When a small plane disappeared over the mountains along the border between Canada and America it barely made the local news. Search and Rescue teams from America joined with the RCMP in searching. Four days later after numerous flyovers of the registered flight plan they started expanding the search. But neither government was holding out much hope of anything being found. Another three days saw the search quietly called off, without even the local news commenting. The pilot had no family and there was some question as to how many or even if there were passengers. At least that was the reason the head of the American Search and Rescue gave. Course he made sure that the six hard faced men who'd lost a friend were surrounded by S&R personnel when he did. Facing those men was the scariest thing he'd ever had to do. When the deadly looking blond demanded topographical maps of the area he handed them over without a question. As he told his wife later that night if those six men were crazy enough to ride back into the high country looking, let them.
The RCMP Captain had it much easier. He only had to face one man, a subordinate at that. In a kind but firm tone he told the blank faced Sergeant that the search had been called off. He politely ignored the momentary shattered look in the Sergeant's eyes at the news. When the Sergeant asked for leave it was given along with the supplies he requested. It was understood but unspoken that the man was going to look for his friend. Plus, the captain told his wife, when it came to that particular Sergeant is would have done no good to refuse anyway.
This story might have ended there if the missing men and the friends searching for them hadn't been who they were ..
Setting his pack down, the dark haired man pulled a small leather covered scope out of his pocket using it to scan the meadow below. On the third pass movement on the other side near the edge of the treeline caught his attention. The large white wolfdog at his side whined questioningly.
"I have no idea who they are."
Another whine, then a sharp bark were uttered.
"Yes they do look well armed but that doesn't necessarily make them dangerous." At the wolf's growl the man lowered his scope and looked down. "Not everyone we meet shoots at us. Don't be melodramatic."
The men pulled up their horses at the edge of the treeline four watching quietly as two dismounted. The younger of the two had shoulder length brownish blond hair and wore a buckskin jacket. The older man was blond and dressed all in black. The younger pulled a shiny gold scope out of his pocket, using it to scan the meadow. His relaxed stance straightened as he focused on something on the other side, halfway up the hill. The tall blond turned to look in the same direction, straining to see what had caught his friend's attention.
"What is it?"
"You're not gonna believe me."
"Try me." Behind the two men the other four shifted in their saddles, leaning forward.
"Judging by the hat, a really big boy scout an a wolf." The younger man held out his scope. "Or maybe a Mountie. They wear those sorta hats." With a glare the blond focused the scope on the hill. After a moments study he turned back to his companion, "How far north are we?"
"Not that far."
"You think that's a Mountie, might be a park ranger."
"Did some bounty hunting along the border." The younger man shrugged, "Doesn't look harmless enough to be a Park Ranger. Could be."
"You think he's looking for the plane too?" The question came from one of the mounted men. Tall with dark hair and a mustache he urged his dappled gray horse closer.
"Only one way to find out." The blond swung up on his horse waiting while the other man stored his scope and mounted his own blaze faced black. "Let's go ask."
The six men started across the meadow toward the figure slowly making his way down the hill.
Sgt. Benton Fraser closely studied the six men approaching. Whoever they were, they were well outfitted for backcountry travel. Horses and mules were all fit and well cared for, equipment in excellent shape. Each man sat his horse with a grace and ease only gained by long hours of riding. There was an order to their approach with each horse seeming to know it's place. Something that only happened among horses used to traveling together. As the riders got closer he focused on individual details. The leader was a tall blond whose lean whipcord frame was reminiscent of the man Fraser currently searched for. Dressed completely in black, astride a pure black horse he rode with the confidence of a man who knows he has an army at his back. The man to his right didn't need the rifle slung casually across his lap to mark him as a hunter/tracker. The keen blue eyes and wolf like caution gave him away, especially to another hunter/tracker of Fraser's quality. Behind the tracker rode a tall, well-built African-American man. His face was handsome, highlighted by intelligent eyes and an expressive mouth. He carried no rifle, but whenever he turned several knives could be seen gleaming against the back of his shirt.
The man to the left of the leader had turned back to speak to what looked like a younger version of himself. He was taller than Fraser with dark hair and a mustache. A rifle stuck out from the boot under his leg and glimpses of a shoulder holster could be seen. The younger man that rode behind him would have looked harmless except for the pistols strapped to each hip. He appeared much too young for such hardware. He, alone, was smiling slightly at the waiting Mountie. The last member of the party was the oldest, looking to be in his early fifties. Solidly built he had a craggy though handsome face. Like all the others his clothing and gear showed signs of normal wear consistent with regular use. Whoever they were being outdoors was not unusual for them. If you ignored the modern weaponry they could have almost ridden straight out of the past. Fraser stopped at the edge of the meadow letting them approach. His wolf companion also paused, offering his opinion again in a huffing growl.
"Yes I promise if they shoot us, you can say I told you so." Fraser sighed. To himself he muttered, "You pay and pay and pay."
