the least perturbed by the disappearing Henry.
Chris pushed up to his feet and dusted his rump off with both hands, eyes still on the carvings. He moved closer and one finger lightly traced a leaping antelope. Then he looked down the row of receding, empty doorways that continued past the distance they'd already come. "Think I'd like to see what else is down here while there is still some light."
Vin and JD stood together. "Got my flashlight," Vin said, fishing out the one he'd brought along.
"Where'd they go?" Nathan stood up too, coming over to look at the wall more closely; he was joined by Josiah.
"No one knows," Josiah said softly. "They just disappeared from history's view." He glanced over his shoulder at Clem Fortnight. "You know anything about local legends?"
At his name, Clem climbed to his feet and wandered closer. He stared at the carvings. "Hear things." He struck a pose, chin tucked to stare at the finely carved symbols, hands laced on his flat stomach, back arched. "Never heard a whisper about this place."
Vin stood at the empty hole that had once been a doorway, he looked back over his shoulder at his friends. "Anyone else coming?"
Josiah, Nathan, JD, and Chris all walked over toward Vin as he stepped out of sight. Clem followed as well. Chris stopped at the opening, turning back to where Buck still sat with Ezra in front of him. The boys showed no sign of moving. "We'll be back."
Ezra's eyes were half-lidded, he looked drowsy. Buck lifted his head from where he'd been resting it on Ezra's shoulder. "We'll be here." He tucked a kiss into Ezra's neck and then looked seriously at Chris. "Take care. Strange things happened in this place."
Larabee gave a single nod, then turned away from the room, leaving behind the soft glow of the camp lantern, his two friends exploring their new love, and a wall of secret messages from the past. Before him was another small chamber, empty except for the disappearing back of Nathan Jackson. Through the gap around Nate's body, Chris could see the shapes of more of his men and the bobbing of small light cones. Outside, it was daylight, but in here, except for weak sunlight fighting through crumbled holes in the adobe, it might as well be nighttime. When he heard the crash, his heart leapt in his chest and he grabbed at his throat mike.
"What happened?" He could hear a babble of voices, but no answer.
"What the hell happened?" Chris shoved himself through the next opening, now clear, using both hands on the edges of soft, old adobe to jump through feet first into the dark.
Ezra leaned forward out of Buck's arms. "Go!"
Buck was on his feet in seconds. "Are you sure?" He hesitated, torn between staying with Ezra and charging off to help out with whatever mess the rest of his friends had gotten into.
Ezra fell back on his hands, arms extended, and cricked his neck to look up at Wilmington. "I'm sure." He saw the hesitation in those dark blue eyes. "I'll be fine. I'll just stay right here. What could happen?"
Buck took a deep breath and met Ezra's eyes. "I love you."
"I know." Ezra smiled. "No, go!" He watched his companion snatch a small flashlight from a pocket and hop through the raised doorway, and vanish. Ezra sank back down onto his elbows and stared again at the carvings. Kokopelli seemed to glow, but surely that was just a trick of the gas flame from the lantern.
Ezra and Buck had to make do with older communications hookups from among the stash that JD had brought. The reception was poor and Ezra hadn't heard anything on the wire. He made sure the earpiece and mike were on and waited. He shivered once at an unexpected breeze.
Buck took the doorways like hurdles, leaping over the raised thresholds, pushing back on the side walls as he passed over each one. He had gone through six more chambers before he ran into Chris. Literally.
Chris Larabee, accelerated heart beat filling his throat with fear, jumped through the first opening, then tore head, high-stepping through the others until he found his men. They had moved ahead of him when he'd stopped to make sure Buck and Ezra would be okay. Skidding to a halt in the sixth room, he surveyed the damages with a gulp.
Josiah Sanchez sat, looking flummoxed, on the hard dirt floor, a pile of badly deteriorated adobe bricks tumbled around and under him, along with what appeared to be some dry and powdery, short wooden poles. Nathan Jackson was leaning against one wall, bent over and shaking. JD and Vin were collapsed against each other, and it sounded as if they were crying. Only Clem Fortnight seemed to take whatever had happened in stride. He was standing to the side, lighting what looked like a skinny cigarette. Chris sniffed the air. Oh, shit. It's shit. He sighed and slowly proceeded into the chamber.
Nathan looked up and coughed out a hiccupped greeting, "H-h-hello th-there, Chris." Anything more he might have been inclined to say was choked on a spasm of laughter. Weakly, he waved a hand in front of his face, shaking his head and pointing to Josiah.
Sanchez turned red and bent his head.
What had sounded like sobbing resolved itself into Vin and JD laughing hysterically. And at that point, Buck charged into the room full gallop and smashed into the back of Chris Larabee.
Ezra smiled into Henry's dark, merry eyes. "How nice to see you again."
"Friend Ezra!" Henry squatted down beside the southerner. He looked at the firmly wrapped ankle and then back up at Ezra. "You have been hurt."
Ezra nodded, then shrugged. "Nothing too serious. Just twisted." He smiled. "Never a wise thing to do."
Henry sank down to the ground and opened his pack. "You would like refreshment?"
Putting a hand on Henry's arm, Ezra shook his head. "I don't need anything, my friend. Buck and my teammates are here with me now."
Henry looked around questioningly.
"Oh, something happened further into the ruins," Ezra pointed at the far wall, "and Buck went to see if they need help."
Without another word, Henry closed up his pack and fingered his long flute, suspended from shoulder strap. "You are all staying here tonight?"
"Oh, no. They just wanted to see these beautiful carvings and do a bit of exploring." Ezra nodded to where the alcove was located, adding, "We have set up a small camp on the mesa above, and come down here again through the kiva we found there."
"You are not camping in the kiva?" Henry's voice dropped.
Ezra smiled and shook his head. "No." Then he thought of something, "Is this all yours?"
Henry picked up his flute and smirked. And suddenly Ezra wasn't quite so sure about Henry anymore.
Tumbling into JD and Vin, Buck and Chris fell on top of them on the floor, Buck's flailing legs knocking Nathan off his wall as well. A cloud of dust rose and smothered everyone.
Josiah, off to the side, wiped at his face and pushed himself up, rubbing his sore buttocks with one hand and a shoulder with the other. He watched as the dust settled again and the now filthy men still in a tangle began to claw their way free from each other. He winced at the creative cursing that emerged from the pile-up and stood well clear as first Buck, then Chris staggered backwards over to the wall at his side, each of them blinking blearily and pounding adobe brick dust from their clothing. Both men were coughing.
Vin used JD's struggling form as a support and shoved himself to his feet. He weaved off crookedly to one side and caught himself with a straight arm to the nearest wall, shaking his head as he went, a shower of dust cascading from his shaggy locks.
