Warnings/Ratings: Yes there is an OFC in this, but hopefully you won't hold that against the story. This is pretty PG except for some bad words. Also, I hate writing medical stuff so I leave it to the experts. Let me know what you think.
Disclaimer: I don't own them and I'm not making any money.
Additional Notes: I wrote this story back when MOG first introduced Team Seven and the show was still on. All I wanted to do was dress Ezra in jean and this was the result. It was archived on my AOL website. Thanks Nancy for taking me in and thanks MOG for starting this AU all those years ago.
"This mean we're gonna be cowboys?" Vin Tanner's quiet question cut through the team briefing causing a variety of reactions from the other six agents.
Chris Larabee stopped in the middle of his sentence to give Vin a "don't even go there" look. Buck Wilmington, seeing Chris's glare started laughing giving their youngest agent JD Dunne his own case of the giggles. Nathan Jackson ducked his head to hide the grin he couldn't contain while Josiah Sanchez didn't even try to hide the big smile that spread across his face.
Ezra Standish just shook his head and leaned over to nudge the smirking Tanner, "Exactly what type of consumables did you ingest this morning?"
"Cheyenne Frontier Days is called the Grandaddy of all rodeos." Chris continued as if he hadn't even heard Vin. Not sure how much Josiah, Nathan and Ezra had been exposed to rodeoing he was giving a quick 101. "It's a two week event that consumes the entire town of Cheyenne Wyoming. This thing draws contestants and, more importantly, stock contractors from all over the country. According to information received from the Texas Rangers someone is using rodeo stock trailers to smuggle guns and drugs. Rodeo stock contractors ship their animals all across the country to different rodeos making it easy for someone to hide guns or drugs in their trailers. Our job will be to figure out which stock contractors are involved and who's heading the operation. We're going in under a variety of covers. Josiah, your working security, Nathan I have you at the emergency tent.
"Sounds like we will be busy, hey brother." Josiah winked at Nathan.
"That's fine with me, beats sitting in a hot surveillance truck all day." Nathan was pleased with the opportunity to make use of his EMT skills on something other than a bullet wound.
"Buck I got you a job taking care of the rodeo stock and helping behind the chutes. JD you will be working concessions." Chris continued.
"Ah, Chris can't I work with Buck?." JD groaned "What help can I be stuck in the stands."
"Now kid, you'll have the best view of whatever is going on. Besides think of all the buckle bunnies you can meet." Buck offered in an attempt to make JD feel better.
"And what, pray tell, Mr. Wilmington is a "buckle bunny"?" Ezra drawled.
Well Ezra those are the girls that hang around the rodeo contestants, kind of like groopies.
"I see, how quaint. So what exciting job can I look forward to?" Ezra knew he was out of his element when it came to something like this and was sure whatever job Chris assigned him was going to hurt. He had no idea how right he was.
"Ezra you're going to be a rodeo clown." Chris waited for the explosion he knew was coming.
"Well, that sounds fairly palatable. I find most children delightful so entertaining them shouldn't be too much of a hardship."
Ezra's comment set Buck off with a serious case of the giggles.
"What is so amusing may I ask?" The sinking feeling in Ezra's stomach indicated he was not going to want to hear the answer.
"Ez, a rodeo clown is in the arena during the bull riding, his job is to distract the bull when the rider falls off so he can get to safety." Vin explained then sat back and watched the southerner closely.
"Let me get this straight, you expect me to play tag with an animal bigger than my car? The closest I have ever been to a bull is that steak I had for dinner last night." Ezra's voice rose a little more with every word as he tried to maintain his usual cool façade and failed.
"Relax Ezra, the head of the clowns is a friend and he promised you won't have much to do with the bulls. Instead you will be helping out with the little entertainment segments they do and other stuff. Believe me I don't want you tangling with a bull any more than you do." Chris smiled slightly as he spoke.
"So what are you and I gonna be doing Chris?" Vin's blue eyes gleamed in anticipation.
"We will be signing up for a couple of events. You mentioned once that you had done some bronc riding and I thought I would enter the cutting horse contest." Chris watched at Vin's whole face lit with a devilish grin. He knew what Vin was going to say before he even said it.
"Then we are gonna be cowboys."
The rest of the morning was spent going over the information provided by the Rangers and discussing how best to approach the assignment.
As the morning progressed Ezra became more and more certain that he was going to hate every moment of the next two weeks. Most of the terms that Vin and Chris were using were totally over his head. Everyone else seemed to have at least some idea of what terms like bucking chute, bull rigging, barrel racing (what did they do give it wheels and a motor?), and pickup man meant. He was sure that Chris was crazy for assigning him the job of rodeo clown but to bring that up was to admit to a weakness and Ezra's deep insecurities about belonging with the team just wouldn't let him do that. A comment from Chris brought him back to the others.
"Okay, that seems to be it for now, we leave tomorrow. Buck for once that truck of yours will fit in perfectly, Josiah, Nathan you guys will be getting a Ford from the auto pool. I have arranged for both to have Wyoming plates. Buck, you and JD will be brothers so you can travel and room together. Nathan, Josiah I figure no one will be suspicious if you two know each other so you'll be sharing a room. We all have rooms at the Frontier Motel. Cheyenne PD assures me it is clean but not fancy. The big advantage is that the rooms are all connected so we can open the inside doors and no one will be the wiser. The one disadvantage is that there are no phones, so everyone bring his cell phone." Chris stood up as he finished.
"Chris, I assume you and I are traveling together, what about Ezra?" Vin asked the question Ezra was afraid to.
"Well, Vin I figured Ezra will be with us, if anyone asks, he's our cousin from down south." With that Chris looked at Ezra and said, "Welcome to the family cuz. Alright guys take the rest of the day to get ready."
"Uh Chris, I think you forgot one small thing." Buck's smile was pure evil as he continued. "We need to get Ezra some new clothes and JD needs a couple of things as well. Now I'll be glad to take em down to Sheplers Western Wear and get em outfitted up just right."
Ezra closed his eyes and shuddered as he thought of what type of clothes Buck would consider "just right". This day was getting worse and worse. He now knew what hell was, it was Buck picking out his clothes.
Josiah saw the shudder that ran through their undercover specialist. "You know Buck, I think you have something there, Nathan and I could probably use a new shirt or two ourselves. Why don't we go with you."
Nathan looked at Josiah like he had lost his mind and opened his mouth to state that he did NOT need a new shirt. Josiah headed him off by nodding towards the tense agent beside him. Nathan closed his mouth and sat back, he might disagree with Ezra sometimes but he hated to see him suffer. After all a new shirt wouldn't hurt him but Buck picking out his clothes might kill Ezra.
"Why do I need stuff Buck? I have jeans and boots what else do I need" JD wasn't too sure he wanted Buck picking out his clothes either.
"Kid you need a couple of shirts for when we go out and a proper cowboy hat." Buck reached over and grabbed the newsboy hat from JD's head, "you can't wear this thing to a rodeo."
Chris allowed a small smile to creep across his face as he watched JD tackle Buck trying to retrieve his treasured hat. He swung his eyes over toward Vin only to see him watching Ezra with a concerned frown. Vin felt Chris looking at him and turned his eyes to the older man. As always they didn't really need to speak to know what the other was thinking.
"Buck, everyone might need a new shirt, so why don't we all go over to Sheplers. You'all help JD and I'll help my new 'cousin' pick some things out." Vin threw a smile at Ezra and was pleased to see some of the tension leave his body. "Chris ya comin?"
"Since I'll have to sign the expense reports I'd better. We can go to lunch afterwards." Chris moved towards his office as he spoke.
Ezra pulled the Jag into Shepler's parking lot and glanced over at Vin in the seat next to him.
Vin grinned at the look on his face, "Ya can't tell me ya've never worn jeans Ezra I won't believe it. "No kid grows up without at least one pair."
"Vin you have met my mother, I'm sure she doesn't even know how to spell denim."
"Relax Ezra, I promise I won't let Buck dress ya funny. Though ya did stick me in that pink shirt." Vin patted Ezra on the shoulder, "If he gets too obnoxious go hide behind Josiah I think he's on your side."
The two men who were so different on the surface and so alike underneath headed into the store.
Buck was standing right inside the door waving a bright red, white and blue striped shirt. "How about this one Ezra, it will sure get the ladies attention."
"Mr. Wilmington, all that will get me is saluted."
Buck shrugged good naturedly and turned back to the shirt rack. "JD get over here, I found the perfect shirt for ya." He bellowed.
"Come on we'll start with jeans and work from there." Vin headed for the wall where cubby holes held row after row of jeans. "We just need to find your size."
Ezra scanned the shelves and reached up to pull down a pair of jeans. He double checked the size and turned back to grab a couple more pair but Vin stopped him.
"Uh those won't work Ez, ya need Wranglers not Levis."
"Now what possible difference can my choice of brand name make? They are just pants."
"Well, let me put it this way, would ya wear a suit from JC Penny to meet a Cuban Drug Lord?" Vin smiled at the look of understanding that crossed the southerners face. "Besides haven't ya heard what the cowgirls say?"
"Not ever having the pleasure of making the acquaintance of any such females I can not say I do."
Vin reached over and pulled a t-shirt off the rack next to him. When he held it up Ezra was able to read the saying on the front: "Wrangler butts drive me nuts."
Chris entered the store with Josiah and Nathan just in time to see two of his agents dissolve into laugher.