Chris Larabee, ATF agent and head of Team Seven shared a knowing look with the man to his right. Either the stranger was wicked smart or a crazy fool. He'd stopped next to a large boulder that could be used for quick cover if needed. But most men would have looked at least a bit concerned at being approached by six well-armed men. This guy looked like he was getting ready to welcome Sunday visitors.
"Right pretty ain't he?" Chris' oldest friend Buck Wilmington said from his left.
"Never knew you went that way." Chris shot him a quick smirk. It was true though the man was classically handsome. His dark hair and broad shoulders made him look like something from a wilderness ad. Besides the odd hat, he wore jeans and a flannel shirt the dark blue sleeves rolled up to reveal the white Henley underneath. Well cared for hiking boots, a sturdy pack and rifle completed the picture.
"Well if I was, you'd a been the first to know." Buck shot back, refusing to be embarrassed. "Call it assessing the competition."
"Ain't no ladies out here Buck." Vin Tanner spoke from Chris' right.
"Man has to always be prepared." Buck shot back, though his voice didn't hold it's normal boisterous tones. In fact no one's heart was really in the normal banter. One of Team Seven's own was missing and everyone felt his absence.
Chris pulled Shade up swinging down to the ground. After taking a moment to study the man in front of him and be studied in return he held out his hand. "Chris Larabee, ATF." Behind him the others also dismounted.
"Sergeant Benton Fraser, RCMP." Fraser shook hands firmly studying the group. "A pleasure to meet you."
"You're a might far south." Chris said.
"Yes, I'm searching for a plane that disappeared a little over a week ago." Fraser gave Chris his best 'I'm a Mountie, so this is normal' look.
Fraser smiled politely acknowledging the comment from the youngest of the group. "Yes my partner Detective Ray Kowalski was a passenger. And you are?"
"He's JD Dunne, I'm Buck Wilmington."
Fraser shook hands with the mustached man. Easily reading the faint warning of don't mess with the kid in his eyes. "Pleased to meet you."
One by one the others stepped forward. Josiah Sanchez was the older craggy faced man. Nathan Jackson the African American. The last to step up and offer his hand was the one Fraser had cataloged as a hunter. After introducing himself as Vin Tanner he knelt down to offer a hand to the wolfdog. "Nice animal, part wolf?"
"Yes, his name is Diefenbaker or Dief if you prefer." Fraser noted the friendly greeting Dief gave the other man. The wolf was usually an excellent judge of character. He looked up catching Chris studying him closely. "You're also looking for the plane. Could that have anything to do with why it crashed?"
"Might have, one of my men was on it." Chris glared at the Mountie. "Man has to wonder what you're doing looking in this area. Search and Rescue say it went down a hundred and fifty miles east of here."
"I could ask you the same question." Fraser replied the pleasant, slightly innocent look on his face the same one he used to drive his superiors nuts. Chris stiffened, but before he could speak Fraser continued. "It's a matter of logic. If a plane is not where it should be then it's somewhere else. I interviewed a retired bush pilot in Ketter, a Mr. Johanson. A fascinating man really, he used to fly the mail route for this region. In fact he had a very interesting story "
"What did he say about the plane?" Chris growled when Fraser paused for a breath.
"Mr. Johanson indicated several spots where a plane could land in this country and the occupants possibly survive." Clasping his hands behind his back Fraser stood at parade rest, letting a bit of inner wolf show in his eyes. "So I'm searching this area."
"We figured the same thing." Vin interjected, trying hard not to laugh. Fraser's polite routine had annoyed Chris almost as much as Ezra's 'who me' one did. He flicked a quick glance at Josiah and Buck to see if they had noticed. From the glint in Josiah's eyes and the twitch of Buck's mustache they had. "Maybe we should compare notes."
"An excellent idea." Fraser seemed to take Vin's thought as an order pulling a topographical map out of his pack. Spreading it on the nearby boulder he began to point out things as he spoke. "I started in Ketter two days ago. According to Mr. Johansen the best place for the plane to be is here." He indicated an area a few miles South.
Chris studied the map, pointing at the indicated section he said, "We came from that area. We're heading over toward this lake."
"You walked this far in two days?" Nathan studied the other man with a medic's eyes.
"Yes, it was very invigorating to be on the trail again." Fraser made is sound like he'd been on a slight stroll.
"So," Buck started to say only to have Chris cut him off.
"Not much daylight left." He gave Fraser a considering look. This guy seemed almost to good to be true. Chris didn't want him running around unsupervised. "If we camp together tonight we can compare notes. You can ride with us tomorrow if you want. I assume you can ride?"
"Most competently, we are the Royal Canadian 'Mounted' Police." Fraser gave him the polite clueless Mountie smile though his tone was a bit sharp. "Joining forces would seem to be a good idea." The invitation gave him an excuse to find out more about these six dangerous looking strangers.
"You can use one of our extras." Chris ordered, motioning towards the horses.
"You came prepared to find survivors." Fraser said indicating the two extra horses JD was leading.
"Yeah brought Hammer in case anyone besides Ezra made it." Chris arched an eyebrow questioningly. "What were you going to do?"
Fraser's firm, "Whatever was necessary," got him another considering look.