JD was coughing so hard he was gasping, and Clem reached down a hand and pulled the younger man up to his feet. Dunne couldn't seem to stop hacking and as the others watched, still mastering their own breathing, Clem whacked JD on the back, nearly flinging the young man across the room. With a mighty 'whoo-oomp', JD, sounding like a whooping crane during mating season (a fact that Vin pointed out later), finally cleared his throat and stood unsteadily, hands on his knees as he blinked away tears and breathed through his mouth.
Chris was the first to recover, or at least do something. He sent a short glare at Buck, who waved him off with both hands, and then turned to stare at Josiah. "What in the hell happened in here?" He sent another fierce look at Buck, adding, "Before Buck came wind-milling in."
Josiah bit his lip and admitted, "I fell down. Found a ladder heading up to what seems to be a second story and wanted to look around up there." He shrugged and wiped his hands on his vest, leaving dusty smears. "The wood gave out part way up the ladder." He eyed the pile of little better than kindling now and said, "I guess I should have figured the wood might not hold after all this time."
Chris closed his eyes.
"Chris?" Vin's voice sounded slightly wobbly, but he was getting control back. As long as he didn't look directly at Josiah.
Larabee opened his eyes and wiped his face with one hand. "So, aside from falling down, did you all find anything interesting?"
Breathing a sigh of relief to be out of the spotlight, Sanchez looked up the open shaft beside him. "Well, we know that there's some sort of second story over this."
"And that there are still more rooms beyond us too," JD said, having scrunched his face out of its semi-hysterical stretch of mirth, gestured to an empty dark opening past where Nathan leaned again on the adobe wall.
"Not much left in here, though." Vin scuffed with his foot at the dry dust.
"Unless," Josiah's voice took on a note of excitement as he dropped into a crouch beside the pile of debris he'd created, "unless you look closely." He scraped at the edge of the pile of old adobe brick and retrieved a small object that gleamed dully.
"What you got there, Josiah?" JD was already moving, hurrying over to look more closely. He whistled.
"Heard talk about stuff like that," was Clem Fortnight's only comment, spoken in a dreamy undertone as he pulled more of his sweet smoke into his lungs and held it, a hazy look to his eyes.
Jackson, curious now, bent over the top of Josiah's head and JD's shoulder. "You have got to be kidding!"
That was enough for Chris who strode over. "What now?"
Buck and Vin followed Larabee over to finish forming a circle of attention around Josiah's bulk. Clem, close by, simply stood taller and looked over Vin's shoulder.
Josiah looked up, holding out one hand, palm flat. On it was a warm gleam of gold. Very old gold.
"Pard, looks like you found yourself some treasure." Buck's comment brought nods from the others.
Sanchez plucked the old object from his open hand and held it up between thumb and forefinger as he rose to his feet. He blew lightly on it and then smeared it between his fingers before looking closely at it. "This is Spanish, I think."
"Coronado's lost gold!" JD said in an excited whisper. Five sets of surprised eyes turned his way. Clem simply smiled secretively. Defensively, JD added, "Well, it could be!"
"JD, little buddy," Buck swung a long arm around the young agent's shoulders, and continued, "You are full of surprises."
"Yeah. I guess. Anyway," JD shrugged off his friend's half-hug and brushed at his long bangs, pushing them behind his ears. "Might be more here. Might be a lot. Might be the Spanish explorers stashed their gold here and just never came back."
"Lot of 'might be's' there, kid." Vin grinned, leaning back against a wall. Gold was not of any special interest to him. Then he had a thought as he gazed at the rest of the men still staring in speculation at Josiah's gold piece. "Hey, I bet Ezra would know more about that. He still back in the picture room, Buck?" Vin turned to look at the tall man with his last question.
"Oh, damn." Buck seemed to shake himself. "Ezra!" He looked to Chris. "We couldn't hear you boys over the wires down here, so I came on to help. Left Ezra back there."
Chris nodded in understanding, seeing the sudden worry in Buck's eyes. "Go on back. Fill him in. We'll be along shortly."
Buck disappeared back through the closest opening in the wall and the rest still circled around Josiah. Chris scratched his head. "Seems to me, these old ruins are too dangerous for amateurs like us to go digging around." He saw the disappointed slump of JD's shoulders and the looks of agreement on the faces of the rest. "Take that one along, Josiah, and let's head on back. We can send the coordinates of this place to the right people along with that gold."
"One of the universities, perhaps." Josiah handed the coin to JD and began to dust himself off in earnest.
Chris turned to stare at Fortnight. The man's demeanor had him curious. Sure, he was 'flying' now on some maryjane, but from his words, Chris guessed that it was low-grade shit and that all Clem felt was a nice, warm buzz. "Clem." He waited until he had the man's attention. When Fortnight pulled himself up like a gangly puppet and turned to face Chris, Larabee asked, "Do you know something about this." He pointed at the coin now being examined by Vin.
Clem squinted, first at Chris, and then his eyes followed Chris' pointing finger to the lop-sided coin in Vin's fingers. "Could be."
"Could be what?" Larabee's patience was drawing to a close, his men could tell, but no one was sure if Fortnight had any idea of the wrath he'd be bringing down on his own head if he didn't start talking.
"Could be some from that hoard." Clem lifted his chin toward JD, "Like the kid said. Stories, old ones, been around for a long time. I heard 'em as a kid myself." He took a pull on his toke, then added with a sly smile, "Kinda like Indiana Jones, huh?"
Chris frowned and faced his men, dismissing Fortnight's musings. "Look, it's too dangerous down here. Nathan, give that back to Josiah. Josiah, keep it for now. You can report it when we get back to Denver."
At the sound of their home, the rest of the men seemed to brighten. Lost treasure was interesting but home sounded really good about now. Nathan, who had taken the misshapen coin from Vin, tossed it to Josiah and everyone stood, dusting themselves off. A sense of agreement and purpose was in the air.
"Let's go." Larabee waved toward the open doorway they'd all come through earlier and stood waiting. He fully intended to be the last man back through there. No more stray sheep.
Sanchez ducked into the doorway, leading the way back through the series of chambers. He was followed by Jackson, Dunne, and a slightly off-center Fortnight. Vin Tanner met Larabee's amused eyes with a small quirk of a grin and then slipped into the doorway. Chris took a final look around the small empty room and at the pile of rubbish beneath a dark opening in the ceiling. With a shake of his head, he climbed over the doorsill and followed his men back toward their exit.