"Looks like Ezra is starting to relax a bit. Are you sure he'll be alright working in the arena." Nathan couldn't hide the concern in his eyes as he looked at Chris.
"I have to admit I am a bit worried about yon brother myself." Josiah offered.
"I don't like it either but I need one more agent behind the chutes and it was a choice between JD and Ezra. My clown friend assured me that all Ezra really needs is to be fast on his feet. Ezra's fast and agile and with JD's luck there was no way I wanted him near any bulls.
"Buck would seem to make a better clown than any of the rest of us." Nathan nodded his head toward where Buck was trying to convince JD he would look good in a bright orange shirt.
"Buck is the only one besides Vin and I who knows enough about cattle and horses to pass himself off with stock contractors and help run the different events. I need you and Josiah where you are so that left Ezra. But Josiah, I think a couple of prayers as preventive medicine wouldn't hurt." Chris scanned the store, "Now we'd better go help the youngins. If you think you two can keep Buck from dressing JD like a pumpkin, I'll go protect those two from the salesgirl I see headed their way. Chris clapped both men on the shoulder and headed towards Vin and Ezra.
"Well Nathan, I don't like Ezra being in the arena but its better than JD. With that boy's track record . well that really scares me."
Nathan nodded and led the way over to where JD and Buck were shoving the orange shirt back and forth between each other.
"Can I help you ?"
Vin and Ezra both jumped at the sound of a perky voice behind them.
"I'd be glad to take those for you, will you need a dressing room?" She was blonde, perky and looked about 16. "My name's Jennifer."
Both men stared at her like she was speaking a foreign language. Normally Ezra would have had no problem dealing with a salesgirl but he was totally confused and didn't even exactly know what he was shopping for. Vin's shyness made him no help, he normally shopped by catalog to avoid people just like Jennifer.
"I think we are fine for now miss, but that tall dark haired gentlemen over there needs some help I believe." Chris moved smoothly between his men and the girl.
Jennifer glanced over toward where Buck was holding up shirts to JD while Josiah and Nathan looked on. "Oooh, I think your right, well help yourself to a dressing room if you need one." And she bounced off.
Chris turned towards the other two men, "Okay, how are we doing?"
"Still need boots, a belt, some shirts, and a hat." Vin replied
"Okay, Vin see if you can find 4 or 5 shirts for Ezra to look at. Ezra and I will try an find some boots."
"What size shoe do you wear Ezra?" Chris asked as he scanned the shelves.
"A 10 ½ , are you sure I need boots."
"Positive, try on a couple of pairs while I find some belts." Chris indicated a section of boots before heading for the opposite wall.
Ezra surveyed the lined up boots as if they were a bunch of snakes. Finally he grabbed a pair and set down to try them on. <Okay, how bad can this be, Vin wears these things every day right? It won't be as bad as I think it will.> It WAS as bad as he had thought it would be, the leather was stiff and the top of the boot dug into his leg. <I'll never be able to walk in these let alone run.> Sighing, he took them off and decided to try a pair with a lower top. After trying on five pairs Ezra was starting to get a little panicked. He hadn't been able to find anything that he thought he could function in.
"Any luck?" Vin's question caused Ezra to jump about a foot off of the bench he was sitting on.
"No, how you manage to walk in these instruments of torture is beyond me."
Vin just smiled and handed him several shirts. "Here take a look at these while I see what I can do about the boots"
Ezra held the shirts up and started looking at them. He was pleasantly surprised, instead of the garish colors he had expected, each shirt was a color he would have chosen for himself. All of them were the soothing muted colors he preferred except for one which was solid burgundy with a bit of black piping trim on the yoke. He was holding that shirt when Vin returned. "For me?" He waived the shirt at the younger man.
"Don't know why but I just seem ta see ya in red. How bout the others, they okay? Tried to pick colors I'd seen ya wear before"
"They are more than acceptable, thank you."
"Forget it, here try these boots I think ya will like em better than those."
Ezra couldn't believe how comfortable the black boots Vin handed him were. They were made of the softest leather he had ever felt. When he stood and walked there was no pinching and the tops didn't cut into his legs. His astonished look said it all.
"Thought ya might like those, there're made of elk hide, an have a lower heel than those other ones." Vin explained.
"Vin, thanks to you this shopping trip had not turned out to be the debacle I was expecting."
"Hey, that's what "cousins" are for, ya better go try the rest of this stuff on, I'll find Chris." Vin had seen this morning how hard Ezra was trying to pretend this assignment was just another case. He figured he owed the other man for all the times he had spent making sure every detail of an undercover job was covered. Ezra's attention to detail had saved Vin more than once and he was glad for the opportunity to re-pay the other man.
Ezra hurried through trying on the jeans and shirts. He was surprised at how comfortable the jeans were. <Mother would have a fit if she could see me. Hmm, Next time she comes to town I will have to wear this outfit just for her> When he exited the dressing room Chris and Vin were waiting.
"Will those work?" Chris scanned the items Ezra was holding.
"One shirt was a little tight in the shoulders, but everything else is quite acceptable, thanks to Vin."
"Good, Vin said you choose black boots so I got a black belt. Now all we need is a hat."
As the trio approached the hat section they found Buck and JD in the middle of an loud argument. Josiah and Nathan were watching with amused grins while Jennifer kept bouncing between the two fighters and the hats on the wall. Every so often she would wave a different hat at the two men who were totally ignoring her.
"Buck, BUCK," Chris had to yell a couple of times before the two men turned to look at him, "what is the matter?"
"Just look at the hat this kid wants to buy." Buck sputtered, "go a head kid show him, show him that thing you call a hat."
JD threw a glare at Buck then pulled a hat from behind his back and put in on his head. It looked sort of like an English bowler but had a tooled western leather headband on it.
Chris had to clench his teeth to keep from smiling, "Your yelling loud enough for the entire store to hear over this?"
"Ya Buck, I think it suits him." Vin wasn't even trying to hide his smile.
"That is not a western hat, it's an an " Buck was so excited he was stuttering.
"If it's not a western hat then why is it for sale in a western clothing store, Besides it's just like the one Bat Masterson wore, I saw it on the History channel. I like it and I'm going to get it." JD jammed the hat firmly down on his head
Ezra wandered away while JD and Buck continued their 'discussion'. He scanned the different hats trying to find something that wasn't too outlandish. He was sure that he would never be able to carry off a regular cowboy hat. He paused in front of a black hat that had a slightly smaller brim and crown than the others.
"That's called a "gambler", it's supposed to be a copy of hats gamblers wore on the steamboats that traveled the Mississippi." Jennifer's perky voice cut through his concentration "Would you like to try it on?"
Ezra settled the hat on his head, then messed with it a bit. He tilted it slightly to one side and looked in the mirror.
"Not bad Ezra, I think it suits you somehow, maybe you were a gambler in a past life." Josiah had joined him.
"Past lives, I am not sure I believe in such things Josiah."
"You never know, maybe we have all done this before." Josiah shrugged, "If you've found a hat the others are ready.'
They joined the rest of the group at the cash register where Jennifer was ringing everything up and giggling at Buck. Chris looked at the hat in Ezra's hands, nodded and added it to the pile next to JD's bowler. After paying for everything and sorting it out they all headed for lunch.
The next morning Ezra was running late as usual. <Dammit where is that extra ammo clip, it was right here last night when I cleaned my guns. Calm down Ezra, if Buck can pretend to be a cultured drug dealer you can be a cowboy. Right, Buck only had to make it through a dinner (not under the coffee table) and the meeting, which was cut short. I have to do this for 2 weeks or (maybe it fell under the couch) until we apprehend our prey. And if that isn't awful enough, (ah found it), I have to room with our illustrious boss. If Chris was starting to think I might be a good addition to the team this should open his eyes.> The sound of a horn cut through his thoughts. <My dear 'cousin' has arrived, well into the fray, I just hope, (stupid bag, zip already), I hope this does not turn out the way I think it will.>
Vin had told Ezra he would pick him up and they could go out to Chris's ranch together. They would be taking Chris's Dodge and horse trailer to Cheyenne. Chris was taking his big black gelding for the cutting competition and Vin was taking Peso in case he decided to enter the roping contest.
"So ya get packed okay?" Vin asked as Ezra slide into his Jeep.
"Yes, thanks to your expert advice I think I have all the essentials I will need to survive this wonderful experience."
"Ya know Ezra, jeans suit ya, your gonna have to beat the ladies off with a stick when we go out."
Vin was right, the wranglers emphasized Ezra's butt in a manner that any women would have told him was exceptional. The western cut of his burgundy shirt showed off broad shoulders that were usually hidden under a suit coat and dress shirt. Finished off with the black hat and boots Ezra was a cowgirls wet dream.
"While I shudder at the thought attracting one of those cowgirl amazons I thank you, I think. I do have to admit this apparel turned out to be quite comfortable. Well shall we get going, don't want to keep our fearless leader waiting."
Vin looked at Ezra with concern, normally it was hard to tell what the other man was thinking. It usually took someone getting injured before he showed much emotion. But today he looked and sounded totally rattled. "Relax Ez, it's gonna be okay."
"Perhaps you're right Vin this case may turn out better than I think. After all how much trouble can one get into at a rodeo? It's not like we are dealing with the mafia or some big drug lord."
Later Vin would never be able remember their conversation without a cold shiver.