The two men stared at each other, much to the amusement of Chris' men. Finally Vin stepped between them, "Might as well camp in the meadow." He mounted up and started back down the hill followed by the others. Chris and the others followed, except for JD. He paused to offer Hammer's lead rope, "Do you want to ride down?"
"Thank you kindly, but Dief and I will be along shortly." Fraser tipped his hat to the young agent before starting to fiddle with his map.
"Okay." Still JD didn't move. When Fraser looked up he blurted. "You got to excuse Chris, he's real worried about Ezra." Realizing that didn't make much sense he continued, "He's our friend that was on the plane. He hates camping an being cold. Doesn't know much about surviving in the wilderness." JD let his shoulder's slump, he wasn't sure he was communicating what he meant.
"He's more family than friend." Fraser said the words in an odd tone.
JD smiled relieved. "Yeah that's it." Buck's bellow of JD prompted him to move. With a cheery, "See you down below." JD rode off.
Dief barked sharply several times.
"No I am not going to challenge Agent Larabee for leadership of his pack."
Dief barked again.
"No you may not challenge him either. Must I remind you that a human pack works differently? Challenge their alpha and they will tear you apart."
"I'm glad to hear that." Fraser started walking down the hill.
Kowalski studied the man on the other side of the fire. If you'd asked
him seven days ago who he'd most hate to be in a plane crash with Ezra
Standish would have been at the top of the list right under his ex-wife
and her new husband. Their first contact at the airport had been less
than pleasant. Standish had been grumbling about schedules and baggage
in a heavy southern accent. Ray had been sure he was dealing with some
spoiled businessman. It wasn't until later when everything went hell and
they were falling from the sky that Ray had found out how wrong he was.
It had been Ezra who'd known enough to land them, more or less in one
piece. Even though he complained about everything the southerner eventually
was willing to do whatever they needed to survive. At first the two men
had been forced by circumstance into an uneasy alliance. But gradually
it was becoming one based on mutual respect. It had helped to discover
they had a great deal in common. Both had worked extensive undercover,
appreciated classic cars and had partners who insisted on dragging them
into the wilderness. In fact complaining about their partners/teammates
had been the first step towards bonding. It started two nights after the
crash as Ray finished tending Ezra's leg.
"Fine." Ezra grunted as he worked to get the pain back under control.
"Yeah, well it ain't Fraser good but I guess it'll have ta do." Ray began to repack the first aid kit. "At least it ain't pregnant moose."
Ezra wasn't sure what to make of that last comment. Ray must have realized that, probably due to the strange look he was getting, because he added. "My partner Fraser makes this salve for cuts. He uses pregnant moose, or walrus or something." Seeing that Ezra was still confused he shrugged. "He's Canadian, a Mountie." Like that explained everything. "But I don't have any with me."
"A fact for which I will be internally grateful." Ezra paused, trying to think of something else to say. "So how did a Chicago detective end up partnered with a Mountie?"
"It's a long story." Ray's eyes took on a half amused faraway look. It was clear the memories were good ones. "It started when Fraser came to Chicago on the trail of the killer's of his father."
After Ray finished his story he started telling Ezra some of the crazier things he and Fraser had done. Not to be outdone Ezra shared his own stories. It had started there, with both men figuring out that they must be nuts to hang out with such trouble magnets. Ray pulled himself back from those thoughts to the present and their current situation.
"So." Ray started to ease into the subject they had been avoiding. "How's the leg?"
Both men had suffered various bumps and bruises during their forced landing. Ray had a long deep graze on his right arm. Ezra had suffered a wicked four inch long cut on his left thigh. They had been treating it with supplies from the first aid kit. Those supplies had run out the day before. Everything Fraser had drilled into his head during their adventure told Ray that waiting much longer was only going to stretch their limited reserves too far. It was best to try and walk out now, while both men were still fairly healthy.
"It seems to be much improved today." Ezra ran a hand over the injured spot. Looking up he shared a serious look with Ray. "Ah think that it's ready for the rigors of travel."
"Yeah?" Ray grinned, "So you're saying you've had enough a this resort living?"
"Most definitely." Ezra half laughed. "The only question is which direction we should head." He studied the man across the fire. In build and looks Ray reminded him of his boss Chris. But while he had Chris' lean wiry build and blond hair, the younger man bubbled with a frantic warm energy all his own. He talked like a Chicago street tough, but Ezra had found him to be intelligent and strong willed. He'd been surprised that a big city cop knew so much about the wilderness. When Ray explained about spending three months riding a dog sled across the frozen tundra then another two at his partner's cabin the surprise turned to amazement. All the camping trips his own teammates had drug him on paled in comparison.
"North." Ray's tone was sure. "Fraser'll be coming from the North."
"You are sure he will be looking?" Ezra asked softly. The stories Ray told about his Mountie partner bordered on mythical. "We've seen no search planes and Ah've come to believe we are quite far off our estimated flight plan.
"He's out there." Ray affirmed letting his eyes drift toward the mound visible at the edge of camp. Their pilot had been dead even before the crash. The best either man could figure, he'd put the plane on autopilot and had a major heart attack. The problem was he'd been off course even then. They weren't even sure which country they were in though Ray felt it was still the US. "What about your team?"
