by Heather F.
Disclaimer: don't own 'em, no money made, etc.
Ezra Standish stood angrily in front of the picture window. He held a partially drunk bottle of Tennessee Sippin' Whiskey in his left hand. His right hand unconsciously petted the broad grizzled head of Larabee's old black dog "Diablo" Standish swayed slightly left and right and occasionally forward and backward, toe to heel. The movements were slight and his distorted inner ears did their best to keep the body's balance. The southerner watched with disgust as wind and snow whipped by with blizzard fury. It paled in comparison to the turmoil that tore through the solitary man. He hated winter, hated Colorado, and most of all hated himself. He took another long pull on the bottle, forcing his left leg to step slightly back to maintain some assemblage of balance.
Screw the world, Screw Larabee and screw his team.
Ezra let his hand and the bottle to fall back to his side never relinquishing the liquid retreat. He knew he should not have indulged in the fiery liquid. He was furious, hurt and lonely. His right hand never stopped caressing the dog's head.
Standish did not see the howling blowing snow or the pitch black night that engulfed the high aspen ranch. Instead he replayed the events of the day. Contemplated the events that lead up to this evening. This rotten deplorable evening alone and most likely out of a job. He could care less, let them have his job. Larabee could have it all, hell he already did.
The undercover agent tried to read the hands on his watch and found it difficult. Chris, Josiah and Buck were probably still at the hospital. The almighty threesome keeping vigil over their fallen comrades.
Three friends had fallen by the wayside. They had sent Ezra to go for help. He succeeded, he found Chris and the others, led them back to Vin, JD and Nathan, it was not enough. It was not enough of an effort to keep them from accusing him of running out on the three injured unconscious men. His only mistake Ezra could surmise was, he survived, the others may not. Had he died in the process of getting help he might have been spared the labels of coward and worthless.
Standish rolled his head gently, it made him dizzy, not the Jack Daniels, or so he told himself. His neck was sore. Hell his whole body was sore. He ran almost every day, but not through the high altitudes of the mountains that surrounded the fair city of Denver. A chill still racked his bruised body, crossing rivers and floundering through streams were not things he dreamed of when he joined the ATF. He should have known better.
Ezra turned from the window, limping slightly. Blisters adorned his feet, heels, and toes. Running through the wilds of the rockies in wet sneakers did nothing for the tender flesh, but served only to rub them raw and bloody. He ignored the pain in his feet and body, pulling another gulp from the bottle. He stepped through the shattered remains of the six thick glassed shot glasses. He had practiced his wrist shot with the discarded hockey stick that now rested on the floor. He had managed to snap four of the six glasses into the fireplace the other two had shattered against the wall. Ezra did not notice the mess and staggered a few steps away from the window. The dog followed him.
The southerner turned his back on the picture window and surveyed the large open room. Larabee had a beautiful house. Rustic in it's style, but it still had Sarah's touch, though it was slowly fading. Large overstuffed leather furniture adorned the rough barn wood planked room. Western scene paintings hung gracefully from the wall at proper eye height. Throw rugs were scattered across the hard wood floor. The floor was pegged not nailed, a very nice touch. A television sat off to the side of the room discretely out of the way. A large stone fireplace occupied the southern wall, flanked by triple paned picture windows. A fire crackled in the large stone maw, offering little warmth to the southerner's empty feeling. Standish teetered for a moment and then made his way over to the pool table which sat toward the northern end of the room. Pictures were scattered haphazardly throughout the room. Ezra had peered at them earlier. Mostly pictures of young Adam and Sarah and some of the team on various vacations. Bedrooms could be found off the north wall down either end of a short hallway. There were three rooms. The master bedroom, a child's room and a guest room. Through the swinging doors on the east wall lay the kitchen.
Ezra tottered past the couch to the pool table. The dog nonchalantly followed him. Standish took another pull on the bottle. He rubbed his jaw where Chris had hit him, he had a knot on his head too where the last punch Larabee threw landed. Ezra had thought Buck had come over to help him up but instead hauled him to his feet to plant a couple of solid punches in his midsection. The conman had sagged to his knees, fighting for breath waiting for Josiah to take his turn. Sanchez had not, at least physically. Instead the large ex-preacher simply ignored him. Standish no longer existed as far as Josiah was concerned.
The old white muzzled dog laid its massive head on its paws and watched the ‘house guest'.
"To hell with them, Diablo." Ezra mumbled. His southern accent was thick and slurred. Standish picked up a pool cue and leaned on it staring in the direction of the green felt table, considering his options not seeing the cue ball at all.
They had found the shack Ezra had escaped from, the same shack that imprisoned the battered JD, Vin and Nathan. Chris, Buck and Josiah had quickly dismounted their blowing mounts. Larabee in his haste to reach the cabin had unceremoniously knocked the gambler from the back of the horse. They had ridden double. Standish landed heavily on his side on the frozen ground. No one assisted him up. He had entered the cabin in time to get belted by Larabee, followed by Buck. The other three agents appeared to be a mess. Blood was everywhere, its thick coppery smell hung heavily in the air. Ezra wanted to help, the others wanted to kill him. Larabee had turned and yelled at him to go back and get the truck, call for help. Ezra had done exactly what he had been asked. It was not enough. It was never enough. Had it been he who lay bleeding on the wooden floor then it would be ok. He would not be to blame. Instead he suffered a guilty verdict because he was able to walk.