The trip from Denver to Cheyenne had been uneventful. Ezra had spent most of it listening to Vin and Chris talk about their rodeo experiences. The more he listened the more uneasy he became. Upon arriving in Cheyenne they had proceeded directly to the fairgrounds to stable the horses. While Chris and Vin tended the animals Ezra had leaned against the wall and listened to the voices swirling around him. It had sounded almost like a foreign language. After they had the horses bedded down Vin went to snoop around a little while Chris took Ezra over to meet his friend in charge of the clowns.
Chris' friend was about Ezra's height though a bit rounder. He smiled widely as Chris performed the introductions. "Ezra Simms this is Bill Bradley he is going to go over what you will be doing and give you a costume. Bill, I appreciate your help and remember two things, I want Ezra back in one piece and my name's Latham." Chris winked.
"Sure Chris, sure, now you aren't entered in the bull riding are you?" Bill grinned, "I want to know so I can place me a bet if you are."
"Bill, my bull riding days are long over. That's a young man's sport."
"Well you were pretty good in your day, I'd still bet on you to place"
Chris just touched his fingers to his hat and turned to Ezra, "When you get finished come back to the truck. If we aren't there just wait, Vin and I need to get entered in our events. Then we can go over to the hotel and get settled.
Bill spent about an hour going over what Ezra would be expected to do. "Now don't worry son, at a rodeo this big we always hire a couple of greenhorns as extra clowns. You mostly will be helping with the segments we do between the different events and providing extra color for the tourists. How fast can you climb a fence?"
"And why would I need to ascend anything at an accelerated rate?" Ezra hoped the reason was something harmless but his stomach was telling him that wasn't the case.
Bill stared at him a minute while he translated that statement in his head then he laughed, "Well son, that's how you get away from the bull when it's chasing you. Oh I hope you got some tennis shoes with you those boots won't work in the arena. You need something you can run fast in." Bill paused as he saw something flash across Ezra's eyes. "Not that you will really need to be worried about it but it's best to be prepared."
<Best to be prepared, and how does one prepare to play with a one ton behemoth intent on running you over?> Ezra was leaning against the tailgate of Chris's truck waiting for he and Vin to return. Most of what Bill had told him didn't sound too bad, but he would be expected to be in the arena during the bull riding even if he wasn't really supposed do anything. <You have got to pull yourself together, if Vin can wear a designer suit and pretend be a bodyguard you can wear a clown suit. You can't let the rest of the team down just because you have no idea what's going on.> He straightened up as Chris, Vin and Buck approached.
"Ezra, this is Buck Welmont, he's going to be working the chutes during the bucking events." Chris provided the introduction in a clear voice. They wanted to establish contact with the others as quickly as possible so they could be seen together without suspicion. "Buck this is my cousin Ezra Simms. He's one of the clowns who will be working the arena with you."
"Pleased to meet ya Ezra, my brother JD should be along any minute then we thought we could all go to dinner." Buck's normal tone carried fine without having to be raised. "Yep here he comes now, looks like he's made a few friends too."
JD had Josiah and Nathan in tow, "Buck this is Nathan Jessup and Josiah Smith, they're working here at the fairgrounds too. Guys this is my brother Buck I was telling you about. Buck I invited Nathan and Josiah to have dinner with us." JD took a deep breath relieved he had gotten everything out the way he was supposed to.
"Sounds good lil brother, say hello to Chris Latham, his brother Vin and their cousin Ezra Simms. We'll make a party of it."
Chris looked around, then in a lower tone of voice said, "I think that's good enough let's get out of here and go to the motel." The others nodded in agreement and split up heading for their respective vehicles.
The Frontier Motel looked like something out of one of those bad horror movies made in the late 60's. Units were side by side in a horseshoe shape around a big parking lot with the office sitting smack in the center. Each unit opened up to the parking lot. Most rooms already had a variety of beat up trucks parked in front of them.
"Dang Chris, ya aren't trying to spoil us are ya?" Vin was looking around. "I mean this is pretty fancy don't ya think."
For a minute Ezra thought Vin was serious then he realized that the long haired man was almost glowing he was in such a good mood. "We definitely have to get you a new residence, your current domicile is corrupting you."
"Ah, Ez, it's not so bad, I've slept in lots worse." Vin hopped out of the truck and reached in the bed to pull out his bag and saddle.
Ezra took a deep breath and got out of the truck. As he looked around the parking lot he noticed that the whole place had an almost a party atmosphere to it. Several people had grills going and the smell reminded him that he had been too tense to eat lunch. Children were playing tag among the vehicles, lawn chairs, grills and people scattered around. Every once in a while someone would grab a kid as he or she ran past and give them a hot dog. If there was a system to the whole process he couldn't see it. Shaking his head he retrieved his gear and turned to follow Vin into the room.
Chris watched Ezra with a concerned frown, he was beginning to really worry about the other man. Normally Ezra was the outgoing one, Vin the quiet watcher but now the roles were reversed. He had known the southerner would feel out of place which is why he had put Ezra where he could keep an eye on him. Chris just hoped he wasn't asking too much of the man. He worried about all of his men but Vin and Ezra were his special worries. Of all his men JD, Vin, and Ezra, in that order, were the most likely to get shot, beat up or in some sort of trouble. He figured that Buck worried enough about JD for 10 normal people so he made it his job to keep an eye on the other two. He had wondered at first about the rapport that Vin and Ezra had. On the surface they seemed to have nothing in common but when you dug deeper there were a lot of similarities. He knew they had found some sort of connection when Vin had let Ezra start helping him with his reports. Something he had been trying to figure out a way to do himself. If only Ezra would let Vin return the favor on this assignment. <Sometimes I think I'm getting too old for this.> Chris sighed, grabbed his own stuff and headed into the room.
The room was actually two rooms, a small living room/bathroom and a bedroom with 2 double beds. Vin had already opened the connecting door and was listening to JD.
"So anyway, Buck told the guy if he ever saw him abuse an animal like that again he was gonna deck him."
Chris caught the last of JD's story. "What are you talking about JD? Did Buck get into a fight already?"
"It's nothing Chris, this guy was beating a horse and I told him to stop. I think he works for one of the stock contractors." Buck had entered the room and replied for himself. "I'd also bet on him being one of the guys we're after. He seemed real shifty to me."
"Your sure your not just saying that because you don't like the guy?" Nathan had moved into the room and gave Buck a wry look as he finished buttoning his shirt.
"The guy is scum. He also had real expensive alligator boots. Now how did he pay for those on a cowhands wages?" Buck grabbed JD around the neck, "Come on let's go eat, I'm starving. A guy told me to try the Hitching Post, supposed to have the best steaks in town. JD and me will wait outside, it'll give us a chance to check out the ladies."
"I'll see if Josiah is ready, we'll meet you guys outside" Nathan went back through the connecting door headed for his room.
"Dinner sounds real good, ya ready Chris?" Vin looked to the older man.
"I have to check my messages first, should only take a minute. Why don't you and Ez go wait with the others."
"Oh my Lord, would you look at what just moved in next to Laura. If I was 10 pounds lighter and not married honey, I'd give you a $100 to trade rooms with me." The woman speaking was one of four women sitting in a half circle across the parking lot from the agent's rooms.
"Kathy's right, that is a prime grouping of male buns. Laura, I'm broke but I'll trade you my new Navaho saddle blanket for your room.
"Now Anna, no matter how fine they look, and those six men do look mighty fine," the speaker, a brunette paused to fan herself with her hand, "you know what they say, don't call em a cowboy until you've seen em ride"
The three women dissolved into laughter, which caught Buck's attention. He smiled and waved. The brunette waved back as her two year old daughter climbed into her lap. The little girl seeing her mother waving raised her arm and waved too. Buck, ever the gentleman swept off his hat and bowed. This caused another wave of laughter among the three watching women.
"Laura, you had better take a look at your new neighbor's. Another one just came out and it oughta be illegal to look that good in jeans."
The fourth women had been leaning back in her chair cowboy hat pulled down over her eyes. At the blonde's words she slowly pushed the brim up a bit and looked over at where Chris and the others were discussing how they were going to get to dinner. She had to admit, there wasn't a ringer in the bunch. Smiling she shook her head at the other women.
"You three ought to be ashamed of yourselves. You're all married with children. Not supposed to be looking any more."
"Laura, honey, I'm married not dead, and that is a prime herd of tight butts and broad shoulders. Now if I were you I'd go over there and say hello."
Laura sat up a bit and gave the men a closer look. "And just which one should I pick? That's the problem with a large group of fine choices, it's hard to decide which one you want to throw your rope on. No thanks, ladies, I'm here to work, not chase cowboys, I can do that in Dallas."
"Well, I know which one I'd pick, the guy in the red shirt, he looks like a cuddler to me." Anna replied. "I mean just look at him."
Laura grinned good naturedly and turned her attention back the seven men. Just then Ezra removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. "Ezra?" the word was whispered so softly it was almost a breath not a word. <Nah, it can't be him Laura, you're just tired, worried, and feeling lonely. Seeing things that aren't there. The last place Ezra would ever be is in Cheyenne at a hole-in-the-wall motel like this. He's probably Vice President of some big corporation now, just like Maude had planned for him. No, it can't be Ezra but what if it is? I can't let him see me, he'll ask too many questions. And I am so not up to dealing with that.> Laura watched the seven men pile into their vehicles and leave.