"Ah do believe they will be looking, but," Ezra let the sentence drift off then shook his head sharply. He would not allow old insecurities to surface. The others would not give up on him. When he spoke again his voice was sure, "They will be searching, but Ah'm not sure where they are."
Ray nodded, "I'd almost say we should stay here till Fraser finds us, but it's getting colder every night." Unspoken was also the fact that emergency supplies were running out. He gave Ezra an earnest look, "Was a good idea ta wait till the leg got better, but I think we gotta get moving off these mountains."
"Ah find myself in complete agreement with your assessment." Ezra cocked his head inquiringly at Ray's half laugh, half grimace. "What?"
"It's just, the way you said that, you coulda been Fraser with a southern accent." Ray said.
"He sounds like a very intelligent man." Ezra said smugly.
"Oh he's the smartest guy I know, when he ain't playing clueless Mountie." Ray half laughed. "Then he's the most aggravating."
"Ah hope he doesn't run into my friends then." Ezra had a wicked look on his face. "Chris can be very volatile when worried. He'll also be in a major alpha, big brother mode."
"Fraser wrote the book on alpha male. He just does it in a passive aggressive way." Ray replied. "You're right, it'd be best they don't meet."
"The odds of your partner and my friends actually encountering each other out here aren't even worth betting on." Ezra laughed.
"Do you think he's trying to get Chris to shoot him?" Buck asked Josiah in a low tone.
"Sergeant Fraser does seem to go where angels fear to tread." The profiler replied.
"I never seen a man be so polite and still get his own way." Buck's voice held a bit of awe. "I still can't believe he got Chris to check this way instead of toward the lake."
Josiah nodded solemnly. The scene the night before was still fresh in both their minds. If Chris had invited Fraser to share their camp intending to find more out about him the plan hadn't really succeeded.
"Anyway, while the others helped Search and Rescue look, Buck and I drove out with the horses and gear. Kind of figured with our track record that S&R wouldn't find anything. We're a team and we look after our own." Josiah said, settling back with his post dinner coffee. "So how did a Mountie end up partnered with an American Detective?" Over preparing and eating dinner the team and Fraser had shared the basics. Everyone now knew that Fraser's partner was a detective with the Chicago PD. Ray had been visiting family in Arizona and headed to Canada to hook up with Fraser. Ezra, their undercover agent was joining his mother in Canada for a short vacation. Now Josiah was going for more details. Normally Ezra would have started the ball rolling but since he was missing Chris had given Josiah the high sign.
"Ah, well that is a rather long story." Fraser rubbed his eyebrow. "I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killer's of my father."
"Wow really?" JD asked eagerly, "Did you get them?"
"JD, don't interrupt." Chris growled.
"Well yes," Fraser replied politely ignoring Chris' admonishment. "In the course of that investigation I mean Detective Ray Vecchio."
"I thought you were looking for a Ray Kowalski?" This time it was Nathan, though he immediately shot Chris an, oops sorry, look.
"Yes." Fraser seemed to be having an internal debate with himself. A whine and soft bark from Dief drew his attention. "Yes, I suppose that is rather a lot to cover. We'll just skip most of it." Ignoring the quiet looks being exchanged by the others he turned back to Josiah. "I first came to Chicago on the trail of the killer's of my father and, for reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture, I have remained attached to the Canadian consulate as a deputy liaison officer. I assisted Detective Vecchio with his cases until he left for an undercover job with the FBI. Ray was brought in to cover for him and we have been partners ever since." He paused again, "He is an excellent officer and friend."
"Yeah." Vin spoke quietly, "That describes Ezra, excellent agent and friend."
"Just don't play poker with him if you can't afford to loose." Buck chuckled. His words triggered a flood of comments.
"Or pool." JD piped up.
"And don't believe him if he says he's fine." Nathan shook his head. "Course I can say that about any of you." His words started off a round of teasing.
As the others continued to throw jabs at each other Fraser studied Chris. "If they survived the crash they are alive." He offered the assurance in a low tone. "I am confident of Ray's survival skills."
"He knows the wilderness then?" Chris asked.
"We spent three months crossing the tundra on an adventure. Plus an additional two at my father's cabin rebuilding it."
"Three months on the ice fields and you're still friends?" Chris gave Fraser an amused look. "Ezra complains every time we drag him camping."
"Ray held up very well." Fraser said. Chris hid a smile when Dief gave a huffing little bark and Fraser chided him, "He was not either too cold to complain." Dief huffed again. "That was one time and he'd just fallen through the ice."
Fraser had gone to bed shortly after that. It wasn't till the next morning that he began working on Chris. Over breakfast he started the campaign.
"I've been looking over the maps and I believe Dief and I will head toward that peak." Fraser indicated a landmark. "There is a meadow at the base that would be a likely landing spot."
"We can check that after the lake." Chris grunted. He was used to no one bothering him before his first cup of coffee.