EMT's, emergency personnel, and ambulances had been waiting for the riders at Larabee's house. Four wheel drive vehicles had bounced and crawled their way up the trail to the small cabin. All the occupants had been hastily loaded into them. Medical help laid only a few miles down the path at Chris's ranch.
Nature's storm had not hit yet. The dark heavy grey sky forewarned of a storm, even the weathermen noticed it. Ezra had been left alone at the cabin to pony the horses back. Chris had nailed him with a forearm under the jaw and pinned him to the wall. He was to return the horses and bed them down and wait for his return.
A smirk crossed the southerner's face, he had no intentions of waiting for Larabee's return. The storm had hit when he was still six miles from the ranch, a good two hour ride. By the time he had reached the barn, the horses and he were wind whipped and frozen. Visibility had been reduced to a few feet, the horses negotiated the trail. Standish just sat as a passenger, afraid to interfere with the built in navigational system domestic horses had when it came to finding their own barn. It was pitch black before he reached the wooden structure.
The storm had hit full force. There was no way he would be able to negotiate his Jag along the twisting mountain road in this fury. He had become a prisoner again, twice in one day, there was no escape for him now. He did the next best thing and sought invisibility from a bottle.
A picture on an end table caught his eye. A fishing trip. In the picture stood six smiling men, each held an enormous fish. JD had reeled in the largest. The captain of the rented vessel had taken the picture. Standish stared at the picture, anger building. He put down the cue and grabbed his bottle and the offending colored print. He staggered back toward the fire. The dog followed.
Ezra stood before the fire staring at the picture. "One big happy family." He chuckled bitterly and forcefully threw the photo into the flames. The glass protecting the photograph shattered and the pictured curled slowly turning brown. The metal frame defied the flames and heat. Standish gazed up at the wood beamed mantel. The ski trip. The trip where Buck had busted his leg. The five men had gathered around Buck and his broken leg, empty beer mugs littered a wooden picnic table. The cute blond nurse who had fallen for Buck's overt demonstrations had snapped the picture. Ezra gingerly took the framed pictured down and again whipped it into the fire.
Josiah and Chris entered the house unnoticed by the gambler. They had made it just in time for the last shot glass to get shot into the fire. Larabee made to step into the room but Josiah had stopped him. Standish was obviously drunk. Now, he swayed in front of the fire laughing mirthlessly tossing one memento after another into the flames.
Vin had come to at the hospital. He relayed the whole story, their capture subsequent imprisonment and their desperate plan for a rescue. Tanner had become too weak from blood lost to notice the despair and panic that crossed Chris and Buck's features. Sanchez prayed the storm had kept the gambler at the house. They had a lot to work out.
Both ATF agents recognized the photos. Standish had never accompanied them on those trips or any trips for that matter. The time of the ski trip he had a fractured collarbone surely he would not want to go skiing.
Chris leaned dejectedly against the kitchen doorframe resting his newly acquired bright green cast against the wall, watching his undercover agent. Standish had a hard head. The Jack Daniels bottle hung loosely in Ezra's left hand. Diablo, old and deaf as he was did not realize his owner had made it home and sat next to the gambler staring into the flame. Whenever Standish absently petted the dog's head he thumped his tail contentedly against the hardwood floor. Poor Diablo was getting old.
"You see this one here," Ezra showed the photo to the disinterested dog, "they went camping for the weekend." He chuckled, "they didn't ask me cuz thought I wouldn't like it." He made to toss it into the flames hesitated and stopped. "They might have been right about that one." He conceded placing the picture back up on the mantel. He paused and uttered "Aww hell" and threw it into the fire anyhow. He peered down at the dog, "who knows I might've enjoyed it."
Josiah smiled at the comment. Chris looked up at the older man like he had lost his mind. Sanchez shrugged.
Ezra hobbled away from the fire and found yet another photo. Larabee made a move to interfere. Again the giant man stopped him with a restraining hand and a shake of his head.
Standish held the photo. It was Sarah and young Adam. Both were laughing, Sarah held the kicking boy in her arms. Adam appeared to be maybe five and giggling. Ezra ran his fingertips gingerly over the glass almost afraid to touch it. He turned and faced the general direction of the two men, never looking up from the picture. He leaned heavily against the wooden table. His drunken mumbles came out clear. "I wonder Adam, if you ever realized how lucky you were?" His melancholy, settled heavily in the room. He smiled again and sadly shook his head, "how lucky you are. I'd give anything to trade places with you." He turned unsteadily and placed the picture back on the table. Ezra stared at it one more time then took a long drink from the bottle.
He tipped it up high getting the last drop staggering back a step bumping into the rough leather couch. He stared at the empty bottle dumbly swaying in circular motions. "Shiitt. Diablo." He petted the dog again. The black lab mix thumped its tail. "We're out of good sippin' whiskey." Standish took a hesitant step forward and tossed the empty bottle into the fire. "Just as well anyhow." He surveyed the mess he had made in front of the fireplace, and then gazed back down at the dog. "Well when your master comes back to rip my head off at least I'll deserve it this time."
He headed out of the room, toward the west, never noticing the two older men. "Did I ever tell you Larabee gave me a second chance. No one's ever done that before. Thought it was because he had faith in me. But alas I have been foolish again. Just a damn whipp'n boy. You know if I had died up there it would've been ok." He paused and leaned against the piano trying to get his balance. "Gawd forbid one of them is hurt permanently." He muttered worriedly.
Ezra headed for the outside door after struggling into a borrowed coat. "You better stay here pup. Mr. Larabee thinks I hurt you and I'm a dead man." He gave the dog one last pat and headed out the door into the storm paused and stared down at the dog, "remember don't touch anything." The conman chuckled repeating the last words his boss had hissed at him before he had climbed into the 4-w drive vehicle up at the shack. With that Standish closed the door and disappeared into the night.