"I'll see you ladies tomorrow, think I'll turn in for the night." <Dang girl, stop worrying, even if that is Ezra, you don't look anything like you did at 16. Nothing is gonna go wrong, you'll take care of this business and get back to Texas."> Still giving herself a silent lecture, the red headed woman headed for her room.
Chris awoke suddenly, it took him a second to remember where he was. Quietly he turned his head to look across the room. The sight of the two men asleep in the other bed caused him to let out a breath he hadn't even know he was holding. Rubbing his eyes he tried to figure out what had woken him up. In the dream Ezra was being trampled by a bull while he was powerless to help. <Just a strange dream, that's all it was. Ezra is going to be alright.> Looking at the sleeping men again, he sighed. <Those two look so young and innocent asleep, you would never know looking at them that they're two of the best agents in this business.> Very quietly Chris got out of bed and moved into the other room. He turned back for one more look at the two sleepers. <Dang, it never fails to amaze me how young Vin looks when he's asleep. And Ezra, looking at him now I realize just how tense he's been since this thing started.> Pulling on his jeans, he opened the door and headed outside. Dropping the tailgate of the Dodge he sat down and looked up at the sky. The night and the place putting him in a reflective mood. <So Sarah, here I am again. I hope I'm making Adam and you proud of me. When you died, so did I ..for a long time. Now, thanks to this team, I'm being pulled back into the living. I just wish it wasn't so scary to care again. Course, you always told me anything worth having was worth suffering for.> Chris paused a moment to get his emotions under control. <Sarah, if you can hear me and you have any say up there, please help me protect these six men. Wish you were here but I promise to keep trying to live and make you proud of me . and to not let my grief control me anymore.> Chris wasn't sure how long he had been sitting there alone with his memories when he heard a door open and close behind him.
"Hey buddy, you alright, what are you doing out here?" Buck's voice was soft and slightly worried. "Thinking about the case."
Chris turned to regard his oldest friend with a smile that transformed his face so that he looked actually happy. Buck smiled back, not sure what was going on but pleased to see a glimpse of the old Chris.
"Actually, Buck I wasn't thinking about much just enjoying the night. I guess being here reminds me of when you and I were fresh out of the academy. Remember, we would bust crooks all week then hit the road for whatever rodeo was close."
"I remember, those were good times. But now is 'good times' as well you know. We've got a pretty nice thing going here with this team." Buck was cautious not wanting to spoil Chris's rare mood, but wanting to reach out to the other man.
Chris shook his head and gave Buck a wry smile. "Yeah, if JD, Vin, and Ezra don't turn our hair gray with worry. Is it because they're the youngest members of our little group that they seem to attract the most trouble?"
Buck ignored the question and countered with one of his own. "I knew you were worried about something, it's Ezra isn't it? He'll be okay Chris, that man always lands on his feet." He paused looking into the other man's eyes. "Wait a minute, he's got to you, just like Vin did. You old dog, next thing you be telling me is that Josiah is delicate."
Chris threw a mock punch at Buck's head and for a moment the two wrestled like a couple of teenagers. Two questioning voices behind them caused both men to break apart.
Buck grinned at Chris, "Oops, looks like the youngins caught us, I'll see you in the morning stud." Walking over to JD Buck wrapped him arm around the younger man's neck and pulled him toward their room.
"But, Buck what was that all about? Where you and Chris .." The rest of JD's question was cut off by the closing of the door.
Chris turned to see Vin regarding him with a puzzled look. "Ya okay?"
Still smiling Chris clapped the other man on the shoulder and steered him towards the room. "I'm fine, just needed some fresh air. We'd better get some sleep, tomorrow will probably be a long day."
Ten o'clock the next day found Ezra in a dressing room/tent getting ready for the afternoon rodeo performance. <Maybe Mother is right, I must be crazy to work in a job that requires me to dress like a cowboy fashion emergency. I'm sure Mr. Wilmington is somehow responsible for this shirt.> Ezra finished his makeup and stood back to survey the result. He was dressed in bib overalls that would have probably fit Josiah perfectly. The shirt was white with loud red and blue splotches all over it, again a couple of sizes too big. The outfit was finished off with a floppy cowboy hat, oversized bandanna and tennis shoes. The running shoes were Ezra's. Vin had told him to pack his oldest pair and now he was glad to have at least one familiar thing in this whole mess.
"Ezra, son you ready?" Bill had entered the tent and was checking him over. "That looks fine, nervous? Don't be, I'm assigning you to help one of our entertainment acts today. Laura Greyhawk is a trick rider and horse trainer. Her regular helper hasn't shown up and she needs someone to help with props and other stuff. She'll explain it better than me, come on, I'll introduce ya."
Bill led the way through the maze of contestants, horses, trailers, and vehicles to a big silver horse trailer with the words "Greyhawk Enterprises, Stock Contractors" written on the side. "Laura, I got ya a new helper here, this is Ezra Simms. He can help out as long as you need him. Ezra meet Laura Greyhawk, she's one of the entertainers here and her family supplies some of the best bucking stock around. Well, good luck with the show." Bill turned and moved off towards the bucking chutes.
Ezra studied the woman, who still had her back to him. He thought she had stiffened slightly when Bill had introduced him but maybe it had been his imagination. From the back she was a lovely woman, dark auburn hair fell almost to her waist, her figure was trim, but rounded just the way a man would want. When she turned to face him only years of controlling his expression enabled him not to react. <It can't be, how in the world did she end up here? I figured she would be married to one of her father's vice presidents by now with 2.5 children.> Green eyes met green eyes and though no words were exchanged they were both transported back 17 years to a country house in up-state New York.
"Ezra, darling I want you to meet your new step-sister Laura. Laura, this is my sweet boy, Ezra. He is so looking forward to having a little sister." Maude turned to the man standing behind her. "Darling, I'm sure they'll be fine. We really should be going. Don't want to miss our plane now do we?"
"Of course my dear. Laura make your new brother welcome. We should be back in two weeks." Charles Ames escorted his new wife to the waiting limo.
At sixteen the last thing Ezra wanted was a step-sister 3 years younger than him. <Great mother, now what do I do.>
"Your mom is wife number three for my dad, what is he for you?"
"Your father is my mother's fourth try at matrimonial happiness."
The girl had giggled, then replied, "sucks don't it, wanna bet on how long it lasts?"
Ezra had looked into green eyes so like his own and the start of a deep friendship had been born. Now as he looked into those same eyes, he wondered if she ever had any of the same memories. <I don't think she's recognized me, in this outfit my own mother wouldn't know me. Should I tell her who I am? No best not until I talk to the others. I wonder how she went from debutante to cowgirl.> Just then he realized Laura was speaking to him.
"Mr. Simms, Mr. Simms," <Dear Lord, please don't let him remember me, please. I can't deal with the past right now. Man I wish I had listened to the guys when they told me this was a stupid idea.>
"Please, call me Ezra." <And whatever you do, don't remember me.>
"Fine, Ezra, this is what I need you to do."
Vin wasn't scheduled to ride until the next day and the cutting horse competition was not until later that week. This left Vin and Chris with plenty of free time to poke around. The first thing both men did was feed and groom the horses. Then they saddled up and headed over to a nearby field where other cowboys were exercising their horses. The two men split up and tried to visit with as many of the different riders as they could looking for any clue. After an hour they headed back to the stables totally frustrated. They were tending to their horses when Buck found them.
"You guys have any luck this morning?" Buck rested his arms on Peso's back and gave them both an inquiring look.
"Nope, I don't think any of the contestants have any idea something is going on. You look awfully pleased with yourself, you find out anything?" Chris threw a curry comb at Buck who caught in and began to groom Peso.
"I think I did, I've been checking out the various contractors to see where their last rodeo was. Guess who just came from Dallas." The tall man paused for emphasis.
"Buck" it was one word but Chris made it sound like a threat and a question all at the same time.
"Greyhawk, Enterprises, and it gets better I was checking out their trailers and that guy I had the dust up with yesterday got really bent out of shape. He told me to stay away from their stuff or I might have an accident." Buck tilted his head and arched his eyebrows. "Now that sounds like a guilty conscience to me, what do you think?
"I think ya have something there Buck. Might be worth a little midnight reconnaissance, don't ya think so Chris?" Vin looked at the older man.
"I think you just want to play indian to all these cowboys. Nobody goes off by themselves do I make myself clear. Is this guy who threatened you Greyhawk or just one of his underlings?"
"An underling, according to one of the other contractors, Greyhawk isn't here. He had an accident while they were in Dallas. His daughter-in-law is acting as the company rep, she's also one of the entertainment acts. And you won't believe who got assigned to help her with her act today." Buck paused and glanced at the other two men.
"Ezra." Vin moved over to Chris, "That could work in our favor. Maybe he can get close enough ta her ta get some information."
"Well, if Ezra don't want to do it I'll be glad to volunteer." Buck offered
"That must mean she's a looker." Vin grinned and nudged Chris with his elbow.
"Yeah, that's good ole Buck for you, always willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. I think we better get a look at this woman. Do you know where she is right now?" The last comment was directed at Buck.
"Yep, if we hurry she should be in the arena right now performing. You oughta see Ezra in his clown suit. I'll say this for the man, he gives his all for this team.