Everyone froze in mid nod when Fraser said in a cheerful tone. "Yes well, I would not ask you to deviate from your planned course of action. Deif and I can make the spot I'm thinking of by late afternoon. From there we will angle over to meet you."
"What if you find them?" Nathan asked, "Do you have any medical supplies?"
"I have some powdered elk horn and a couple of salves." Fraser assured him.
Nathan's look of horror had Josiah and Buck ducking into their coffee cups. Behind Fraser's back JD mouthed, "powdered elk horn" to Vin who shrugged. He'd heard of it just never known anyone who used it. Even as Nathan was turning toward him to demand that this nut not be allowed anywhere near Ezra, Chris was giving what he thought was the final word.
"We stick together, check the lake then the meadow."
The look of pleasant agreement on Fraser's face was one that Lieutenant Welsh of the Chicago PD or Inspector Thatcher of the Chicago Canadian Consulate would have immediately recognized. Chris having never seen it thought it meant the discussion was over. Ray could have told him that look combined with an eye rub meant Fraser was just regrouping.
They finished breakfast and started packing. Half way through saddling the horses, Fraser shouldered his pack and started walking away.
"Hey Fraser, where you going?" Buck called after him.
Pausing Fraser cracked his neck before answering. "I'm just going to check that meadow. I'll catch up with you later." Politely tipped his hat to them he started off again.
For a moment everyone froze sneaking little glances at Chris. Finally Vin broke the silence. "He knows this area better than us. Might be a good idea ta stick with him."
"You couldn't have said so earlier?" Chris scowled. Sure he led a team of individuals who often questioned his orders even argued. Still Chris was used to people falling in line when he set his foot down. The blasted Mountie hadn't even had the courtesy to argue, just went his own way.
Nothing more was said until everyone finished saddling up and repacking. Mounting up the team all looked at Chris expectantly. For a moment he studied the disappearing form then with a muffled curse he kneed Shade into a lope after it. The others followed not even trying to hide their grins. Fraser turned at the sound of their approach waiting patiently, a slightly questioning look on his face. Chris didn't offer much of an explanation. He jerked a thumb toward Hammer and growled. "Vin says you know the country, we'll try the meadow first."
"As you wish." Fraser said before walking back to where JD held his horse and Vin was waiting to secure his pack to a mule. Once on Hammer he rode up next to Chris giving him another cheerful smile. "Well lets get at it then, shall we? Pitter patter as my friend Ray would say."
That was when Buck and Josiah started to wonder if Sgt. Fraser was suicidal. As the morning progressed they just plain started to wonder. Once the direction was settled, Fraser took the lead, setting a steady pace. Vin joined him and the two could be seen conversing quietly. It became almost amusing to watch. One would see something with his scope or on the ground. Then both would study whatever it was for a moment before heading off again. At first Chris constantly asked what they were looking at but after the fifth elk track and third woodchuck he stopped. Dropping back to ride next to Buck he spent the morning glaring at the two oblivious trackers. It was clear Vin was communicating in a way he never had with his teammates. Midmorning JD rode up next to them only to drop back after a while a strange expression on his face.
"What are they talking about?" Chris queried testily as JD let his horse keep pace with Buck's.
"Scat." JD's expression was too much for Buck, sending the older man off in laughter.
Chris was getting ready to lay into him when Vin and Fraser kicked their horses into a gallop taking off across the small clearing. Both dismounted to study something on the ground. As Chris and the others galloped up Vin held up a piece of white metal with a smear of red.
"What's that?" JD asked.
"Part of an airplane." Vin looked slightly grim. "Ain't been here long neither."
"I believe we are close to the meadow." Fraser started through the trees on foot, Vin at his heels.
Ray and Ezra had started out strong. By the time the search party entered the edge of the meadow, they were a good distance away.
"Take a load off." Ray gestured at a nearby boulder. Pulling a small compass out of his pocket he took a reading while Ezra rested.
"Why do you carry a compass?" Ezra had wondered about the small item ever since seeing Ray with it. The compass had a worn look and hung off Ray's key chain. He'd noticed that Ray tended to rub it unconsciously when he was thinking.
"Four P's." Ray shot him a quirky grin.
"Ah thought it was the five P's." Ezra said. "Proper preparation prevents poor performance."
"Yeah, can never remember that one right." Ray shut the case on his compass. "So it's the four P's. Proper prep prevents pissed-off Mountie."
"Your partner gave it to you." Ezra surmised.
"Yeah when we spent those months in Canada." Ray rubbed the golden case thoughtfully. "First thing Fraser did was give me this and show me how to use it."
"Ah would assume one simply follows the arrow." Ezra tilted his head inquiringly. He was still finding it hard that a Chicago cop knew more than he did about camping. Ezra had already made himself a promise. If he survived this he was going to learn everything Vin would teach him about wilderness living.
"Not that easy. Won't always be able to go straight. So we pick out something in the distance, easy to see, in the right direction." Ray pointed toward a mountain valley in the distance. "That valley is straight north."
"Ah bow to your greater experience and compass." Ezra stood up, setting his poker face firmly in place. Only half a day's walk and already his leg hurt. Settling the crutch Ray had made him he gritted his teeth.