"What a mess." Josiah finally whispered out, stepping into the living room. Chris agreed, "yeah." both men ignoring the physical destruction that surrounded them, staring at the oak door Ezra had just disappeared through.
Sanchez slid back into his coat, "I'll go get him."
"Give him a few minutes." Chris said peering out the window with cupped hands. He watched his agent meander haphazardly toward the barn, fighting both the effects of the whiskey and the torrential storm. There was an apartment in the barn, next to the tack room. The previous owners were horse breeders and slept in there if one of the mares were due to foal. The small room was insulated and sported it's own wood stove. It was furnished and clean, occasionally some of the local kids stayed and took care of the horses when Chris was forced to out of town.
Larabee sighed in relief when the unsteady form managed to reach the barn and stumble inside. At least the damn fool had made it out of the storm. The man had determination. Chris always knew it, had faced it and butted heads with it. When Vin weakly related the events of the day, then and only then did it finally settle in just how determined the southerner could be. It was that determination that had saved the lives of others, Chris's new family. Not Ezra's.
Larabee stepped away from the window and stared into the flames. A photograph laid on the fringes of the fire. He reached in and quickly pulled it out. A fishing trip. Ezra was new to the team then, they just did not think he would be interested in joining them. They must have been wrong. Chris tossed it back into the flames. Why didn't Standish ever say anything? Then again who would he say it too? Chris watched the flames curl the picture turning it brown and then black the flames becoming blue as they reacted to the chemicals. Standish was seemingly a square peg trying to fit into the preverbal round hole.
Josiah picked up the hockey stick chuckling. Strange he should smile now. Vin and Nathan had to endure lacerations, stitches, contusions and bruised bones, JD a concussion and fractured arm. Buck stayed too concerned to leave the others' side, and to worried to face the damage he had left back up on the mountain. Standish.
Sanchez leaned the hockey stick against the coach and watched Chris. The man had lived through hell and survived. He gave everything he had to the job and his men. Josiah knew the younger man berated himself for today's fiasco. Sanchez also knew there was no way Chris could have foreseen the trouble the foursome had encountered and Larabee was not solely responsible for Standish.
"I think I'll go get Wayne Gretsky." Sanchez smiled. The gambler had more tricks up his sleeves than Curly had watches.
Chris chuckled and faced the older man. The giant anthropologist turned crime fighter, had a large smile plastered on his face. Figures he and Vin always found something amusing even in the most desperate situations.
"Naw. He should be passed out by now." The soft rumblings of laughter echoed behind him as he shut the door and walked into the night.
"Ezra?" Josiah cautiously poked his head around the ajar door. Wind whistled rattled the glass windows. The undercover agent had at least made it to the bed. "Ezra?" Sanchez asked again pushing the door open slowly. No movement stirred from the diagonally sprawled form on the bed. Josiah nodded deeming it was safe and entered the small one room apartment.
Chris held the door open as Josiah stomped his feet on the snow covered welcome mat. He had Standish slung across one shoulder like a sack of feed. Snow covered both men, it seemed pointless to clean the boots off but habit and manners dictated the effort should not be ignored. "Don't worry about it Josiah, get in here." Larabee said over the roar of the storm. He shut the door squelching the moans of the weather, "Let's put him in the spare room."
Sanchez dropped his unconscious burden on the double bed. Together he and Chris began to pull off clothing. Standish offered no resistance except to moan on occasion. Josiah finally wrestled off the shirt partially rolling the smaller man onto his side. He noticed something and stopped, "Chris look at this."
The larger man rolled Standish onto his side. They had noticed the bruising that covered most of his torso and legs. The muted lighting in the room was enough to clearly reveal the large bruise that covered the conman's left side ribcage. It was a boot print, in all it's detail, etched out in deep purples and maroons. "Son of a..." Chris swore. "Think anything's broke?" Larabee asked.
Josiah thought for a brief second, "no, probably just bruised, no way he'd be able to cover that many miles, and then ride if he did." Sanchez paused and then added, "besides his wrist shot was too good." Josiah smiled when he heard Chris chuckle. Larabee carefully pried the running sneakers from the torn bloody feet. Blisters had been torn open, blood dried to the raw skin and synthetic shoe material. Standish must have covered a lot of miles. Chris sighed, they would get over this, get through this mess, and things would straighten out.
Ezra woke to one of the worst headaches of his life, followed by a miserably upset stomach. He was afraid to move, afraid his head would fall off. Then again that would not be such a bad thing. His eyes blinked open on their own, the mere act of moving his eyelids was excruciating. It was morning. Oh gawd what had he done? He closed his eyes, praying sleep or death claimed him whatever came first.
Standish woke up a second time. The headache had not lessened and his stomach seemed worse. His bladder had reached its limit. He had to get on his feet. With a groan through tightly clenched teeth, he sat up gingerly. The room swam. He kept his eyes closed, felt saliva immediately collecting in his mouth, the harbinger of doom. It was then he noticed he was in the main house, Larabee's house, the guest bedroom. Oh no. He needed the bathroom thank god the room had its own. He would plan his escape after he solved his most sudden and urgent problems.
Josiah quietly pushed open the bedroom door. Chris had left a few hours ago, to brave the storm and check the others at the hospital. Phones and electricity were out, a state of Emergency had been declared. They were calling this the 100 year storm. Wind and snow screamed across the territory. Only essential personnel were to traverse the roads. With his blue dash mounted siren, Larabee became a self appointed essential person.