The three men walked over to behind the chutes. They were just in time to catch the end of Laura's trained horse act.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, Concho, Chance and I want to thank you for your kind applause. And we would also like to thank our new assistant, Chance say thank you to Ezra." At a signal from the girl the bay horse stuck his muzzle out and gave Ezra a kiss on the cheek. The sight was too much for Buck, he had to hold onto the fence to keep from falling to the ground laughing.
Chris gave him a disgusted look and motioned for Vin to follow him around to the gate the foursome was now exiting. They were barely in time, Laura was thanking Ezra for his help.
"Thank you Mr. Simms, you were a big help. I had better go tend to these two." She indicated the black and white paint and the bay. She turned to leave but found Chris and Vin blocking her way.
"Ma'am, that was some performance, you even made Ezra here look good. Ez, introduce us to this talented lady." When Chris wanted to he could lay on the charm better than Buck.
"Of course, Miss Greyhawk, my cousins, Chris and Vin Latham. Chris, Vin may I introduce Miss Laura Greyhawk."
"Actually, it's Mrs. but please call me Laura. Ezra is very good help, I was lucky Bill let me borrow him. Well, if you will excuse me I need to get these two babies back to their stalls." Laura knew she was babbling but she wanted to get away from Ezra before she did something to trigger his memory.
"They're beautiful animals, I'd be glad ta help ya get em settled." Vin quickly offered. He could tell that for some reason Ezra wanted nothing more than to get away from the attractive redhead.
"Thank you, but that's okay, they really don't take much to strangers." As if on cue the paint swung his head at Vin and snorted a warning. "Concho, that's enough, come on .. gentlemen." Laura moved off as fast as she thought wouldn't look suspicious followed by the two horses.
"Whoa, not very friendly was she? What do ya think Chris?" Vin turned to the other men.
"I think she gave that horse a signal to do what he did. Ezra what do you know about the lady?"
"If you had asked me that question 14 years ago, I would have has said everything. Now, I have no idea what to say."
"What do you mean by that statement? Do you know her or not?" Chris never reacted well to riddles, they just irritated him.
Ezra motioned them over away from the crowd milling around the gate. He took off his hat and started playing with the brim, when he spoke his voice held a mixture of confusion and sadness. "The lady in question was my step-sister for 3 years, I haven't seen her since she was 16. I don't think she recognized me and I have no idea what she is doing here. Her father is a very rich man, a prerequisite for marrying my mother. He would never allow her to be here in this place doing what she is doing. Beyond that I do not know what to tell you.
By six o'clock the rodeo atmosphere was being replaced by a concert one. A big stage had been set up for the evenings concert and that's nights performer was doing his sound check.
Chris, Buck, and Vin were waiting for the others to finish up and join them.
"Here comes Ezra. Buck do not harass him about today's performance, you hear." Chris's voice had that listen to me or you'll regret it tone to it.
They watched the other man approach, he face was pale and worried, emotions none of them had ever seen him show except in an emergency waiting room.
<Oh lord, there they are waiting for me. I know Chris wants more of an explanation than I was able to give him but I just don't know what to say. I can't believe that the sweet innocent girl I knew could be involved in smuggling guns and drugs. Yes Ezra, but she also had a worse childhood than you did. At least your mother claimed to love you. Maybe this is her way of getting back at Daddy. No, I won't, can't accept that, even after what the others told me today. I need to get a look at those stock trailers myself. Of course I have no idea what I'm looking for. I need someone to come with me, maybe I can get Vin to help. We'll need to figure out a way to ditch big brother first though.> "Good evening gentlemen, where is the rest of our little band?"
"Here they come now." Buck motioned to where JD, Nathan and Josiah were headed toward them.
Someone stopped Josiah, who was wearing his security jacket, to ask him a question. Nathan paused to wait for him, JD said something to Nathan and headed to where Buck and the others were waiting. To reach them he had to cross an open area between the corrals and the stables. Just as he reached the center of the open area they heard yelling and the sound of running cattle. Someone or something had scared the roping stock enough they had busted loose and were now headed straight for JD. Normally this wouldn't have put him in danger, but the open area wasn't that big and the running steers filled it to capacity. In their panic they would run the young agent over at the very least causing him serious injury.
"JD!!!!" Buck screamed, "RUN!!!"
Even though they knew they wouldn't get there in time to do any good all four men started towards JD in a vain attempt to help.
JD looked at the stampeding cattle and froze for a moment. Then he turned and started running back toward the fence. JD had almost made it to the fence when the first steer struck him a glancing blow in the side. The blow left him a little dazed but he knew if he fell he was in big trouble. <Got to make the fence, if I don't survive this Buck will kill me.> JD smiled at the silliness of that thought just as he felt the rough wood of the fence beneath his hands. Gritting his teeth he started to climb. The steers didn't make it easy on the young man. They had started milling around in a circle right where he was. Every time he tried to climb higher on the fence one of them would hit the back of his legs. Several times he almost lost his grip completely. Finally he just wrapped his arms around the top rung of the fence and hung on. <Come on guys, somebody get me out of this.>
The others were trying to get to JD but the milling cattle made it almost impossible. Buck was frantic and kept calling to the kid. Occasionally between the steers they would catch a glimpse of him still clinging to the fence. Despite their efforts, the steers were too tightly packed and men on foot didn't do anything but panic them again.
"A horse, we need a horse." Chris was trying to keep Buck from physically attacking the cattle in an attempt to reach JD, so he directed his comment to Vin. Vin nodded and started to run back to the stables to get Peso. "Buck! He's alright, just relax and you'd see that." Chris knew if Buck would calm down, he'd see that JD was in no real danger anymore. But they would need a horse to push through the crowded steers.
Just then, from the direction the running steers had come, Laura on her black and white paint began working towards JD. The others watched as horse and rider moved steadily through the nervous herd.
"Grab on kid," Laura leaned forward and stuck out her arm. JD grabbed the offered hand pulled his leg over the paint and wrapped his arms around his rescuer. The big horse started working back the way he had come. "Hang on, just take us a minute to get out of this."
"Your're a girl!" JD stammered as he realized that what he had thought was a guy had breasts.
The rider turned her head and grinned as she took off her hat. Auburn hair cascaded down her back and green eyes twinkled at JD. "Well, thank you for the compliment but I passed 'girl' stage a few years ago. Were some of those men I saw running friends of yours?"
"Uh yes mi.. ma'am." JD was trying to adjust to the fact he wasn't flattened so he was still a little rattled. "My my brother Buck is back there."
"Well, let's get over there so he can see your okay." By now the paint had worked his way through the steers and at a signal from the redhead sped up. "And the name's Laura, Laura Greyhawk, but just call me Laura."
"Thanks m Laura my arms were getting tired of holding on. My brother will be real grateful too."
The others watched as Laura and JD worked their way back toward them. By now Nathan and Josiah had joined them.
"Loose something cowboy? You'd better teach your little brother to stay out of the way when men are working" Two riders had come up behind them, the blond who Buck had already had trouble with, was the one who had spoken.
A worried Buck is an explosive Buck and he had just found something to take his frustrations out on. Buck didn't even hesitate, he grabbed the rider off his horse and threw him against a nearby horse trailer. "Was that your idea of a joke mister because if it was I didn't find it funny. If my brother has one scratch on him I'm gonna pound you into oatmeal."
"I might have known your were involved Morgan." At the sound of Laura's voice everyone turned to look.
"JD are you okay?" Buck grabbed the younger man by the shoulders as he slid off the horse and started looking him over.
"I'm fine Buck really."
"See, the little boy is just fine, no harm done mister."
Morgan probably wished he had kept his mouth shut because it was Chris who now found an outlet for his worry by throwing the man against the trailer again. "I don't get your humor, Morgan was it, the kid might have been badly hurt. If I ever see you do something like that again I'll make it so you never walk straight again." After throwing him into the trailer once more for emphasis Chris let the blond go and turned to his partner. "And that goes for you too.
Morgan remounted his horse somewhat shakily and the two men moved off. Six men now turned their attention to JD.
Nathan had JD sit down on the wheel hub of the recently abused horse trailer. He started checking the scowling youth over and asking him questions. "Are you having any trouble breathing, how many fingers am I holding up, where does it hurt the most."
"No, three, doesn't hurt, I'm okay really" JD's tone was resigned. He knew he wouldn't get any peace from the others until Nathan was confident that he would be okay.
Nathan tugged up JD's t-shirt and started pressing on his ribs where a beautiful bruise was starting to form. "I don't think it's too serious, nothing seems to be broken. He's gonna be stiff and sore in the morning but, for a change, it doesn't look to bad.
"See, I told ya so, I'm "
Buck cut of the rest of his sentence with his hand. "Don't use that term kid, I'm starting to get superstitious. Every time you say that lately you collapse at my feet."
JD shook off Buck's hand and stood up. He directed his attention to the woman who had been sitting on her horse watching the whole exchange. "Buck, I want you to meet Laura Greyhawk, you should be thanking her for her help instead of picking on me." JD noticed that the relaxed friendly expression she had had on her face when they rode up was gone replaced by one of those fake smiles that people use when they don't want others to know what they are thinking. JD started pointing to the others and making introductions. He didn't know that she had already met some of the group earlier. "Laura this is my brother Buck, the guy checking me over is Nathan Jessup, this giant is Josiah Smith and this is Chris..."
Laura cut him off. "I've met the Lathams, JD." I like the way you get a point across cowboy," Laura tilted her head at Chris. "Morgan and Fowler give stock contractors a bad name. But a rodeo this big means you have to take the good with the bad." She shifted slightly in the saddle and tightened her grip on the reins. "I'm glad your okay JD, I'd better go finish exercising this big fella."