Buck reached the room of pictographs quickly. He'd started calling Ezra's name two rooms before but got no answer. Arriving in the empty room, he stood staring at the spot where he'd left Ezra. Shock held him still for a moment, then he ran to the broken wall facing the drop off to the river. Leaning over the crumbling adobe, he stared out and down. No sigh of Ezra nor any sign that anyone had left that way. Swiveling around, he took off at a run for the first room, shouting through cupped hands, "EZRA!"
He reached the first room that gave way to the entry from below, and above. Still finding nothing, he flopped on to his belly and hung over the edge, looking down at the foot and handholds and the river below. No one. He shouted again, "EZRA!" By now, Buck was shaking, his heart had begun to pound faster and he found himself holding his breath in fear. Where was Ezra? Twisting around he lurched to his feet and ran over to the alcove where they'd left their rope ladder. The ladder was gone.
Buck stood thunderstruck below the hole to the top of the mesa. What had Ezra been thinking? Had he done this on his own? Why take the ladder? Had he been forced? Buck shook his head and raised both fists upward, his teeth clenched in an agony of uncertainty.
Josiah and Nathan arrived next, only a few minutes later. They had found the room of pictographs empty and continued on to their exit, where they found Buck frozen below the vertical tunnel.
"Buck?" Josiah approached their tall friend cautiously, his tension clear. "Where's Ezra?"
Before Buck could answer, if he would, Nathan noticed what else was missing. "Where's the ladder?"
By now, JD had arrived with Clem drifting in on his heels. He heard the two questions and anxiously asked, "What's wrong?"
Buck sagged to the ground and looked up at his friends. "He's gone and I don't know how or why." The lost sound in Wilmington's voice gave everyone pause.
"Can't have gone far on that ankle," Nathan volunteered just as Vin climbed through the final portal with Chris right behind him.
Larabee took in the stances of his men and Buck's bewildered upward stare. One look at the empty hole and he registered the missing ladder, as the others had or were doing now. "Any sign of a struggle?" He didn't wait for an answer, giving Vin a sign with his eyes to go back over the other rooms for whatever their outdoorsman could discover. Then, Chris put his hands on his hips and looked around the room. "Well, we still have to go back up, likely Ezra is already there."
Buck faced his oldest friend and saw the surety there. He bowed his head for a moment, then shed his desolation like an unwanted burden. Ezra would not leave me. He didn't do this by choice. And Buck believed. Belief blossomed again with Larabee's confidence, and with it came Buck's faith in himself and in Ezra. He pushed himself up and touched the walls of the small alcove, looking up the empty shaft to pale blue sky above, fading as the day began to wane.
"I can climb this." He spoke consideringly, touching the soft adobe lining and the rough stone that had been painstakingly hacked out long ago.
"Probably. But I can do it faster." JD shot a look over to where Vin had reappeared. "And Vin can too."
Tanner raised an eyebrow in question, having failed to hear the earlier remarks. When JD didn't respond, he transferred his voiceless question to Larabee.
Chris was moving over to Buck by now and didn't acknowledge Vin directly, Josiah and Nathan were backing out of his way, JD and Clem were sidelined by his intensity. "Buck." Chris came up beside his old friend. "We'll let the youngsters go first. You be ready to follow them."
JD didn't wait, he slipped past his mentor and braced his back against the stone shaft, arms flat and down, palms pressed hard behind him. Then he raised one leg and put his track shoe on the opposing wall, less than forty inches away from his back. He had his second foot up and was staring to scale the height by the time Vin had stepped in close under him, looking back at the others, sky blue eyes fixed on his best friend.
"Someone else showed up after Buck left, stood, maybe sat beside Ezra for a moment, then got him on his feet. They came back here." Vin spoke softly, directly to Chris.
Larabee's eyes turned flat and troubled as he looked over at Buck who was dusting his hands on the dirt floor. With a pat on Tanner's back, Chris motioned for him to follow Dunne up the shaft. "Send down the ladder or a line."
Vin gave a simple two-fingered salute and took position beneath JD who was already up at least eight feet in the tunnel.
Henry stood over Ezra. He looked up at the evening's first signs: a cool breeze picking up, a paling to the bowl of blue, a failing of the light. Lifting his flute to his lips, he began to play a soft, slow riff.
"Listen!" Buck ran to the shaft and cocked his head, waving the rest over impatiently. "That's Henry's flute, damn it! I should have known he'd have something to do with this!"
"Henry's that guy that helped you and Ezra?" Nathan asked even though he did recall the strange character that Buck and Ezra had described. He listened but didn't hear anything. Catching the eyes of Josiah and then Chris, he could tell by the way they paused that both were straining to hear something, anything. With no success.
"Yeah." Buck leaned back against one wall of the vertical tunnel and tried to lift his leg enough to brace his foot against the other wall. The shaft was so tight that this proved difficult for the taller man. He looked up enviously at Tanner's silhouette. JD was no longer visible.
Dunne shoved himself over the lip of the hole and rolled to the side so that Vin could come up. He raised up and looked around the kiva. Up here, it was very still, a quiet that seemed almost unnatural. Near the center, he could see someone lying down, all balled up, silent. Closer to where he was perched, he spotted their ladder - as if someone had pulled it up and simply cast it to the side, not even bothering to untie it from the securing lines his team had rigged.
He crawled over to the rope and pole set just as Vin shouldered himself up from the depths. "Here's the ladder." JD lifted the bulky bundle and half-offered it to Tanner.
Vin pushed out with a booted foot and tumbled over backwards away from the hole. Recovering and righting himself, he scooted over to JD's side and helped him manhandle the ladder into position. Together they dropped it back into the hole. It went taut instantly.
"Coming up!" Buck's voice sounded as quickly as the ladder landed.
Vin and JD moved back out of the way and circled round to approach the unmoving figure by the old fire center hearth of the kiva. Watching the area around them for anything threatening, the two agents stepped warily up to the body, separating automatically to provide a less tempting target. JD squatted beside the blanket-covered form and carefully pulled the covering off. Beneath was a sleeping Ezra, curled tightly in a fetal position.
"Ez?" Vin touched one shoulder with no result.
By then, Buck had run up the ladder and was there, pushing the other two aside. "Let me." He knelt beside Ezra and touched his friend's face. "Ezra?"
The pale face was perfectly still, except for darting eye movement beneath semi-translucent eyelids that were completely closed. "Aw, Ez." Buck's soft words were not lost on JD and Vin who stood over him, eyes still flicking about, checking their surroundings. Both cast worried glances down at the couple on the ground.
Buck scooped up the sleeping man and pulled him on to his lap, holding him close. He raised his head and watched as the rest of the team and Clem Fortnight emerged from the hole. No one said anything, everyone stared.
Nathan came across the open ground and knelt beside Buck to look more closely at Ezra. "Looks like he's dreaming." He pointed to the REM beneath the lids, active and persistent.