Sanchez peered inside. The bed was empty. Breath caught in Sanchez's throat, Standish had left. Then he heard the retching from the bathroom and reached a different conclusion. Josiah closed his eyes and shook his head, what a miserable way to greet the day.
Ezra leaned his sweating forehead against the cool porcelain wishing to any merciful God that someone would put him out of his misery. His abdominal muscles ached and burned. His stomach had nothing else to give but that did not prevent it from heaving. Funny the porcelain felt so good against his head and he could feel sweat roll down his bare back but chills racked through him. Then he felt a blanket suddenly drape across his shoulders. He slowly lifted his head off the toilet rim and stared at the grinning features of Josiah. Ezra closed his eyes and groaned, then heaves hit him again, throwing him back up onto his sore knees.
"Easy brother." Josiah softly intoned sitting on the edge of the bathtub. Standish gripped the toilet with clenched fists, his back arched accentuating ribs and vertebrae as the blanket slipped off his back. Josiah waited a few seconds and finally the gambler's body relented and he sagged back against the porcelain. There was no need to flush nothing came up.
"You ok?" Josiah asked reaching over and replacing the blanket.
Standish opened one blood shot eye and stared at the older man as if he had gone insane. "I think I coughed up a lung." He muttered.
"No, it just feels that way." Sanchez smiled back at the crumpled form. He had been there before, and hoped to never be there again. A learning process that would take more than one lesson and age to sink in completely.
"Thought I was a while back." The mumbled reply. Both eyes remained closed. His sweat drenched hair had become matted to his forehead, his features pale under the bruising, he breathed shallowly trying hard not to offend his fickle stomach.
"I figured as much come on let's get ya back to bed." He gently eased the sweat slick gambler to trembling feet and led him back to the bed.
Standish woke again feeling somewhat better. Death might not be the welcome visitor it would have been earlier in the day. Ezra blinked and stared at the nightstand. A small glass of water and two aspirins greeted him. Josiah might actually be a saint after all.
Josiah smiled when the kitchen door swung open and then closed. Sanchez turned peered over his shoulder and then went back to what he was working on at the stove. If a corpse could walk it would resemble the undercover agent.
"Afternoon brother." Josiah said the smile evident in his voice. Standish scowled and sat down heavily at the table.
Josiah received a grunt in greeting. He ignored it turning to face the younger agent with burnt toast. His own remedy for treating hangovers. "Hungry?"
Standish eyed the coal black creation and muttered, "no."
"Well eat anyhow it'll make you feel better."
This was greeted with a raised eyebrow and skeptical look. If Ezra wanted someone to read his expression he had no trouble expressing his feelings visually. He did not trust Josiah. Sanchez was afraid it ran much deeper than the toast. He slid the plate across the table to the deathly pale trembling form. Standish regarded it critically, then picked up a piece it wavered noticeably in shaking hands and took a tentative bite. His stomach did not rebel violently, just churned as if unsure what to do.
Vin eased himself back against the front seat. Larabee had buckled the safety belt for him. JD and Nathan occupied the back seat both buckled in with Wilmington sitting behind the driver's seat. What a sorry bunch. The hospital was packed, over flowing liked a clogged drain, the sick and hurt laced the halls. The hospital needed beds and the three in the truck were not critical. They were ok'd to go home, well at least leave the hospital where they went from there the attendings did not really concern themselves. The doctors and staff that were at the hospital were trapped with no hope of relief, their co-workers could not traverse the roads and public transportation had been shut down.
Larabee negotiated the black 4-w drive onto the road. The windshield wipers squeaked back and forth trying desperately to clear the accumulating snow. The defrost had been kicked on high. The studded tires gripped and dug into the snow-covered roads. The powdery white stuff had managed to reach the running boards. They left clear tracks in snow bogged roads. The snow plows could not keep up with the murderous storm. The afternoon sun was obscured by thick angry clouds. The truck was buffeted by strong winds forcing Larabee to fight the wheel just to keep the truck on the road. It was a trick, especially with only one hand.
"What ya do to your hand?" Tanner asked, rolling his head against the headrest.
"Broke it." The simple reply. Chris had his teeth clenched, not sure if it was due to the question or the road conditions. He could barely see three yards in front of the hood.
The simple explanation worked. Chris checked the rearview mirror. JD, in the center seat, dozed leaning his bandaged head on Buck's shoulder. Nathan slumped down in his seat his head lolled back against the window he too seemingly sleeping. They were hurt and exhausted, a clear declaration to the hell they had endured the last 36 hours at both the hands of their captures and then the hospital staff. Chris swore revenge, he would make whoever did this pay. He had expected to grill Standish over the incident last night but obviously that plan did not come to fruit. Even if the undercover agent had not been falling down drunk how could Chris expect any straight answers from the smart talking con artist after yesterday afternoon? Larabee turned his attention back to the road. Josiah was right they would find away to fix this mess.
Sanchez did not hear the truck pull up or the see the headlights. The whipping snow and wind muted and dimmed everything. Josiah peered up from his book as the front door suddenly open. The roar of the storm filled the house. Buck supported JD and led him through the door.
"I've got him brother go get the others." Josiah easily guided the youngest member of the team to the coach. "Sit here son." Josiah eased the young man down on the couch and waited by the door as Chris came up guiding a limping Tanner, Buck and Nathan were close on their heels. Josiah slammed the door shut once everyone was inside.