"Greatness, well pitter patter Ezra, let's get at er." Ray started off.
"I'll be damned." Buck said under his breath as they surveyed the mountain meadow. Sitting at the far edge was what was left of the plane. "How did he know?"
Chris grunted a reply, watching while Vin and Fraser combed through the wreckage and what looked like a campsite. But even as he watched them his eyes kept drifting toward a rock-covered mound. He already knew two things, someone had survived the crash and someone hadn't. A cold knot in his stomach, he shot a look toward Josiah, knowing the older man was praying for all of them that it wasn't Ezra in that grave. It seemed like forever until Vin and Fraser finished looking things over. Finally the two men trotted back toward the riders. One look at the grin on Vin's face and Chris started to relax.
"What'd you find?" Relief didn't stop him from barking at them.
"I'd say Ezra's still kicking." Vin held up the ace of spades and everyone started to smile. "This was under a rock inside the plane."
"What's the drawing on it?" Josiah asked leaning closer to study what looked like a circle and spider web.
"It's a dreamcatcher, a sign from Ray." Seeing the honest smile on Fraser's face gave the team their first real inkling of how worried he had been. "I made him one for his birthday several years ago."
"Did you find any evidence of them being hurt?" Nathan asked.
"Yeah one of em's got a bad leg. From the tracks I'd say it's Ezra." Vin said.
"So where are they?" JD bounced in his saddle a bit.
"We found a trail leading down towards the north." Vin said. "Looks like they left this morning."
"Ain't that just like Ezra." Nathan snorted. "We get this close and he's going in the wrong direction."
"Yes well," Fraser rubbed a thumb across his eyebrow. "I believe they are trying to meet up with me."
"Can we follow them?" Chris demanded ignoring that statement. Why Fraser would expect the two men to be doing that was sure to give him a headache.
"Then lets go." Chris ordered.
Dief started barking excitedly. The others watched as Fraser nodded in a thoughtful manner. "Yes that is an excellent idea." As the wolf ran off he turned back to everyone and explained, "Dief has pointed out that he can make better time than we can. He is going to run on a head."
As they rode out JD moved up beside Fraser. "Um do you think he'll find them?" He was fascinated by Fraser's ability to communicate with the wolf.
"Dief is very attached to Ray. I am confidant he will track them down."
Any hope of following an easy trail lessened as the afternoon progressed. Ray and Ezra had chosen a path that was hard to follow on horseback. Several times they were forced to make a detour and find the trail again.
Chris swore quietly as he surveyed the latest obstacle. They had reached a deep gorge, the only way across a fallen tree. According to Fraser and Vin, Ezra and Ray had crossed there about three hours ago. Chris reminded himself to have a stern talk with Vin about licking things. His Texas tracker had been way too impressed with all the information Fraser had seemed to glean from licking mud. Or he might leave the lecture to Nathan who'd been horrified.
"We're gonna have ta swing pretty far out ta get around this." Vin informed Chris.
"Not sure. Probably best if we camp here. Me an Buck can use the last hour of daylight to scout."
"They aren't moving as fast as they were." Fraser had been standing next to the tree studying the other side of the gorge. Neither man had figured he could even hear them so were a bit surprised when he joined the conversation. "A man walking fast might find them before dark." Nodding decisively to Chris and Vin he said, "I'm going after them."
"Count me in then." Nathan said firmly. "If Ezra's injured, sooner I get to him the better I'll like it."
Josiah and Chris nodded. Both knew Ezra probably had Ray conned into thinking he was fine. It took practice to see behind the southerner's poker face.
"All right, Nathan, Fraser and I will go after them. Josiah would you help Nathan make up a couple of packs?" Chris asked.
Sure thing Chris." Josiah waved JD over to help.
"You two find a way around this." Chris turned to Buck and Vin. "Once we find those two, we'll stay put. If you don't show up in a day we'll try signaling."
Nathan and Josiah came back with the packs fairly quickly. Fraser, who'd simply retrieved his, had already crossed the tree and was waiting on the other side. Chris shouldered his pack and looked at Nathan. "You ready?"
"Be right there, I forgot the antibiotic cream." Nathan waved toward where JD was running up with the missing item.
While Nathan messed with his pack Chris started across. He was two thirds of the way there when an ominous crack was heard.
"CHRISSS!!!" Vin started forward unthinkingly, only Josiah and Buck's quick grab stopping him. As they watched in horror the tree began to crack in the middle. Chris threw himself toward safety. There was a large crashing noise as a billow of dust foamed out of the gorge obscuring the other side. When the dust cleared they could see Chris hanging onto a part of the tree's root that was still anchored.
"What is he doing?" JD asked. It looked like Fraser was undressing.
"He's removing his belt." Vin answered, his scope glued to his eye. As they watched Fraser crept over toward the edge and spoke to Chris.
"Agent Larabee are you alright?"
Chris looked up, "I'm dangling from a tree root Sergeant."
"Yes well I think it would be best to get you out of there." Fraser held his belt down toward Chris. "Grab hold and I'll pull you up."