Vin crouched down beside Buck and Ezra and gingerly reached out to lift a simple handmade pottery dish up from near the central hearth. Inside were lumpy looking circular things that resembled small knobs. "Josiah."
Sanchez pulled his eyes away from Ezra, held so protectively on Buck's lap, and walked over to where Vin Tanner still squatted. His eyes widened, then narrowed at the sight of the bowl and its contents. "Peyote buttons."
"What I thought." Vin stirred the things with one finger. "Seven."
Josiah used his foot to nudge a similarly sized but much mashed object on the ground near their feet. "Eight."
Chris looked down at Vin's find and grimaced. He sighed at the chewed button of mescal. "Guess we know why he's dreaming."
"What are you guys talking about? And what's that stuff?" JD moved closer and scratched at his neck, the dirt was beginning to work its way into the pores of his skin. He'd be soaking in a hot bath for hours when this was finally over.
"The stuff of dreams, kid." Josiah smiled benignly down on Dunne.
"That's big time shit around here," Clem added, with a nod at the bowl. "I got my own poison and don't mess with that stuff." He wandered over to the edge of the kiva and plunked himself down on the broken adobe wall, legs askew.
Nathan carefully retrieved the partially chewed peyote button, frowning and dropping it into Vin's bowl. "Enough for each of us to try some too." He turned puzzled eyes on the others. "I just don't get it. Ezra probably knows what that stuff is, can do. He never does drugs. What could have possessed him to use it?"
"Henry." Buck's voice was heavy. He leaned down over Ezra's supine form and kissed the damp forehead, wiping back loose brown curls from Ezra's hair that sweat had formed there. "Ezra believes in Henry. More than I did. Trusts him too much."
The others slowly circled around Buck and Ezra, seating themselves on the dirt. Clem remained apart, not aloof so much as aware that he wasn't really a member of this strange family of men.
"Buck," Chris placed a hand on Ezra's leg, then looked up to meet Wilmington's haunted eyes, "Who the hell is Henry?"
"I don't know, Chris." Buck looked around at the empty mesa and kiva ruins, the Huey that hulked nearby, their simple sketchy camp by the helicopter, his friends circled around him and Ezra, and Clem sprawled at the edge of that circle. "He looked like a bum, had a backpack with some American Indian-style clothes that Ezra and I borrowed for a spell, shared some food and water with us. He played a flute." Buck's eyes dropped to Ezra's still form and he repeated, "Ezra trusted him."
"Ezra never trusts anyone." JD shrugged when several sets of eyes moved in his direction. "Well, he doesn't. Not really. Us, but no one else," JD qualified and then, added, looking embarrassed, "And maybe not us anymore."
Looks of resignation passed over several faces, but Chris shook his head. "No, Ezra and I talked. We settled the botch-up that the rest of us did, interfering in his life." He looked apologetically over at Buck, "And he even thanked me."
Buck nodded. He understood. Ezra had finally opened up to Buck and things were looking good. He kissed Ezra's forehead again and remained hunched over, his cheek now resting on Ezra's head. "How long will he be like this, Nathan?"
Jackson shook his head. "I really don't know too much about that stuff."
"It'll be a while. He's on a spirit walk now." Vin sighed. "Just hope your Henry prepared Ez a bit before feeding him that stuff."
Buck turned his mouth to Ezra's ear and whispered, "Ezra, come back to me."
Softly, so quietly that at first none were sure they heard it, music began to drift into the circle. Vin was the first to raise his head alertly. Josiah was next.
JD stood up suddenly. "I hear it!"
Chris and Nathan exchanged looks and cocked their heads, both catching the sounds of breathy notes on the light breeze that had started up. Clem, over by himself, whistled by inhaling his notes, echoing the simple refrain that wasn't quite a tune.
All around the men, the sky washed to salmon pink with streaks of blood orange and vivid blue whites, crisped with gold. Above, the sky's washed out color drained away and left velvety darkness in its place. The stars burned into the fabric of black, hot white lights that seemed like embers across the sky. Abruptly, the circle of color faded, until only one spot to the west remained aflame for a few breathtaking minutes. And then it was night.
Still the music wafted on the air, floating around them, directionless, tuneless, enchanting. JD lowered himself to the ground again and Clem groped his way over to the circle of men before sitting again.
Gradually, the sounds of the wood flute grew louder until the player seemed to be in their very midst. And he was. Dressed loosely in dark leathers, the stranger sat comfortably cross-legged next to Buck and Ezra, fingers moving up and then lowering over small holes in the wooden shaft of his simple flute. He lifted his flute until he was playing directly to Chris Larabee, staring calmly into wide hazel eyes.
Without warning, the man stopped playing and lowered the small instrument to his lap, eyes never leaving Larabee's. "You did not accept my gift?" The words were clear and warm and everyone relaxed without knowing why.
Chris finally broke the connection with those dark, amused eyes and looked over at the bowl of peyote buttons. "No, we can't do that."
"Can't or will not?"
The utter peace in the stranger's face was so complete that it was like staring at Buddha, Josiah mused.
"Who are you?" Chris refused to become defensive with this stranger. He began to feel anger stirring. This man had somehow enticed Ezra into taking mescal.
"Call me Tonto," an eyebrow rose over toward Buck who was watching silently, anger clear on his face, still holding Ezra against his chest and resting his head on Ezra's, "or, 'Henry' if you prefer."
"YOU are Henry?" Chris turned gimlet eyes on someone he began to think was a very dangerous adversary.
"Today." 'Henry' shrugged and met the gaze tranquilly.
"You talk to many people?" Vin broke the new staring contest, his gentle voice husky with curiosity and a certain 'knowing' that had Chris look over at him sharply.
"No, not for a very long time." Henry's gaze drifted over to Tanner and he smiled at the knowledgeable spirit he saw there. "You are brother."
"Yes," Vin agreed smiling back. "And these are all my brothers."
"Ezra? Buck?" Henry looked over at the two men.
"Yes, even them." Vin's voice was taking on a certain sing-song ritualistic rhythm that Josiah recognized as spiritual.
Chris was pissed. He felt a bit betrayed by the way Vin was acting, and wondered why no one else seemed to take exception. Well, except for Buck, who's probably mad enough to spit bullets. Chris shifted, the urge, to stand and confront, strong.
Buck's command had Larabee blinking in surprise and looking at his long time friend.
Buck sat up straighter and faced Henry again. "Why did you do this?"
"A gift." Henry smiled again, one hand straying up to play with the small beadwork that decorated the front of his tunic.
"This," Buck nodded down at the sleeping Ezra, "this is a gift?"