The six men sat facing the fireplace. Chris had shrugged out of his coat and headed toward the kitchen leaving Buck to watch over the other three. The doctors had assured them that the wounds though numerous and painful were not overtly life threatening. Still the threesome were wiped out. They had pumped Tanner full of IV fluids, to help replace some blood loss, trying not to tax the dwindling blood banks. JD still suffered the after affects of the concussion, and Nathan appeared as if he had been run over by a logging truck, bruises and cuts adorned his face and body.
Josiah followed Chris into the kitchen. A generator hummed somewhere out of sight, supplying the house with some enmities. "How are they?" Sanchez asked checking on the pot of water he was waiting to boil. It would be good to get something hot to drink especially for the others.
"Banged up, exhausted but ok." Larabee glanced around the sparse kitchen seemingly searching for something. "Ezra ok?"
Sanchez sighed and faced the leader of the seven, "Slept most of the day." Josiah pushed himself away from the counter and took a seat at the table. He chuckled softly, "suffering from one of the worst hangovers of his life."
Larabee grimaced in understanding, he had suffered through more than a few of those days. "Where's he now?" Chris asked. He had some stuff to straighten out. Inwardly he hoped Josiah had laid down the groundwork, but would never ask the larger man to do so.
"The barn," the kettle began its shrill whistle forcing Josiah to his feet taking it off the burner. "Thought it would be more comfortable out there than in here." Sanchez faced his boss and friend again and continued, "Figured that way at least he'd get a bed." Both men were well aware that none of them knew the other three would be released today.
Chris gazed at his watch, "It's only 7:30? When he go out there?"
"About dark." Josiah combined instant soup and boiling water into a large pot. No one would be hungry tonight but the warmth of the soup would do them good. "He took his stuff with him."
Chris merely nodded his head, fingering his fiberglass cast. Damn.
"Let him be tonight." Sanchez suggested grabbing the soup. "He maybe a bit angry but he's no idiot he won't venture out into this gale." The large preacher said. Larabee nodded in resignation. He grabbed some soup bowls and headed out into the living room after Josiah.
JD woke in a strange room. At first he feared he was still at the mercy of his captures. His sudden panicked was squelched by the smiling features of Buck Wilmington. JD relaxed, a grin creased his bruised features. Memories flooded back to him, waking up in the hospital, Buck grinning at him like a fool. Getting in Chris's truck and then Buck forcing soup down him. How he ended from the living room to a bedroom he could not be sure but he figured Buck played big brother and probably carried him in here. Dunne did not mind Buck's big brother routine it was kind of nice to know Wilmington cared but sometimes when he pulled embarrassing stuff like carrying JD around, well that was just to much to bear. JD was, after all, an ATF agent.
"'Ey kid how ya feelin'?" Buck asked. He had slept on the floor of Adam's old room near the bed. He did not want JD waking up alone. When he had come to at the hospital the kid was terrified thought he was still a prisoner up on the mountain. It had taken Wilmington some time to get JD to calm down. Buck did not want the kid to relive that kind of fear again.
"Ok I guess?" JD gazed around the room. He did not recognize it. It looked like a kid's room, figured they put him in here. "Where are we?"
"Chris's house." Buck read the puzzled expression and then explained, "Adam's room."
"Oh." JD softly whispered. He had been to Chris's ranch before they all had, well except Ezra. JD had never ventured into Larabee's son's room it just did not seem right, like an invasion of privacy. Then he thought about the others. "How are the others?"
"Vin's ok he's still sleeping in Chris's room, and Nathan's in the spare room down the hall." Buck answered. He could hardly contain his joy at hearing the kid speak. Yesterday, JD had been dull, apathetic, he could not hold a thought, articulate words or finish a coherent sentence. The doctors had assured Buck it was the temporary effects of the concussion. It would seem they were right. This morning he was lucid and asking his typical million and one questions.
"Where's Ezra?" JD did not miss the omission. Their captures had taken some of their rage out on the undercover agent too. Of the group of prisoners though, Standish had been the only one left with the ability to run. He had been the logical choice to go for help. JD had been surprised when the conman had vehemently refused to leave them. It finally took Nathan telling him to shut up and get his ass in gear, before, he Nathan, killed him with his bare hands. Standish relented begrudgingly and Vin had to give him general directions toward Larabee's ranch. That worried JD some, their potential rescue attempt had no idea where they were or how to get around in the woods. Ezra, like JD, was city born and raised.
"He's sleeping in the tack room. Wanted a bed and all. You know Ezra don't like roughing it if'n he don't have too." Buck stammered. No one had seen hide nor hair of the conman since they returned last night. Josiah had thought it best to leave him along and get over his hangover. Buck was not sure what had transpired the night before but something was different about the house he just could not put his finger on it.
Dunne knew something was wrong. He could always tell when Buck started blathering like a fool.
"Ezra ain't hurt, they didn't shoot him or something did they?" JD questioned the fear easily discernible in the tone.
"Oh no kid, ya know Ezra, h'could squirm his way outta a barrel of rats without gettin' bit. He's just fine. Trust ole Buck, Ez's just sleepin' yesterday off, besides it ain't even 8am, he won't be up for another hours or so." Buck reassured with false confidence.
JD eyed him suspiciously.
Vin shrugged into his winter coat intending to follow Larabee out into the storm.
"No you don't." Larabee said realizing the tracker followed him. Vin supported his injured ribs with a coated arm.