The two men studied each other for a moment. For the first time Chris really looked at Fraser. He had made a quick judgment, placing Fraser in the same category as he would any aggravating person. Now looking into his eyes Chris realized they had a lot in common. Fraser's words might be strangely polite and long-winded, but his eyes held the steadiness of a man who knows he can do whatever is needed. A tough competent man, like the rest of his team. Letting go of the root he grabbed onto the belt.
"You know the Inuit believe trees are home to the spirits." Spirits came out as a bit of a grunt as Fraser used brute strength to pull Chris up.
"What does that have to do with anything?" Chris scrabbled for footing.
"Nothing really." Fraser huffed, reaching down to grab Chris' belt.
"Has anyone ever told you, you're a very annoying man?" Chris growled as with Fraser's help he clawed to safety. The two men collapsed next to each other on the grass.
"Several." Fraser shot Chris a real grin. "I find it a handy talent."
Chris shot him a hard look. "I'm beginning to think I've underestimated you Sergeant."
"Many people do." Fraser stood and offered a hand up. There was something about Chris Larabee that told him playing innocent was a waste of time. After waving to show his men he was okay Chris motioned for Fraser to lead the way. They disappeared into the trees.
"That was close." Buck sighed as he and the others watched the two men leave.
"Yeah." Weak with relief Vin stumbled a bit as he turned toward Peso.
As Buck and Vin rode off on scout Josiah approached Nathan who still looked worried.
"Powdered elk horn Josiah." The healer whispered. "If Ezra's hurt, all they have is powdered elk horn." He gave the older man a dazed look, "I don't even know what he uses it for."
"I'm sure that the Sergeant and Chris will manage." Josiah soothed while trying to suppress a smile.
Nathan gave Josiah an, 'are you serious' look. "Chris is out in the woods with a man who licks things and uses animal horn as a healing agent. How is that managing?"
"Still waters run deep brother." Josiah clapped him on the back before heading off to help JD with the remaining horses.
"Better let me take a look at that." Ray gestured at Ezra's leg.
"It's fine, Ah assure you." Ezra tried to ignore the burning sensation that seemed to be creeping up his thigh.
Ray snorted, "Sure it is." He knelt down next to Ezra laying a hand on the wound. Try as he might, Ezra couldn't help but hiss, flinching. "Oh yeah, you're fine."
"You are starting to show some annoying mother hen tendencies Detective." Ezra said through clenched teeth. "My leg is in as good a shape as your arm."
"I ain't been walking on my arm." Ray squinted up at the sky. "It'll be dark in bout an hour. We better stop here." When Ezra didn't argue, Ray grew a bit more worried. The southerner usually had a comment or complaint about everything. It was clear the other man was in some pain just hiding it well. "Park it, I'll start a fire."
"Ah can manage the fire, your time would be better spent shopping for our nightly repast." Ezra waved a hand at the forest. Thanks to Fraser's training Ray was better at finding edible plants and berries.
By the time he had the fire going Ezra's leg had settled into a constant throb. He didn't need to look at it to know infection was setting in. The heat coming through the bandages was enough of a warning. Closing his eyes, trying to will away the pain Ezra waited for Ray to come back. He wasn't sure how long he sat there drifting but when he opened his eyes a large white wolf sat on the other side of the fire staring at him.
Straightening Ezra eased a hand under his jacket towards his gun. He hadn't survived a plane crash and the last seven days just to end up someone else's dinner. The wolf seemed to study him with almost quizzical eyes. Beginning to feel hypnotized by the animal's eyes, Ezra actually gave a small start when he barked.
"Ah must warn you Ah am hardly worth eating." Ezra said.
The wolf barked again. Something about him reminded Ezra of Vin right after he'd pulled a practical joke on someone. It was the twinkle in the eyes he realized, relaxing a bit. "Well whatever you want Ah'm sure Ah can't help you."
The wolf sort of howled softly.
"Ah'm afraid Ah do not speak wolf, sir." Ezra grinned, as his words seemed to almost disgust the animal. Finally he gave a sharp bark before making three circles and lying down. Resting his head on his paws the wolf appeared to go to sleep. Ezra tried to fight off the exhaustion pulling at him until Ray got back. He wanted to be able to warn him about the animal.
It was the barking that woke him. Jerking up Ezra saw what appeared to be Ray struggling with the animal. He had his gun half out before Ray's words started to make sense.
"Good boy Dief. Good boy. Dief, Dief off. I'm glad ta see you too big fella. Dief, off." As Diefenbacker backed off Ray sat up slinging an arm around his neck.
"Ah may assume you two know each other?" Ezra drawled. "Or do you get friendly with every wolf you meet?"
"Deif's only half wolf." Ray said still running his hand through Dief's fur. Gripping Dief's face he turned to face him. "Where's Fraser Dief? He send you to find me?"
Dief howled, barked and danced in a little circle before dashing close enough to lick Ray's face. Ezra watched the entire performance with some interest.
"Yeah, he's close?" Ray looked around like he expected the man to appear then turned back to the wolf. "Go get him then Dief."