"He is walking with the spirits. It is a great gift to do so. When he returns, he will know his heart." Wise eyes burned into Buck's. "Your heart."
Ezra vaguely remembered climbing the ladder with Henry, to show him their camp and reassure him that the others would never desecrate the site. They sat and talked in the dimming daylight, Ezra content to enjoy Henry's company. For some inexplicable reason, he hadn't worried about Buck and the rest of the team. Henry's presence brought peace. He couldn't even recall what they spoke of, only that it was pleasant. Then Henry had taken his hand, put a small round object on his palm, and instructed him to chew it.
"You will meet your future and past, know your true self, be one with the world and nature's blessings." Henry had placed a thin, long-fingered hand on Ezra's face and following Henry's directions had seemed like the right thing to do. So Ezra chewed the dry button and mashed it between his teeth and spit it out in distaste after several minutes.
"Rest now." Henry had helped him to settle on the ground that seemed softer than he remembered. "You will dream." Henry had waved a hand over Ezra's eyes and they became heavy, then Henry faded away as Ezra's vision tunneled down to a single light that he knew was the sun in the low sky.
And the sun soared up again into the sky and day was brilliant and everything was crystal clear to the eye, the air so transparent that it seemed to magnify everything. Ezra shrank smaller and smaller in this universe, changing shape, becoming a coyote, he barked at the wheeling stars, then a raven whose midnight black pin feathers ruffled in the stream of air, a snake so black that his scales shimmered as he squirmed, a scorpion fleeing shadowy pits of fallen earth, an ant with sticky thin legs, marching after a disappearing line of others.
The world towered above him, mere dust motes were like mighty, tumbling boulders to him. He moved easily through his world, examining the inner workings of the plants, the animals, the very bowels of the earth herself. Mother Earth smiled upon him and found him pleasing. Ezra glowed with joy. He knew his human shape again. He shed his garments, let his skin coat his bones and muscles, and grew. He grew tall like the grass, taller like the saguaro cactus, taller like the looming redwoods, he grew to lean against mountains and rest his feet in churning rivers, making dams with his toes.
And it was good. His brothers were the animals around him, their great, loving spirits wise and giving. He wanted to be like them and someone said, "You are." He yearned to join with them and someone said, "Patience." He viewed the world from such height that he could see the landmasses moving beneath his feet as they reformed and rose above the waves. And Ezra saw Buck Wilmington, as an enormous stag, standing straight and proud upon the land. The stag's spirit was beautiful, shining like the animals that had slowly departed, until he was alone with Buck's spirit. And it felt good, it felt right. Ezra let his skin rest against Buck's skin. He felt the heat and the strength of Buck. And Buck's love touched him, flowed over him, around him, giving him peace and comfort. Ezra looked at Buck's spirit and knew his own would join with it. He called to the stag and stately antlers swung around as the beast turned to face him and deep blue eyes studied him gently.
"Buck?" Ezra reached out with his soul and was accepted gladly. He felt his shape change, become small and airborne, he was Raven again. He flew up to the stag's shoulder and perched there and was home. His clawed feet dug into the deep, rich fur of the stag's coat, his feathers ruffled as he snapped shut his wings and flipped them on his back, and his beak clicked as he nibbled at the thicker mane of hair on the his companion's tall shoulder.
Ezra didn't question his adventure; he accepted it as the natural way of things. He leaned against the stag's strong neck and was content. I will just stay here with Buck and rest for a short time. For a lifetime, said someone. Ezra smiled. The stag turned his head to face him again. Love warmed the dark blue eyes and drowned him. Ezra was swimming. He was a rainbow fish in the deep full ocean of Buck's love and it was warm and safe there. His heart seemed to swell and then it cracked. Broke. A trillion infinitesimally small shards of his heart's hard surface broke in a crackle and then began to fall away. His heart grew bigger and stronger, free of its stiff old encasing. It beat hard and felt brave. He stretched and his heart sent his wine red blood to all parts of him and its throbbing reverberated in his brain, echoed in his ears. It beat in time with the heart of the stag. In time with Buck. He melted into Buck's heart and his heart beat with Buck's.
"Ezra, come back to me." Buck's soft voice called to Ezra and he knew he was home, safe, in Buck's arms. The stag was no more, the world was dark, and he was resting in Buck's arms. Ezra blinked and yawned.
Buck hugged Ezra closer. "Come on, sweetheart, it's time to wake up." He kissed the nearest ear, then offered, "Coffee, Ezra, hot and strong, spiced up with some brandy just for you, love." He kissed Ezra's cheek and murmured, "Please, baby, wake up."
Chris crouched down beside Buck. "He waking?"
Buck nodded mutely, hope bright in his eyes, hand still stroking Ezra's hair slowly, his fingers sifting through the silky mass.
Chris sat down at his side and picked up one of Ezra's hands. "Come back to us now, Ezra," he called quietly, his anger long since dissipated by the waiting. He looked over at the others, all awake now.
Josiah had made the coffee, JD had fixed some oatmeal in a large pot that Clem had produced. He'd frowned at JD's proposed use and then shrugged and spat on the ground, leaving the small cauldron with Dunne. Nathan had been chaffing Ezra's hands for hours while Buck held the sleeping Standish. Nate'd only relinquished his place for a few hours of sleep when Vin assured him that the spirit walk would end at dawn.
Vin Tanner was sitting like a silent sentinel at the edge of the mesa facing the rising sun. He greeted it with ritual words in Cherokee and sat letting its strengthening rays warm his face. Josiah joined him, bringing two cups of coffee and they shared the smell of hot coffee as much as the bitter taste.
Now Nathan appeared at Buck's far side from Larabee and took up Ezra's other hand again. He marveled at the fine, smooth hand, smaller than his own but masculine and strong. He rubbed the palm with his own and waited, again.
Larabee watched as JD knelt behind Buck, smiling at Nate and then at Chris. JD worked on Buck's shoulders, massaging away the stiffness they all knew had to be deep in the muscles after an entire night of holding Ezra.
Clem came to stand next to Larabee and sipped coffee from a mug that he cupped in both hands as if drawing warmth from the cup itself. Chris had seen him checking over the helicopter an hour ago, a small clipboard in one hand. It was rather reassuring to know that their pilot did follow some procedures anyway. Chris lifted his face to look at Fortnight. "He's coming 'round. Should be soon." Clem nodded without words and slumped to the ground nearby, clearly prepared to wait some more.
Vin and Josiah strolled up, the rising sun bright behind them, casting long shadows and burning their silhouettes into everyone's eyes. Vin folded himself down to a cross-legged position at Ezra's feet and placed one hand on Ezra's uninjured ankle, squeezing gently.