"Quit mothering me your worse than Buck. I ain't JD ya know." Tanner bit back annoyed anyone told him what to do when he hurt. Bad enough his ribs ached, hell his whole body hurt, then he had to spend a night in a hospital and then impose on a friend, now he had to endure dictation.
"Then quit acting like JD." Chris retorted. He saw the anger in the tracker's blue eyes. Larabee began to wonder if Standish was not rubbing off on him. He had managed to insult Vin and JD all in one sentence. Thank goodness Dunne was not around to hear it. "I'm just going out to tend the horses, I can handle it alone."
"Good then I'll just watch." Vin answered smugly. He would go with or without Chris's permission.
Larabee knew he lost this battle. "Ok let's go." Chris figured Vin would not be able to negotiate the mid thigh snow levels. The wind still howled and snow still pelted the ground. Some parts of the ranch had drifts that reached the eaves of the barn while others had bare grass exposed. Chris could not remember a storm this bad before.
The twosome made it to the barn. Larabee held onto Tanner's parka, guiding and supporting the injured man. The wind had buffeted and bullied both men as they gamely trudged through the swirling snow. Chris pulled the large door closed effectively dulling the sound of the tempest. Both shook snow from their coats.
Chris started pulling alfalfa bales out but stopped when he noticed none of the horses whinnied to him as was their custom at feeding time. He threw Vin a confused look and both men walked the length of the aisle gazing in each of the stalls. Someone fed and watered them already.
"Looks like Ezra's already taken care of it." Tanner said somewhat in disbelieve. The southerner hated winter and hated manual labor almost as much as early mornings. It would seem, he braved all three despised conditions this morning. Something had happened between Ezra and the others.
Vin had been anxious to see the southerner when they had returned from the hospital. He was somewhat surprised when they told him Ezra slept in the barn. Something definitely had occurred, whatever it was, was not good.
Chris nodded, not saying anything and quietly opened the apartment door, Why would Ezra feed the horses? Had he been up all night?
Compared to the frigid cold of the barn the heat of the apartment was welcomed. Standish slept facing the wood stove and the door. His borrowed carhart coat lay near the stove, the sleeves still wet from breaking ice and carrying water. Why would he tend the horses? Maybe he still feared Chris's wraith especially after what had happened up on the mountain. Hadn't Chris threatened him and commanded the undercover agent to care for the animals. Larabee was not sure maybe the horses just offered a quiet nonjudgmental companionship like Diablo.
Tanner peered over Larabee's shoulders to ensure himself the gambler had indeed made it back to safety after escaping from their captors. The dark maroon and purple bruising and swelled left eye left him puzzled. He stepped back as Chris gently closed the door with his left hand. His right casted hand and forearm were protected from view by the coat and mitten. Pieces began falling into place for the tracker.
Vin leaned against the inner barn door facing his friend. He and Larabee had a bizarre undeniably strong friendship. Tanner had never experienced anything like it. They were brothers almost from the beginning. Vin never had family. He had dreamed what it would be like to have a brother, and now he had one. The first moment he had met Chris Larabee, they clicked. It seemed almost unnatural. They knew each other's thoughts, knew each others actions and motivations, it was uncanny. So when Vin pointedly said "Hell of a storm brewin' don't ya think?" Chris knew the tracker did not mean the snow blowing outside.
"I made a mistake." Larabee simply said.
"That how you broke your hand?" Vin asked already knowing the answer. When Ezra had been forced to leave them he had no bruises on his face, his torso had suffered the brutality of their captors.
"Yeah." Larabee breathed out. When he had turned on Standish in a blind rage at the cabin he had been bent on beating the undercover agent to a pulp, or at least into a condition similar to that of Vin, JD and Nathan. Luckily for Standish however he had rolled his head and Chris had collided smaller hand and wrist bones on the undercover agents thick skull effectively breaking the smaller hand bones. It saved Ezra. Yet this morning his face did resemble the tattered beaten features of Vin and probably Nathan.
Chris did not meet Tanner's blue eyes. He hated Vin's calm tone. Larabee wished Vin would just explode or do something other than keep his conversational demeanor.
"Buck hit him too?" Vin inquired. He knew the answer. Buck and Chris protected the others fiercely, sometimes however the undercover agent fell outside that small corona of safety.
"Yeah." Larabee nodded sitting heavily on a bale of alfalfa. He had no idea how to resolve this mess. Chris then gazed up at the tracker and asked, "You're not going to ask about Josiah?"
"Josiah didn't lay a hand on him," Vin answered. Chris raised a questioning eyebrow. Vin smirked and answered the unasked question, "Ezra's still alive."
Larabee nodded in understanding. Josiah for all his calm understanding mannerism had a fierce temper and fearful strength, it would send the devil himself scurrying back to the gates of Hades for protection.
Tanner continued, "What are you going to do?"
"I don't rightly know." Larabee sighed and gazed back up at his friend, "any suggestions?"
"Well you could let Ezra shoot ya. He might enjoy that."
"I, undoubtedly, would Mr. Tanner but the mere fact that Mr. Larabee here broke his hand on my cranium gives me great pleasure." The sarcastic southern agent leaned heavily against the doorframe behind Larabee. Chris shut his eyes at the sound of the voice and Vin laughed enjoying his friend's discomfort.
"How's the hangover Ezra?" Chris asked peering over his shoulder at Standish. Vin thought he noticed a subtle wince but then Ezra answered, "I survived, better than your living room I would wager." A cautious hesitant smirk creased his features.
Tanner watched both men and finally asked, "Did I miss something?"