Chris reached out and grabbed the paint's bridle reins. He was determined to make another attempt to get information out of this woman. He had seen Ezra's eyes and he wanted her to be innocent for the sake of the southerner. "Your always running off to take care of your horse." He said in a jesting tone of voice. We want to thank you for saving JD's life. Let us buy you dinner tomorrow night."
"I'd like to Mr. Latham, but I can't" Just then the big horse reared up ripping his reins out of Chris's hands and knocking his hat off. "I'm sorry, he's getting agitated, I'd better go, goodnight gentlemen." She sent the horse at a run for the exercise area.
"Dammit, she did it again, one of these times I'm gonna catch her without that blasted horse and she IS going to give me some answers." Chris picked up his hat and took some of his frustration out on it by beating the dust off.
By the time they got back to the motel it was late. Nathan had decided, backed up by Buck and Chris, that JD needed to have his ribs x-rayed. After a trip to the hospital, which took four hours and pushed Buck's patience past the breaking point, they had gone to dinner. That meant it was almost midnight when they all pulled into the motel parking lot. The first thing they noticed was a small bag hanging on the doorknob to Buck and JD's room. Buck opened the bag and removed a jar and note. The jar he passed to Nathan who opened the lid and took a whiff of the contents. Buck unfolded the note and read it out loud.
Something for your cuts and bruises.
Apply twice a day until healed.
"Now how did she know where we're staying? What do you think Nathan, is she trying to poison him with this stuff?" Buck had now grabbed the jar of ointment and was looking at it suspiciously.
"It seems to be some sort of herbal remedy. I smell lavender, mint and a couple other things I can't identify. I don't think it will harm him, but I'm not sure how effective it will be." Nathan took a small dab of the ointment and rubbed it on the back of his hand.
"Well, he's not using it, I don't know where that woman fits in all of this but I don't trust her." Buck was getting ready to toss the jar when JD snatched it from him.
"She didn't leave it for you, she left it for me and I AM going to use it. I like Laura, I don't think she would hurt any of us. She's Ezra's sister after all." JD screwed the lid back on and held the jar behind his back.
"I would not use that as an assurance of the lady's dependability JD." Ezra's voice was subdued and tired.
"I want the answer to Buck's first question, how did she know where we're staying. More importantly, did she know this was JD's room or did she guess?" Chris continued the rest of his thought to himself. <And how much will it affect Ezra if it turns out she is on the wrong side of this whole mess.>
"I think I can tell ya how she knew where to leave it." They all turned to look at Vin who was standing between Chris's Dodge and a white Ford Ranger.
"How?", "You can?", "Find something?"
The different questions were asked over the top of each other. Vin ignored them and pointed to the Ford, "Her hat's on the seat and it has Texas plates."
"Damm, okay everyone Josiah and Nathan's room now. We'll continue this discussion inside." Chris glared at the innocent truck before he followed the others.
An hour later they had gone over everything they knew for the third time. Ezra had retreated to a corner, distancing himself from the whole thing both physically and mentally. Vin was sitting on the floor nearby watching him with a worried frown. Buck was stretched out on one of the beds keeping an eye on JD as Nathan helped him apply the ointment to his various bruises. Chris was pacing restlessly as he tried to decide what they should do next. Josiah had turned his chair around and was resting his arms on the back, he too was watching Ezra.
"I think that's all of them JD, now be sure and tell me if anything starts to sting or burn or you just feel funny, okay."
"I will Nathan, but right now it feels good, kinda warm. Um Chris, I had an idea, I don't know if it makes any sense or not though."
"At this point JD, I'm willing to listen to anything."
"What if we contacted the Texas Rangers and asked them about Laura? I mean her truck's got Texas plates and Buck said that her father-in-law was injured down there. I just thought ." JD let his voice trail off as six pairs of eyes were suddenly trained on him. "Bad idea huh?"
"No, JD, I'm just kicking myself for not thinking of it. If she is involved in this, the Rangers will probably know. At the least we can have them check her out to see if she has a police record in Texas." Chris smiled at his youngest agent. "I'll contact them tomorrow. Let's get some sleep everybody."
The next morning Vin took care of exercising both horses while Chris dealt with the bureaucracy of getting information from another law enforcement agency. Chris didn't show up until after the day's rodeo had started. He found Vin and Buck behind the bucking chutes. Vin was going over his gear while listening to Buck who seemed to be a little agitated.
"Vin, you haven't ridden bucking stock in years. I been talking to some of the other contestants and Dollarhide is one of the worst broncs here. Are you sure you can handle it. This isn't like topping off a 3 year old for Nettie, this horse is out for blood."
"I'll be fine Buck, only hafta stay on for 8 seconds. Horses ain't like bulls, they don't try ta hurt ya if ya fall off." Vin's Texan drawl was amused. "Hey, Chris ya made it in time ta see me ride."
Chris nodded and looked at Buck who was shaking his head and muttering to himself. "There's that phrase again, just as bad when Vin says it as when JD does."
"Buck, you say something? Where's JD, I told him he was in no condition to be carrying trays today so he better not be working."
"He went to get something to drink Chris, he'll be right back. I was just telling Vin that the horse he's drawn is one of the worst on the circuit. I'm not sure he should ride today."
Chris turned his attention to the younger man, "Maybe he's right Vin, I don't need another agent banged up."
The long haired agent finished checking the cinch on his saddle and looked up at the other men. "I'm ridin and ya aren't talkin me out of it." Vin's soft drawl was calm and determined.
Chris looked into his eyes and shook his head then glanced at Buck. "No sense trying to talk to him any more, he's got that look."
"Yep, same look you used to get just before you climbed on some four legged stick of dynamite. It's like a disease with you people. I give up, just, whatever you do, don't let JD catch it, my heart won't be able to hold out." Buck threw up his hands and moved off shaking his head.
Vin chuckled as he watched Chris trying to act casual as he looked around. He knew he was really trying to check up on everyone without being obvious. "JD really did go to get a drink, Nathan's at the emergency tent, an Josiah is over by the ticket booth. Oh and Ezra's in the arena helping some guy with his trained dog act. It's kind of cute, guy has taught this australian shepherd dog to herd sheep and he's got this monkey that rides on its back." Chris gave Vin one of his 'you think your so smart' glares and turned his attention back to the arena. Vin grinned and continued. "Also 'that woman' as ya like to call her is over saddling her horse, the paint, so ya might as well not even go over there. Did ya find anything out from the Rangers?"
Chris ran his hand through his hair as he remembered the frustration of the morning. "Not really, I got passed around a lot, first they sent me to the computer department, the computer department handed me off to personnel, seemed they thought I was trying to check her employment. Then I got passed around some more, at one point I think they decided I was looking for a lost person because they recommended I contact a P.I. organization called Thunder Investigations. Finally one of the Rangers told me I needed to speak with Ranger Cordell Walker."
"He give ya any help."
Chris growled and threw a look of frustration at Vin. "No, Ranger Walker was out of the office working on a case. He'll call me as soon as possible. I told them it was urgent but I'm not holding my breath."
Vin sighed and threw his saddle over his shoulder. Turning he started over to the chute where a steel gray horse was making his dislike of the world in general known.
Chris headed for the stands behind the chutes that were for contestants and their families. Half way there he met JD coming from the refreshment stand.
"Chris, hey, did you find anything out?" JD was smiling as he held a coke out to the older man.
"Thanks JD. No, the Rangers are gonna call me back. How are you feeling today, I thought you would be pretty stiff and sore."
Both men continued walking to the stands as they talked.
"Nah, if I forget and move a certain way it hurts some but it's not too bad. That stuff Laura left me is great, even Nathan was surprised this morning. He thinks I'll be healed up a few days if I keep using it."
The two men sat down to watch while the announcer started his introduction.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, it's time for the saddle bronc riding. If I can direct your attention to chute number 2 the rider is Vin Latham and the horse is Dollarhide. Dollarhide has never been ridden for the full 8 seconds in this arena. Let's see if Vin can be the first." The announcer cut through their discussion causing Chris and JD to hurry to take their seats.
Chris found himself clenching his hands into fists as the gate opened and Dollarhide exploded into the arena. He was surprised at how good Vin was. He managed to stay on the full 8 seconds then everything went wrong. As the pickup man rode up beside Vin to get him off the horse a small child next to the rail waved her souvenir flag in Dollarhide's face. Dollarhide screamed and rammed into the pickup horse knocking the smaller animal down. Vin had already kicked his stirrups free in preparation for dismounting so he didn't stand a chance as the enraged horse renewed his attempts to get the hated rider off his back. Vin went flying, hit the ground on his back then rolled onto his side, after that he didn't move.
Chris had jumped to his feet and started running almost before Vin hit the ground, JD close behind him. <Please, please let him be okay. I should have put my foot down when Buck told me the horse was bad. Damm it Vin, you had better be alright.>
Due to the fact they were already in the arena Buck and Ezra were the first to reach the crumpled man. They could see he was having trouble taking a deep breath.
"Vin, Vin, speak to me, I told you that was a bad bronc." Buck was frantic, he didn't realize he was rambling. "You had better be okay or Chris is gonna have a fit." Buck had his hand on Vin's shoulder about to turn him over when Ezra stopped him.