Josiah stood sipping his brew for a few more moments, then raised his chin to the sky and sniffed the smells of a new day, savoring the smell of mesquite, the dryness of the dust, the sour smell of sweat from the others, even his own ripe body stench. Nothing disturbed him, he smiled and went down on one knee, putting a large splayed hand on one of Ezra's shoulders. "Time to wake up, brother." He took another sip of the coffee, then added, "We're all here waiting for you, Ezra."
JD reached around Buck's neck to put one hand on the top of Ezra's head, then look around the tight knot of men, all touching Ezra somewhere. He peered down at Buck and saw the man's dark eyes gleam.
"Yes, that's it. Look at me, Pard." Buck began to kiss Ezra's face, small butterfly kisses all over his face. "Open up." Kiss. "Wake." Kiss. "Ezra, come on." Kiss.
Deep into the night, their visitor had simply not been there anymore. Gone. First, Henry sat with them, played his flute again, had spoken each man's name upon introduction and each man had felt as if he was answering the roll call of life itself. Then Henry was gone and Vin had opened one hand and resting on his palm was a small, straight, white bone. Hollow. With tiny dark holes in a line up on one side. Vin had lifted it to his lips and played Henry's notes. Piping, high, but the same. And each man, in turn had opened a hand to reveal a bone pipe.
"Scoured out, like us." Josiah had held his to his lips and blown through the tiny bone, smiling at the lovely sound. "Hollow, free of marrow. Like us, free of our pasts, clean and empty. Ready to be filled."
If it didn't make much sense to some of the others, no one had said. But each man held his bone flute in a fist and felt a liberating sense of freedom from evil. Spirits were clean and open, purified somehow by their companionship and their visitor. By the power of pure love. And now, they waited with remarkable patience for their dreaming brother to awaken and rejoin their brotherhood.
Ezra squeezed his eyes shut then opened them wide, seeing Buck so close, hearing his heartbeat, feeling his chest rise and fall with each breath. He saw the rest of his friends as he turned his face from where it had been snugged against Buck's chest. Ezra smiled at them all, his green eyes like translucent crystals lit with his inner fire, then turned back to Buck. Buck's face was close to his, eyes glued to his face. Ezra raised his dry, chapped lips to Buck's and kissed him softly, the smile never leaving him.
Buck moved back scant centimeters from that sweet kiss and met Ezra's eyes. He smiled at Ezra and then turned to look up at the others. "Nate, Ezra's lips are cracked, they're so dry."
Nathan nodded and waved a hand, then, dipping into his satchel, he pulled out some aloe vera cream and handed it to Buck. "This will help."
Carefully, Buck smeared the white cream on to Ezra's lips with one finger, his other hand cupping Ezra's jaw to keep his friend still. Done, he tossed the tube back to Jackson with a smile of thanks. Then he cradled Ezra close to him again and sighed, smiling brilliantly up at his circle of friends.
Chris stood and sniffed at the sharp, clear air. It was time to go. He spoke to Nathan, "Nate, can Ezra travel?"
"Don't see why not." Nathan squatted next to the couple and put a hand on Ezra's forehead. "No sign of fever." He grinned when Ezra tried to twist his head out from under Nathan's hand. Jackson let his hand slip to Ezra's chest. He could feel the steady, normal beat of Standish's heart. The quest for that same heart had started this whole outlandish adventure. Nathan patted Ezra's chest and then stood up, dusting his hands. "He's fine except for the ankle and maybe a bit of headache from the combination of concussion and drugs."
Buck's head snapped up. "Drugs?"
"Whatever you call that stuff," Nathan pointed to the bowl of still unused peyote buttons, "They are still drugs."
Josiah leaned over to press a hand on Buck's shoulder. "He'll be fine, Buck. The mescal has already lost its potency, you can tell by the receding symptoms." When Buck looked up doubtfully, Josiah tipped his head to the side and met Buck's eyes. "No more dreams, he woke up."
Ezra rested contentedly against Buck's warm body, secure in his arms and quite happy to remain there. He let the conversations wash over him and thought about his dreams. Henry had given him a true gift, he decided. He was distracted from this thought by a sharp, hard object that seemed to be caught in his teeth. He probed at it with his tongue. He felt it dislodge and fall into the center of his mouth. With caution, he rolled it around there and it seemed to be growing. Startled, he spit it out into his open hand. A bone. A long, thin white bone. Ezra poked the object and it rolled over, revealing a row of tiny holes. A little whistle, pipe, or flute. Now how? He looked up into Buck's face and saw a knowing expression there. "Buck, do you know something about this?"
"We each got one too, Ezra." He produced his from a pocket. "We found them in our fists." He shrugged. "Josiah says they mean we're clean as a whistle now." Buck grinned, then touched Ezra's new flute. "From Henry, we think."
Ezra studied the tiny thing, then carefully dropped it into one of his trouser pockets. He touched Buck's face, stroking down one side of the luxuriant mustache. "Something to help us remember all this."
Buck caught Ezra's hand with his own and brought Ezra's wrist to his mouth, kissing the inner side of it. "I won't need any help doing that." He paused. "Unless it's from you."
Lowering his eyes, Ezra stared at their clasped hands. When had that happened? In the space of a few hellish days, his life had changed for the better. Because Buck was now part of it. He wasn't ready to declare himself in front of all their friends, but even unspoken, he knew that Buck understood his feelings were returned. And his other friends had been remarkably quiet about everything they were seeing.
Larabee had been silently observing Buck and Ezra and now Chris spoke again, turning to their pilot. "Clem? I think it's time to leave."
Fortnight sucked on his teeth for a moment, then raised a finger to his mouth to lick it. He stuck the wet forefinger into the air and smiled. "Yep, good time to fly." He started away, calling over his shoulder, "Some of you boys want to unhook my lady?"
Vin, JD, Josiah and Nathan went to help remove the tie-downs that had secured the Huey for the night. Larabee stood by Buck and Ezra. "We'll take care of everything. You two just get yourselves inside that thing."
Buck hugged Ezra quickly and then climbed to his feet, bending down to help Ezra up. Together, with Buck's shoulder under Ezra's to off-set the sprained ankle, they set off for the helicopter. Ezra hobbled gamely along, glad to have Buck's help.
Within a half hour, the simple camp had been returned to nature and the last signs of recent human occupancy had been tossed back into the Huey as it roared to life. And, from up in the cockpit as the helicopter swung skyward, Henry shouted out over their communications system, "Albuquerque okay?"