The three men headed toward the outer barn door, "Not really, though Josiah thinks Ezra has a wrist shot that might rival Bobby Orr or even Wayne Gretsky." Tanner laughed out right at the sudden uncomfortable and undeniably embarrassed expression that flashed across the southerners face.
Buck and JD glanced up from theirs breakfasts when Chris, Vin and Ezra stomped in out of the storm. Dunne let out a whistle when he noticed Ezra's swollen and bruised features, "Geez Ezra what the heck happened to you?" The young ATF noticed Buck swivel around in his chair faced the others and then immediately turn back to his cereal. Something was wrong.
"I fell." Ezra explained simply gingerly slipping out of the borrowed coat. He was not sure where he had acquired the jacket but it served its purpose. Diablo greeted the men at the door, excitedly accepting affection from anyone who offered it. Standish laid a comforting hand on the dog's peppered head.
The simple explanation he offered JD had worked on relatives and associates before and he felt confident the lame excuse would work with the others. People would believe the obvious lie so they would not have to face the consequences of the truth. Besides Chris and Buck would not step forward and admit any wrong doing, if in fact, they believed they committed any transgression. Josiah and Vin would keep the peace by keeping their mouths closed, they would not rock the boat. Why should they? It would not solve anything, not change anything. Let JD believe they made a tight family group, let the kid have the security of brothers and protectors, Ezra would continue to protect the boy and if allowed, continue to teach the kid something of his trade. As for the others, he knew he never belonged. He knew they never trusted him. He allowed himself to fall into the same folder as they, he would live the con, keep his job, (with any luck), and do what he did best, lie and gamble. Ezra did not hold onto any noble ideas, did not believe in foolish self sacrifice for the group. He would do his job, and do it with his usual success. He had mistakenly trusted and believed in the others. It was not their fault he had begun to develop a repertoire with them, it was his. He alone had allowed for the closeness of the group to reach him and in the end he paid for it. Ezra touched his bruised swollen eye, a small price for such an important reminder.
JD did not buy the story. He could not read people with any amount of skill, at least nowhere near the skill compared to Tanner and Standish but he recognized a bald face lie when he heard one. Standish told an obvious whopper. Funny he did not even try to disguise it with flowery language or a grand story, just a simple plain flat out fib. Dunne would play along for now.
"How many times?" Nathan quipped limping through the kitchen door with Josiah just behind him. Sanchez grimaced when he saw the southerner's contused features. He had looked bad last night but now in the bright kitchen lights the damage appeared more extensive.
Standish was beginning to feel cornered, trapped. Vin and Chris flanked him, some how managing to block the door, Josiah stood in front of the kitchen swinging door and Nathan, Buck and JD were in-between. Diablo leaned into his leg enjoying the ear scratching, even if it were a result of nervous energy. Everyone seemed to be staring at him for some kind of explanation. How did this become his fault again? Panic began to rise, his gut tightened. Suddenly he began to feel very much alone, and threatened. He did not bother removing the sneakers he had been wearing since the day before. Strange how just the other day had started out as a beautiful 60 degree Indian summer without a cloud in the sky, and six friends. Yesterday and today a storm raged both out and inside the house and no ally in sight. Diablo belonged to Chris.
Ezra had been in worse positions before facing more dangerous odds. An easy going smiled crossed his dimpled features and answered, "a few times."
"Chris break his hand help'in ya up?" Jackson pushed. The knife-throwing chemist did not like being played for a fool, nor any of his friends. He also did not condone the beating of one either. There were times the others deserved a good smack to the head, or a slight attitude adjustment, hell most of the time it was Standish who needed it. Yet no one deserved to suffer the damage inflicted upon the southerner, especially by friends. Whatever the reason Nathan would find out what happened. He just wondered if there was a friend left in the conman.
"Something like that." Standish answered warily. He was really loosing his touch. Nathan had begun unraveling the facts for himself as had Vin. From the expression on JD's face it would seem the kid saw past the smoke screen as well. These gentlemen were not as blind has he had taken them for. Standish made a note not to underestimate them again. Ezra felt even more out of place, and uncomfortable. Diablo thumped his leg as the scratching intensified.
"If you gentlemen will excuse me I think I'll dry my shoes in front of the fire." Ezra casually tread past the others and slipped by Josiah unscathed and out into the living room. The large crippled dog trotted after him wagging its tail.
"Hey I think I'll join ya pard," Vin said watching the retreating back of Standish. Vin knew the posture of a cornered animal no matter what the species. Ezra felt trapped, in danger, he disguised it well and made a graceful, tactful, retreat but the fear was evident to Tanner. The tracker knew the others missed it, maybe suspected it, but did not see cornered rising fear. The damn fool could pull the wool over even the most scrutinizing gaze, unless you knew him well.
Nathan waited until the door stopped swinging closed and then faced the others. "You guys beat him up." It was a statement mired with a questioning tone, almost disbelief. Almost.
JD sat at the kitchen table watching the others. No answer forthcoming JD pushed Buck on the shoulder, "how come ya hit him Buck?"
Wilmington wished to God he could change the events of the other day, hell just erase that day altogether. Buck put down his spoon and stared at JD and then the others. His blue eyes meeting unbelieving brown ones. "We... I thought he had run out on ya, JD" Buck wanted nothing more than to protect the kid, protect the others from any kind of hurt, how had the gambler fallen through the holes of his safety net? "Gawd if I could take it back I would kid. Ya gotta believe me."