Dief whined rolling on his back and wiggling. Flipping back over he crawled to Ray laying his head on the blond's knee. Ray ruffled his fur at bit. "I'm glad ta see you too but you need ta go tell Fraser you found me."
Dief barked sharply before curling into a ball next to Ray's side and closing his eyes. Ray shrugged his shoulders giving Ezra a sheepish look. "Kinda hard to argue with a deaf wolf when he won't look at you."
"He's deaf?" Ezra studied the sleeping form.
"Yeah but he reads lips. What?" Ray stiffened at the sudden strange look on Ezra's face.
"It's just, well for a moment there Ah wondered if Ah was still unconscious somewhere and this was all a strange dream." Ezra rubbed his neck.
"A dream?" Now Ray looked confused.
"Observe the string of events from my perspective." Ezra said. "Ah'm on my way to visit my Muther anticipating a couple of days at a nice resort. Instead, Ah find myself stranded in the wilderness with a man who claims to be a Chicago cop. Yet this cop seems much at home in the wilderness despite his city ways. He talks about a Mountie partner who, if Ah am to believe the stories, has a talent for getting into the oddest situations. Add in the lip reading deaf wolf and the fact you seem to be prone to dancing when there is no music." Ezra gave Ray a half serious look. "Is it any wonder Ah'm starting to feel like Dorothy in Oz?"
Ray began to laugh, deep belly laughs. It took him a full minute to get back under control. Finally, wheezing slightly and wiping tears from his eyes he gasped. "When you look at it like that, yeah. Guess I been hanging out with Fraser too long. After you've escaped a sinking ship using fire extinguishers as jet packs nothing else fazes you."
Ezra's muttered comment of, "Jet Packs? Oh that eases my mind this is no hallucination." set Ray off again.
At sunset Chris and Fraser were forced to stop or risk loosing the tracks in the fading light. It was a tense couple of men who made camp that night. To be so close, it didn't help when Fraser mentioned Ezra's leg was starting to get worse. Chris was frustrated and worried, a dangerous combination. If one of his team had been along they would have recognized the signs. Fraser had no idea he was dealing with a time bomb.
Fraser was lost in his own thoughts and paying little attention to the quiet man on the other side of the fire. He was worried about Ray though he knew if anything had been really wrong Dief would have returned by now. So he was totally surprised when Chris erupted.
"Damn it, they have to be close and we're just sitting here." Chris stood up starting to pace in front of the fire. "You don't know Ezra, that man could find trouble at a baby shower." Chris swung towards Fraser, his black duster billowing out like bat wings. "How can you just sit there?" Not even giving Fraser time to answer he began pacing again. "Stupid stubborn southerner, why does this stuff always happen to him and if it's not him it's one of the others. WHAT?" Chris yelled as Fraser's repeated "Chris, Chris, Chris, Chris!" finally sunk in.
"They are alive." Fraser said, laying a calming hand on Chris' shoulder. "In the morning we shall find them. Our time would best be spent resting."
Chris reacted to the touch without thinking. He twisted out from under Fraser's hand throwing a punch at the Mountie. When Fraser dodged it without even seeming to move Chris tried again, also missing again. The next punch he threw, Fraser caught his hand, twisting it behind his back and shoving him against a tree. Chris struggled against the grip finding it as strong as Buck or Josiah's. Calming a bit he tried again, testing the Canadian's strength. Fraser still held him though it took effort. Chris realized he couldn't escape without actually hurting the other man. Finally he relaxed, growling quietly. "Let me go."
Fraser let go stepping back his eyes never leaving Chris'. For the first time Chris saw the full alpha wolf in Fraser. This was a man every bit as strong willed and tough as he was. Grinning slightly Chris rotated his arm, "You'd never have gotten away with that if the rest of my team was here."
"It wouldn't have been necessary." Fraser pointed out. "Vin or Buck would have diffused your temper before then. I apologize for being lost in my own worries and missing the signs."
"Not your responsibility." Chris grunted.
Fraser studied him for a moment then nodded. "There is an Inuit story "
"Enough!" Chris held up his hand, though he was clearly more at ease. "So you're worried too?"
"Well yes." Fraser rubbed an eyebrow. "While Ray is better equipped to survive the wilderness then two years ago he still has a lot to learn. Even experienced survivalists make mistakes."
"But they haven't really made any so far?" Chris half questioned, stated.
"Not that I can tell from the tracks. But like you I will be relieved to find them in one piece."
"I keep underestimating you." Chris said. "I won't again."
"Understood." Fraser replied.
Ray studied Ezra in the pre-dawn light. The southerner had been restless all night. Even asleep the lines of pain on his face had not eased. Ezra slept on his uninjured side, his hand over the leg wound. Cupping Dief's face in his hands Ray spoke slow and soft. "Dief, I need Fraser now. Ezra is in trouble. I need Fraser."
The wolf whined softly then licked Ray's cheek. When Ray released him, Dief bounded off back the way he had come. Draping his coat over the injured man Ray went to gather more firewood. Till Fraser found them, the best he could do was keep Ezra warm.