Airborne, Josiah sat in the co-pilot seat beside Fortnight again. Clem circled the mesa before taking a heading. Josiah pressed against the window, staring down at the open shell of the kiva, not much more than a faint circle outline as they climbed higher in a spiral. Squinting, he thought he could see a small dark figure, moving rhythmically within the circle, hunched over with arms raised toward his head. Henry. Josiah smiled, one hand slipping into his jacket pocket to finger his new, tiny bone flute. He relaxed back into his seat and harness as Clem pulled out of the spiral and sent the Huey darting off toward their new destination.
Back in the hold, sitting slumped in the sling benches, the rest of Team Seven relaxed also. JD was fiddling with their radiophone, with Chris sitting over him, waiting impatiently. Nathan was staring fixedly at Ezra before dropping rummaging through his satchel. Ezra who'd felt Jackson's assessing gaze, squirmed closer into Buck's protective arm, and Buck sat basking in his friend's trusting closeness as they sat side-by-side on the bench. Vin watched the interplay with amusement, sitting on the other side of the open hatch from Buck and Ezra, and across from Nathan. He could tell that Nate was about to try practicing medicine again. Not likely that old Ez will cooperate this time. Vin's smile grew, nice to be back to normal, for us.
Nathan pulled out a small bottle of aspirin. "Ezra, I think a couple of aspirin might be a good idea."
Standish frowned and lifted his head from where he'd been resting it against Buck's shoulder. "Nathan, you yourself said that that mescal was a drug. Do you really think I should take another before it has fully dissipated from my system?" He could feel Buck's silent chuckle as a vibration against his chest. When Nathan reluctantly dropped the bottle back into his satchel, Ezra couldn't help sending a triumphant look up into Buck's amused eyes. Where he quickly became lost once more, happily so.
JD did a final adjustment, listened to the earphone and flashed thumb's up at Chris. "Got it!" He turned the handset over to Larabee.
They all listened as Chris spoke with their director, the Honorable Orrin Travis. Even one-sided, everyone could tell that some compromises were being made and that Chris was satisfied when he signed off. So it was no surprise when Larabee handed the radiophone back to JD and said to the group at large, "All set. Travis is sending a private jet down and it will meet us at the Albuquerque International Airport. We get a free ride home, boys."
"Good." Nathan sat back, his final worries about getting Ezra safely on a commercial airliner disappearing. With their own jet, they could handle things.
Buck lowered his head to Ezra's, satisfied and relieved that he wouldn't have to step away from Ezra on a public carrier. They could just be themselves for a bit longer, within the safe circle of their friends. He cocked a grateful eyebrow at his oldest friend and watched Chris's firm line of mouth soften slightly and quirk up in a tiny smile of acknowledgement. It was good to know they were in this together.
Vin stretched his feet out until they knocked into JD's, closed his eyes and clasped his hands behind his head as he raised his chin in the air and prepared to nap. Amazing how the open hatch to his side made the tiny space of the hold comfortable for him. "Hey!" JD pulled his feet back from Vin's kicked out boots and frowned at his teammate, then, unable to stay irritated at the man who seemed to be sleeping in an open sprawl, JD shrugged and turned enough to weave his own legs out at an angle. He felt a warm, firm hand on his shoulder and looked up into Larabee's approving eyes. Feeling happy at the silent encouragement, he shut his eyes and relaxed back against the shaking hull.
Chris looked once more around the hold of the Huey, the noise was intrusive, the hull walls and deck shook, his men had all lapsed into sleep or at least closed their eyes, and everyone was alright. He eyed Ezra's ankle, strapped firmly by Jackson and propped up on a bedroll in the center of the small walkway between the benches. Yeah, we're okay.
Team Seven would be leaving for Denver on a jet that had been paid for by the US government, specifically, the Central Intelligence Agency. Fred met them in Albuquerque with a mile-wide grin. He slapped Clem on the back and shook hands with the man. Clem backed away from the effusion with a confused expression, but was reeled back in by Fred's hand. Hernandez spoke quickly and quietly up into Fortnight's ear. Then, eyebrows heading skyward, Clem nodded his head repeatedly, slipped one hand in his pocket, and with the other, gave Fred Hernandez a snappy if awkward salute.
"Any time at all, bo'."
With an elastic grin that seemed to be his trademark, Clem turned to the ATF men that had become family over the past day or so and held out a hand to Josiah, who'd been his copilot.
Josiah stood back, studying the offered hand for a moment, then grabbed it and yanked the thinner man to him in a bear hug.
"Clem, you're pure gold!" Josiah's booming voice had heads turning in the civilian terminal. The others laughed and took turns producing their own hugs and back poundings, already missing the crazy pilot who'd helped them save Buck and Ezra.
Ezra, restricted to an airport loaned wheelchair, with his strapped ankle propped up on the extendable leg brace of the chair, sat back and waited his turn. When Clem was released by Buck, Wilmington's big hand on his back propelled the man to Ezra's side.
"Mr. Fortnight," Ezra reached up a hand.
"Mister Standish," Clem drawled, clasping the hand.
Ezra pulled him down closer and smiled into curious eyes. "We owe you a very large debt. Call upon us at anytime." Plucking a pen from the chest pocket of Clem's jumpsuit, by brushing aside the man's flying jacket, Ezra held on to Clem's wrist and wrote a telephone number on it. "Just call."
Clem rose to his full, tree-like height and held his wrist in the light, near his face. He grew a rather silly, pleased grin and then threw Ezra a salute like he'd given Hernandez who still waited to one side. He spun on his heel to share the salute with the rest of the men, saying, "Gracias, Amigos!" Then he pulled out his new little bone flute, put it to his lips, pointed it at the ceiling and began to play a gay little tune, as he strode away without looking back.
Everyone turned to face Hernandez. The man had proven invaluable in the team's efforts to reunite with their kidnapped teammates. He shook his head, eyes still following Fortnight's head-turning progress through the terminal. Then he swung back to the men he'd grown to respect and, rubbing his hands together, asked, "You boys ready to head for home?"
A chorus of affirmatives brought another smile to his lips and he said, "Just follow me."
Hernandez led them out through a blind security door and some empty, unmarked corridors. These led to a set of doors out onto the tarmac and from there, a short walk to a private sector of the runway apron. Sitting on it was the prettiest not-so-little jet that Josiah had ever seen. "Way to go, Fred!" He put a friendly hand on the CIA agent's shoulder.
"Just your country's way of saying thank you." Fred led them over, Vin and JD pushing the team's weapon's locker and other equipment on a large trolley. It had been a relief not to have any hassles about transporting it through the terminal, thanks to a phalanx of Fred's quiet agents that encircled the team and kept local security reassured.
Nathan climbed up through the passenger door of the jet, and then ducked back out with a wide grin to call out, "Boys, be prepared to be impressed!"