"It ain't us you need convince Buck." Nathan replied sadly. He and Ezra collided more times than not, argued more than the any of the others. The conning southerner had at best questionable ethics and morals. He would con from Peter to gamble with Paul. It drove Nathan crazy. Half the time Ezra never thought he did anything wrong. In fact he justified it by saying he was educating his marks. Jackson wanted to strangle him on those occasions, but had refrained. Why had not the others. Why did Josiah let it happen?
"I'm just as guilty brother Dunne." Josiah intoned sitting heavily in a chair. Sanchez answered the questioning looks. "I did nothing to stop it."
Ezra dragged a chair closer to the fire placing his wet feet near the flames. Vin joined him.
"You ok Ez?" Tanner asked staring into the dancing flames. The only evidence of the night before's, destruction were a few blackened picture frames still with in the grasp of the fireplace grill.
"Of course Mr. Tanner." The clipped answer. No ‘Vin', when they had been prisoners and at the brutal mercy of their captors Ezra had called them by their first names. Terror had away of bringing people closer together.
"Ya know they feel bad about the other day." Vin pushed trying to make a path that would hopefully lead to peace. The ex-bounty hunter had noticed the photographs that were missing. It was not hard especially after building up the dwindling fire and noticing all the picture frames. Chris Buck and Josiah had never said a thing. ‘Who would blame them?' Vin though. JD and Nathan would brow beat them enough why would the others want to rush it. Whatever ties they might have formed with the gambler seemed to have unraveled and disappeared. Diablo sat between the chairs trying to finagle attention from both people.
Ezra threw a side ways glance to the tracker and then toward the closed kitchen doors. He could hear muted voices but not make out the words. "You believe so?"
Tanner did not miss the light tone of the question and wrinkled his brow. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure." He answered somewhat guarded. What was Standish up too?
"I could milk this for along time, don't you think?" The smile spread from dimple to dimple. He scratched the dog's head again.
Tanner chuckled, relief laced his tone, "I'd say at least a few weeks worth of vacation." Vin leaned back in his chair carefully, trying to relax tired muscles without disturbing ribs. It proved very difficult. "how long are you gonna to let 'em squirm?" Vin asked turning his head watching paradox of a man beside him. Was Ezra conning him? or was he truly conning the others?
"I have not figured that out yet. I planned on letting Nathan berate them for a while and let Mr. Dunne work his charm on Buck." Standish answered closing his eyes chuckling. He had not slept well at all last night. Once the effects of the whiskey had worn off nightmares and restless musings filled his mind. Diablo leaned into his hand enjoying the attention.
"Did you really shoot hockey pucks in the living room?" Vin asked closing his eyes as well.
"No," and embarrassed chuckle, "I was forced to improvise and use some over sized shot glasses."
Tanner cracked an eye open turned his head and stared at the gambler, "I gave him those for Christmas last year."
"Well, I guess you know what to get him this year as well." Ezra replied smiling matching the one eye stare with one of his own. "I'll go fifty-fifty with ya if ya help me out." Standish continued figuring he would need an assistant with his scheme. The dog rested his broad grizzled chin on Standish's leg.
Tanner contemplated the deal but before he could agree another voice interrupted.
"If that's the case then I want a dozen not just six glasses."
Chris Larabee had a wicked smile plastered across his face when his two agents nearly fell from their chairs scrambling to face him.
"You been there long pard?" Vin asked carefully.
"Long enough." Larabee nailed Standish with a bemused but caustic stare. Ezra merely raised his eyebrows in an act of innocence.
"Don't even try it Ezra. I heard enough." Chris reiterated. The two men before him continued to amaze and confound him. Vin was actually going to agree with the undercover agents scheme.
Chris almost laughed outright at the disappointment that crossed Standish's face.
"Don't worry JD and Nathan are giving Buck and Josiah a run for their money."
"How'd you escape?" Vin asked settling gingerly back down in his chair.
Ezra merely raised an eyebrow in question watching Larabee. The leader of the seven did not fail to notice Standish refused to sit, instead he faced Chris, almost unsure what to do.
"Just came out to apologize," He switched his attention from Vin to Standish. He nailed the cagey green eyes with a solid promising gaze of his own, "I misread ya Ezra and I'm sorry." He held out his left hand, with some hesitation Standish accepted it.
"Does that mean I can't follow through with Buck and Josiah." a sly smile creased the conman's face.
"I don't know, you might want to consider Josiah kept you from freezing to death the other night." Larabee pulled up a third chair and placed it on the other side of Standish. Diablo switched positions and planted himself between his master and the gambler.
"True." Ezra sat back down resting his sneakers on the slate apron in front of the flames. He leaned back in his chair mimicking the tracker's posture.
"Buck?" He asked a few minutes later.
"Nathan's working him over pretty good." Chris could not hide his amusement. The southerner would always try and work an angle. He could take a situation and twist and manipulate it to suit his purposes. It made him a great undercover agent but a challenging team member. He watched Standish kick off his runners. The bare feet appeared just as angry as they had the night he and Josiah put him to bed. Larabee would have to find a pair of wool socks and lend them to the conman.
They sat in a companionable silence until Ezra suddenly sat up and asked, "Has anyone seen my car?"
Chris and Vin chuckled, "The Jag?" Chris and Vin exchanged laughs and Chris added, "you'll probably find it by spring, Ezra."
A slow woeful moan escaped the southerner. Diablo heard it and rested his chin on the leg expectantly. The wind and snow continued to blast the countryside, burying everything in its path, including the Jaguar.
Tomorrow they would concentrate on finding the individuals that had unleashed so much havoc on the seven, weather permitting.
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