"Perhaps we should wait for Nathan to determine the extent of his injuries before trying to move him."
At that moment Chris skidded to a stop and fell to his knees beside the injured man. He had to take a few seconds to calm his racing heart enough to speak coherently "You okay cowboy, that was some spill you took." Chris looked at the others, "where's Nathan, we need him NOW!"
I'm right here Chris," Nathan pushed Buck out of the way and knelt beside Vin unfazed by Chris's anger. "Vin can you hear me?
Some of the tension went out of everyone as a faint voice replied "Yes, and before ya ask the answers are; yes, three, and all over."
Chris started to panic. "Nathan, he must have hit his head, he's not making any sense."
Nathan was processing Vin's answers in his head while he checked him for broken bones. When he figured out what they meant he started laughing. He turned Vin over onto his back and checked his eyes to see if they were normal. Then he sat back and looked over to Chris who looked like he was trying to decide if Nathan had lost his mind as well. "I think he's alright Chris, he just got the wind knocked out of him when he hit his back. Those are the answers to the questions I asked JD last night after he got hurt."
Vin groaned and tried to sit up, "Nathan's right, I'm okay, somebody help me up."
"Oh no, you stay right where you are, we'll get a stretcher out here for you." Chris ordered.
Vin looked at him for about three seconds and then shook his head. He was starting to breath better "Ya've rodeoed before Chris, ya know the unwritten rule, if ya can walk out of the arena ya do. So either help me up or get outta my way."
The two men stared at each other waiting for the other one to give in. Due to the stubbornness of both men the standoff might have continued indefinitely if Buck hadn't intervened.
"Nathan, you grab that side, I've got him on this side, on the count of three. One, two, three." Between the two of them Buck and Nathan easily picked Vin up and set him on his feet.
As soon as he saw Vin on his feet the announcer went into his spiel. "As you can see folks he's alright. Ladies and Gentlemen let's have a big round of applause for Vin Latham, with a score of 89."
Vin waved to the crowd as Chris grabbed him around the waist and started helping him toward the exit gate. He smiled at Chris's muttered "Show off".
Josiah and JD were waiting at the gate when they came out. Rodeo officials had refused to let JD into the arena saying they didn't want to add to the confusion. Josiah had been under the main stands when he heard the announcer say Vin was injured. He had hurried around the arena praying the young man would be all right. Both men were relieved to see Vin walking under his own power.
"Vin, are you okay?" "How do you feel brother?"
JD's question mingled with Josiah's.
"I'm" Vin stopped mid statement and looked over at Buck who had let out a groan. He tilted his head to the side a bit and smirked as he rephrased his answer. "I'll live I think." Pulling away from Chris's supporting arm he bent over and placed his hands on his knees and started to take slow deep breaths.
"Nathan, are you sure he's okay?" Chris knew better than to take Vin's word on his condition.
"Yeah, he'll be okay, but he probably should take it easy for the rest of the day."
"Fine, I'll take Vin and JD back to the motel. They can rest and I'll take another shot at the Rangers. We'll see you guys when you're done here."
"Chris, Vin's the one who got hurt why do I need to rest?" JD wanted to know.
"Give in kid, you know how Chris is when he's in big brother mode. It won't hurt you to rest this afternoon either." Buck reached over and pulled JD's hat down over his face.
JD straightened his hat and looked at Vin who rolled his eyes and then winked. Vin knew they wouldn't win this argument so decided to give in gracefully. Besides, he and Ezra had plans for tonight after everyone had gone to sleep. Vin figured a little nap that afternoon would make him sharper for their reconnaissance mission.
"Okay, I guess. Hey Vin I'll give you some of that ointment for your bruises when we get there. It's pretty good stuff ." The rest of JD's comment was lost as Chris herded Vin and him towards the truck.
The others split up to go back to their respective jobs. Only Josiah noticed a red haired woman watching everything with worried eyes.
When the others got back to the motel that night they found Josiah and Nathan's door open and an exasperated Chris Larabee sitting on the bed talking into his cell phone.
"I've tried this place called 'CD's' that you referred me to, they haven't seen him. No, the DA's office was no help either, it is very important that I get in touch with Ranger Walker. Yeah, I know, you'll have him call me, thanks." Chris ended the connection and threw his phone at the wall. Buck who had been expecting just such a move caught it before it hit.
"Careful there Chris, you still need this and it takes forever to replace these things. Remember when you killed your laptop, took em two months to get ya another one." He grinned and handed the phone back to Chris. "Where's the kid and Vin?
"They're in my room, I told both of them to rest then came in here so I wouldn't disturb them. I've been on the phone with what feels like half of Dallas trying to get in touch with this Ranger Walker." Chris was frustrated and it showed.
"So we still don't know any more about our mysterious cowgirl then?" Nathan moved further into the room and sat down on the other bed.
"If you'll excuse me gentlemen, I think I will take a shower before we go in search of sustenance. Ezra's southern drawl cut into the conversation. "I will also check on our wounded comrades while I'm at it." He turned and made his way through Buck and JD's room towards his.
Chris came to his feet and followed as far as the door. Once Ezra was through the other room he closed it and turned back to the other three men. "We have got to wind this case up and soon. I'm afraid we're going to loose him if this goes on much longer. Everyday he retreats a little more, he is going to do something stupid trying to prove she's innocent." He started to pace trying to work out his frustration. "How can a girl he only knew for three years have this much emotional impact? She's not blood relation, it was fourteen years ago, how?"
"Chris, you should know that blood relation isn't important when it comes to making a family. Nor do you need three years, our little group is proof of that." Josiah voice was deep and calm, his words caused Chris to stop pacing and look at him.
"Your right Josiah, I guess I'm just so frustrated I forgot." Their leader took a deep breath.
"He IS right, Ezra will get through this because we will help him. Just like we've helped each other since you formed this team." Nathan stood and placed his hand on Chris's shoulder and squeezed gently for emphasis. "Now let's go find some dinner, as the team medic I prescribe a beer and big steak for everyone."
"Nathan's got a good idea, let's go get the youngins." Buck started for the other room.
All four men would have been a lot more worried if they could have heard the conversation Ezra, Vin, and JD were having at the same time.
Ezra entered the bedroom and saw JD standing by the door that connected it to Laura's room next door. JD had the look of a four year old who has just been caught with his hand in the cookie jar.
"Ezra, you guys are back early. Did you have a good day?"
Ezra knew something was up, JD was the worst liar of the group. Then he realized that Vin was missing. "Where's Vin, he's supposed to be in here resting."
JD was saved from trying to come up with a believable answer as the door into Laura's room opened and Vin stepped through.
"Mr. Tanner, just what do you think your doing. I believe that is an invasion of privacy not to mention highly illegal."
"I know she's your sister Ezra, but I just wanted to see if I could find out something one way or the other." Vin hoped he hadn't just damaged his friendship with Ezra but his instincts were telling him one thing while the evidence was saying something else. He had decided to take the opportunity to search the room and try to answer some of the questions they all had.
"And did you find anything interesting while you were breaking and entering?" Ezra hoped the answer was no just as much as yes. At least he would know one way or the other.
"Not really, some black clothes, a laptop, and " Vin paused, not sure if he should tell the tense man the other three items he had found.
"And, what, I would rather know, no matter how bad it is." Ezra was braced for the worse.
"I don't know if it's really bad so to speak." It's just she's got three guns, a 38 like mine, a derringer and a colt 45." Vin watched as Ezra collapsed onto the bed as if his legs couldn't hold him up any longer.
"A lot of people carry a gun for protection." JD offered in an attempt to make the other man feel better.
"Yes, JD they do, but not three and Laura didn't even know how to shoot a gun when I knew her.
"Ezra, the derringer and colt are old, not the usual thing people carry around for defense." Vin was determined to make the other man look on the positive side of this. In an attempt to redirect Ezra's mind he continued with another subject. "Do ya still want to go check out the stock trailers tonight? I figure we should go out there about midnight."
"Yes, I am more determined than ever to bring this thing to a conclusion."
"Chris is going to kill you guys if he finds out what your up to." JD looked at both men.
"Chris won't find out if ya don't tell him." Vin pointed out.
"I won't tell him, if I can go with you." JD smiled gleefully.
12:05 AM Frontier Motel Parking lot.
"JD, thought ya said Buck hid an extra key in the wheel well."
"He does, it's on the passenger side, have Ezra get it."
"May I suggest you both reduce the volume of your vocal cords. Unless you want to explain to our fearless leader what we are doing out here in the middle of the night."
After some more grumbling and fumbling in the dark the three men had Buck's spare key and were on their way to the fairgrounds. Getting in after dark without being seen required parking along the back boundary fence and climbing over. Once inside they headed to the area where most contractors had parked their empty trailers.
"So where do we start?" JD was full of energy even at this late hour.
"Might as well split up, we can cover more ground quicker that way." Was the reply in a Texas drawl.
"The inherent flaw there is, JD and I have no intimate knowledge of where a miscreant would hide things in a stock trailer."
"Check the feed bunks, if there are any. There's sometimes a storage section in the fronta the trailer depending on the type. Look underneath ta see if anything sticks down. They could have a secret compartment under the floor." Vin pointed to a group of trailers on the left. "Ya guys take those, I'll check over here."
An hour later three dirty and frustrated men met back where they had started.
"Ya guys find anything" Vin had a streak of dirt down his cheek and his jeans had mud and something else plastered on them.