Fred took Chris aside while the jet was being loaded with Team Seven's gear and a special lift was wheeled over to elevate Ezra's wheelchair up to the open door of the passenger entry to the plane.
Goodbyes with Fred Hernandez were grateful and respectful handclasps. Nathan came back down the steps to the plane, just to join in. Fred had made things easy and he could have made them very, very difficult. With a few quiet words and handshakes, each man of Team Seven made sure that Fred knew that they knew that.
Waving to Hernandez from a hull window of the medium-sized passenger jet, as the plane began to taxi away from the parking area, Vin's last glimpse of the man was seeing him standing there, clothing whipped by the wind, one arm raised in a simple salute. Vin turned back to the on-board lounge that the team had swarmed into. He had picked a free recliner, kicking back after strapping on the safety belt, and smiling beatifically at the others. Everyone had settled in, finding comfortable places in the smartly arranged first class decorated lounge.
Then, after the propjet lifted its nose skyward and was safely at cruising altitude, Chris stood up. He had something to say about his little talk with Hernandez. He went forward first to check and make sure that the steward would give them some privacy for a few minutes and when the man agreed easily, Larabee came back into the main cabin.
"Got something to tell you boys, listen up." Seeing that he had the attention of his team, he looked around for a moment to meet each man's eyes. JD sat forward in his big overstuffed chair radiating excitement, kid is still on a buzz. Next to him, his recliner already fully extended, Vin bent his neck up so he could raise his head enough to watch. Think this is one flight that Vin's gonna enjoy, Chris thought with a smile. Nathan and Josiah had settled into two facing seats with a low games table between them and Josiah had already started setting up a chess game, pieces retrieved from a pullout drawer in the table. Chris wondered briefly how Josiah had known where to find that, then decided some mysteries could simply remain that way. Yeah, his little inside voice muttered, like how Buck and Ezra ever made it through this alive. And in love. He smiled at the twosome ensconced on the only sofa in the lounge. Buckled in but still entwined somehow. Taking a deep breath, he began, "Seems the CIA was tracking those guys for quite a spell."
"That, we already knew." JD piped up then bit his lip, forestalling further comments springing from his lips uninvited.
Chris nodded to JD without censor, continuing, "And they were working with several other countries, both in Europe and the Near East, on this. In fact, turns out, there was a reward on at least three of the Palestinians and on Dressler himself."
Ezra sat up straighter, but said nothing. Beside him, Buck smiled indulgently. They both waited, along with the rest.
Chris rubbed his jaw. He had to fight to prevent a smile from breaking loose. "Does the figure two million dollars sound interesting?"
"Holy Shit!" Buck shot upright in his seat, his clasp on Ezra's hand suddenly tight. He turned in apology and promptly eased his hold when Ezra made a small noise.
Nathan sat forward. "Sounds interesting, but what does it mean?"
"It means we're all going to be stinking rich!" Buck couldn't contain his pleasure and turned to share it with Ezra, only to blink in surprise at the look of censure from his sweetheart. "Ezra?"
"Buck, two million dollars in today's world is nice enough for one person, or family, to live comfortably, but hardly rich. Split seven ways, or more?" Ezra cocked an eyebrow at Chris Larabee, then finished, "will substantially reduce its efficacy."
"Effening rich." Buck muttered as he snuggled down beside Ezra, not really caring anyway. He was already plenty wealthy. He had his health, his work, his friends, and he had Ezra.
"Ezra's right. It will be split up. We each get an equal share," Chris held up his hand to forestall any interruptions even though no one else had shown any inclination to speak, "and a share goes to Clem."
"What about Fred?" Vin asked slowly, hands sliding into his pant's pockets as he stretched.
"Part of it is from his organization, so he's unable to collect any." Chris shook his head. "He'll get a commendation and he says he's already been tapped for a promotion.
"We'll get him something." Josiah's soft words were met with general murmurs of agreement.
"So, Ez, how much you reckon that means for each of us?" Vin asked slyly.
Standish never even blinked, "Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars apiece."
"Wow." JD's eyes went wide.
Nathan folded his hands on the game table and looked up at Larabee. "Chris, do you think we should take it?" At the groans from Buck and JD, he pursed his lips but continued doggedly, "I mean, we were only doing our jobs."
"You were rescuing us!" Buck said emphatically. "And Ezra and I were fighting to stay alive." He leaned across Ezra to meet Nathan's eyes. "That's not our job with the ATF, that's us surviving and you being family."
"And 'us' collecting a tidy sum apiece." Ezra added without missing a beat.
Buck leaned back and glowed at his partner, pleased to see his feisty Ezra in action.
Chris interrupted what looked like an emotional response from Jackson, "Orrin Travis already approved it. The money's ours, boys." He looked around at his men. "And, damn it all, you all deserve a lot more. And not just for this time out of the chute, either. So, Nate, don't worry, it's been okayed, and everyone? Enjoy it."
"I'm investing mine with Ezra." JD spoke up smugly, then had the grace to blush and look over at Standish. "Ah, if that's okay with you, Ez?"
Ezra smiled. "Of course. In fact," he rubbed his shoulder blades back against Buck where they sat together on the jet's first class cabin double couch, "Those who would like to pool their money, could form a trust fund for investment purposes."
"Stop right there, Ez," Vin held up a hand. "You got mine, no questions, but I really don't want the details, won't mean anything to me and I trust you with the money. Hell, five minutes ago, I didn't even have it."
Josiah clapped his hands on his knees, "You have mine too, Ezra. I can't think of safer hands, or a better investor."
"I'm in," Larabee said as he sat down, "and, Ez, if you don't mind, I'll check with Clem. If he wants, he could throw in with us too."
Buck tipped his head down and touched his cheek to Ezra's temple. "Me too. I'm in."
Nathan Jackson had listened to JD's idea and the quick acceptance of the rest of the team. It was a lot of money, but Vin was right, a few minutes ago his life was just fine without it. And, Josiah was right, too, Ezra was one of the most fiscally responsible people Nathan knew. "Would you take mine, too, Ezra?"
Ezra looked over at the medic and smiled graciously. "Of course, Nathan, it would be an honor."
"Right." Chris slapped his hands together and jerked his chin up at JD at the far end of the large first class lounge. "JD, would you please go tell the steward we're ready for some refreshments."
"Oh, yeah." Buck nodded as JD sprang to his feet and headed off. Then Wilmington kissed Ezra's nose, which promptly wrinkled. Buck snuggled in closer and whispered in Ezra's ear, "I'm so proud of you, Ez."
Ezra lifted smiling lips for a kiss and the two melted against each other, becoming lost in their own world as their teammates chatted around them and the muted roar of jet engines carried them home to Denver.
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