"Nah, Ezra and I checked every trailer we could find. Nothing." JD had approached the activity with his usual vigor and he looked even worse than Vin with hay in his hair and dirt all over.
"I think our little sojourn has proved useless. Did you find anything in the Greyhawk trailer?" Ezra eyes looked haunted.
"Didn't find the Greyhawk trailer. Thought it was in your group."
"Uh guys, there it is over by that corral." JD pointed to where the trailer in question was backed up to a loading chute.
The tired men approached the trailer slowly. As they walked Vin studied the best way to get into the trailer. The loading chute had high solid walls that couldn't be climbed. The corral fence was also higher than normal to ensure whatever was inside couldn't jump it.
"We're gonna have ta go in through the corral and walk up the chute. Ya two wait here, I'll go check it out." Vin said as he opened the gate.
"I insist on accompanying you, I wish to ascertain the contents for myself." Ezra was right on Vin's heels.
"Well you're not leaving me behind either." JD followed the other two as they walked up the loading chute.
The minute Vin slide the rear door of the trailer open he knew something was wrong. "Ezra, JD start backing up, slow an easy."
Vin cut the question off, his drawl low and intense. "Because this trailer ain't empty and I think we just woke something up."
Suddenly all three men heard the enraged bellow of a bull who's just had his beauty sleep disturbed.
Chris knew something was wrong as soon as he woke up. He didn't even have to check the other bed to know Vin and Ezra were off doing something stupid. <I'll kill em. They had better not have gone to check out those trailers after I specifically told em not to.> He got out of bed and started dressing. <I expect this stuff from Vin, but Ezra, I should have realized how upset he was.> Chris grabbed his keys and was headed out the door before he remembered he should tell someone where he was going. Turning he went to wake Buck and tell him what was going on. "I don't believe this, they took JD too." Chris's shout woke Buck and had him reaching for his gun.
"Chris, what is? What do you mean, they took JD, who's got him?"
"I think Vin and Ezra went to the fairgrounds to check out stock trailers. Looks like JD went along for the ride." Chris gave Buck a feral grin. "Want to go with me? If they're alive and uninjured we'll kill em for pulling such a bonehead stunt."
Buck was already pulling on his clothes. "Oh yeah, I wouldn't miss this. Stupid kid what was he thinking."
"Run!" Vin turned and started shoving the other two down the chute. "Scatter, JD, ya try an get the gate open while Ezra and I distract him."
They spread out as the bull came charging down the chute. Hitting the bottom of the ramp, the bull paused for a moment. The pool of light from a nearby security lamp, allowed the men to get a good look at him. He was a big reddish brahma herford cross. Luckily he had taken after the brahma in the horn department and didn't have any. Ezra recognized him immediately. His normal southern drawl was strained as he shared his knowledge.
"Gentlemen, meet Devils Leg, they had a special briefing on him for all the clowns. He's mean, killed a rider last year and put several in the hospital. Some riders are trying to get him banned saying he's a killer. We've got to think of something quick."
Vin didn't get a chance to reply because Devil's Leg had used Ezra's voice to zero in charging directly at him. Ezra remembered what Bill had told him and waited until the last possible moment before jumping aside. The enraged animal couldn't stop and the momentum of the charge carried him forward to crash into the fence shaking the whole enclosure. As he jumped Ezra twisted his foot in the soft ground and fell.
"Ezra!" JD ran forward to help just as Devil's Leg righted himself and turned around.
"JD look out!" Vin pulled his gun as he ran toward where JD was helping Ezra to his feet. He tried to get a shot at the animal but couldn't without running the risk of hitting the two men. JD saw the four legged freight train bearing down on him and Ezra and shoved the other man aside to safety just as Devil's Leg hit. The bull tossed JD in the air with his head throwing him clear across the corral to land in a heap against the fence. Vin fired a quick shot as the animal whirled to charge at Ezra again. He knew he hadn't hit anything vital as soon as he pulled the trigger but the bullet did make the animal stop and spin around to charge whatever was responsible for the burning in his hip. Vin managed to fire another shot before jumping out of the way. Unfortunately he wasn't fast enough and Devil's Leg caught him a glancing blow with his shoulder. Not enough to do any damage but it knocked the sharpshooter off his feet. Vin started to roll as soon as he hit the ground hoping to avoid the sharp hooves he could feel thundering down on him.
Ezra had managed to stay on his feet and now pulled his gun. Like Vin before, he couldn't shoot for fear of hitting the wrong thing. When Vin fell, with his heart in his throat, he tried aiming again. This shot had to count or they were all dead. He wasn't even really sure where to aim. <Aim for the head, don't think about what will happen if you miss. Or what Chris will say if you .aim for the head.> He squeezed the trigger and prayed. When the bullet hit the bull stopped and shook his head. Ezra triggered off another shot and the massive killing machine became a mound of potential hamburger patties. Everything froze for a minute as the three men stared at the form lying only inches from where Vin was getting to his feet.
"Wow, that was some shot Ezra." JD's voice broke the silence. Ezra and Vin looked to where he was slowly climbing to his feet.
"JD, ya okay?" Vin hurried over to the young man and pulled him to his feet.
"Yeah, I think so, just a couple more bruises to add to my collection."
Vin smiled, put an arm around JD's waist and started helping him to where Ezra was slumped against the fence. Vin looked at the southerners pale face and then at the gun in his hand. "Mighty fine shootin Ez." He looked at the stunned expression on Ezra's face. "Ya okay?"
"Yes, I'm alright." Ezra's eyes had a glazed look to them. He slid his gun back into it's holster then rubbed his eyes. He straightened and looked at the other two. "Are you sure you're okay JD? That was quite the aerial flight you took."
"My wrist hurts but I don't think it's broken."
"We're in for it now, no way Chris ain't gonna notice this." Vin waved his hand pointing to the dirt that covered everyone and the bruises starting to form. "Big brother is gonna be on a rampage for sure."
All three men looked at each other, the relief at being alive and fairly uninjured, added to the adrenaline rush each man was feeling caused all to start laughing.
"We'll just tell em we're fine." JD gasped
"Better not use that phrase with Buck, it starting ta give him a twitch." Vin managed to say. "Come on, we better get outta here before someone starts asking questions."
By the time they made it to the fence where Buck's truck was parked they knew that Ezra had twisted his ankle and JD'd probably sprained his wrist. Vin figured he'd have a new bruise or two but nothing serious. As they approached the fence it became evident they had a new problem. Bucks' truck now had a black Dodge parked behind it and two very grumpy looking men leaning on it with their arms crossed. Chris looked at the dirty tired men on the other side of the fence and had to grit his teeth to keep from smiling in relief at their appearance.
"Out for a midnight stroll?" The question was asked in a silky voice and accompanied by the same feral smile he had given Buck earlier. He watched the 'youngins' as Buck liked to call them exchange guilty looks. "JD, I expect this kind of thing from Vin and Ezra, but you ." He let the sentence trail off as he continued to glare at his weary agents.
Buck decided it was time for him to join the fun. "JD, you want to tell me how these two lured you into this life of crime."
"They didn't lure me Buck, I volunteered." JD didn't want anyone taking the blame for his actions. "Vin and me wanted to help Ezra.
"Find anything interesting?" Chris was starting to relent, he didn't like the way Ezra was holding his weight on one leg and leaning on Vin. Something had happened and he wanted to get the injured back to the motel where Nathan could look at them.
Vin, Ezra and JD exchanged a guilty look.
"I guess we should tell them now rather than wait til they hear about in the morning, huh." JD looked at the older men.
"Mr. Tanner, you had the best view of our little experience. If you would be so kind." Ezra always became very formal when he thought he was in trouble.
Buck had noticed JD favoring his arm and was starting to move into worry mode. "Kid are you okay?"
"I hurt my wrist but it's not too bad. I'm" JD stopped as Vin and Ezra started chuckling. He looked at them and started to laugh himself.
Chris looked through the fence to where three grown men had collapsed on the ground laughing and gave up. He grabbed the top of the fence and motioned for Buck to give him a boost. Once on the other side he walked over and started pulling men to their feet. With Chris pushing and Buck on the other side to catch them, they soon had everyone on the outside.
"Buck you take JD, I'll take the Hardy Boys here with me. Let's get back to Nathan so he can patch em up." He then turned to glare at Vin and Ezra. "After Nathan assures me you're gonna live I want every detail of what went on tonight."
The drive was short but it gave Vin and Ezra time to sober up a bit. When they arrived at the motel both men noticed that a white Ford Ranger was missing from the parking spot next to Chris's. They didn't say anything just followed Chris slowly into the motel.
Once inside Nathan descended on the injured men. Still slightly giddy from the fact they had almost been trampled to death all three looked at him and said in almost perfect unison:
"No, three, my ankle."
"No, three, my wrist."
"No, three, my side."
Even Chris couldn't help laughing. It took Nathan about 20 minutes to check everyone over. Shaking his head he looked at Chris, Buck, and Josiah.
"Ezra is gonna have a limp for a couple of days. JD has to keep that wrist wrapped, and Vin'll have some more bruises but they'll live. Unless, of course, you kill em for trying a fool stunt like that. Which Buck, Josiah and I will help you do for worrying us."
"No Nathan, I'm not gonna kill em just yet, I think I'll wait and see what their story is first."
Vin swallowed and looked at the other two then looked back at Chris. "Well, ya see there was this bull .."