Vin was the first one up the next morning. He'd given a list of what he needed to Travis and it was supposed to be delivered this morning. They had spent the night formulating a plan. Buck, Chris, JD and Vin would parachute into a clearing a mile from the archeological site. The village, where the hostages were being held, was two miles west of that location. It was decided they would parachute in during the early hours while it was still dark. Josiah, Nathan and Ezra would fly into the nearest town later that same morning. They would meet up with the others in the afternoon. JD wasn't so sure about jumping in the dark since he'd never done it before. Vin assured him that with night vision goggles he would be fine. Once they were on the ground they would go survey the Indian village. They planned on freeing the hostages at night, then calling Travis for a pick up. Vin knew Chris was worried about them working as a team. After receiving JD and Josiah's packets from Travis, Chris was satisfied the two of them would work out.
Vin wandered down to the barn to feed the horses. He left the rest of the team sprawled across various pieces of furniture in the living room fast asleep. Vin let the horses out in the corral and gave them some food. He was cleaning the stalls when he heard a truck pull up. Vin came out to meet it and was surprised when the colonel climbed down from the cab.
"No longer in the military, son," he smiled. "It just Travis."
"I brought you everything you had on the list," Travis said. "Is Chris up yet?"
"No sir he's..."
"I'm here," Chris said as he walked over.
"Here's the passports for Josiah, Nathan and Ezra," Travis said handing Chris a package. "Josiah and Ezra are German and Nathan is from South Africa."
"Fine," Chris said. "Ezra knows German if they try to trip him up."
"They leave 6am tomorrow."
"Ezra's gonna love that," Vin drawled.
"They'll be in country at nine o'clock," Travis continued. "They should be to the ruins by noon."
"Good. Gives the rest of us time to survey the village."
"A car will be around to get the four of you at three o'clock. You'll be flown to an Airforce base in Panama. You'll be able to get some sleep before you make your drop."
"That's fine, sir," Chris nodded.
"Good luck," Travis said as he shook Chris's hand. "Oh, almost forgot. Mary sends her best."
Vin looked at Chris with a smile on his face. Mary was the colonel's daughter-in-law. After the colonel's son was killed in action, Travis looked out for her and his grandson. Chris glared at Vin daring the younger man to say something. This just made Vin laugh which frustrated Chris. Vin was immune to his glares. While they were talking with Travis two boxes had been unloaded and they carried them inside. The others were still asleep and they went into the kitchen.
"Well we know one thing," Vin said as he began to make coffee.
"What's that?" Chris asked as he sat at the table.
"We can't take any early morning missions," Vin said gesturing to the living room.
Chris smiled as Vin busied himself making breakfast. The sniper was a deadly shot and one hell of a cook, Chris decided, after eating his omelet. The only thing Vin wasn't good at was making coffee. He made it so strong a spoon could stand up when let go.
"Something smells good," Buck said as he ambled into the kitchen a half-hour later.
"You snooze you lose," Chris said.
"Well at least there's coffee," Buck said as he poured a mug then took a swig and instantly spit it out. "God! That's awful!"
"That'll teach you to try a little first," Chris laughed.
"What's going on out here?" Josiah asked as he walked in.
"Nothing," Buck said innocently. "Have some coffee."
Chris just shook his head as Buck handed Josiah his mug. Josiah took a sip and pursed his lips.
"Needs a little sugar," Josiah said and sat down at the table.
Vin just laughed and offered to make them omelets. It didn't take long for Nathan and JD to join them. The last to arrive was Ezra.
"Do you heathens know what time it is?" he demanded.
"Yup," Vin replied. "It's time to get up."
Vin stood up so Ezra could take his seat. The sniper made breakfast for Ezra then went back out to finish the horses. Chris's brought everyone up to speed.
"We wouldn't happen to be flying first class?" Ezra asked.
"We're archeologists," Nathan said as if that explained everything.
"I hope Mother never finds out," Ezra sighed dramatically.
"You have a mother?" Buck asked.
"Last I heard you were raised by wolves," Chris teased since he knew about Maude Standish.
"Mother has been called many things, but never a wolf," Ezra said cocking his head. "More like a shark."
JD was surprised at the way Ezra talked about his mom. Ezra saw the look on JD's face and explained that their relationship was rather unique. They spent the rest of the morning hammering out the details of their plan. Chris gave Ezra the passports and tickets. When Ezra opened them and saw he was from Germany, he immediately started talking in German. Chris knew Era would be able to get them past customs. Buck nudged JD and said that Ezra was probably ordering a beer. JD laughed and continued to double-check the communications equipment. When he was satisfied he handed a CD player to Nathan.
"That's the radio so you can contact us," JD explained. "In the right ear piece is a mike."
JD showed Nathan that as he pulled on the metal part of the earpiece it extended into a mic. He told Nathan it was set to their frequency. All he had to do was press the skip button three times in rapid succession and that would activate the radio.
"What if they want me to play it when we get to customs?" Nathan asked.
"No problem," JD smiled as he popped in a CD. He handed the earpiece to Nathan and turned it on.
"Not bad," Nathan said impressed. "Sounds pretty good."
Vin came back from the barn and helped Chris distribute the body armor and weapons they would be carrying for the others. Chris, Buck and Vin would carry the extra weapons and armor. JD would be responsible for the communications equipment only. The four parachuters would wear their body armor to make the jump. Vin had his sniper rifle in a soft-sided case he could carry on his back. Once the equipment was distributed Vin weighed each of the duffel bags so he could set the indicators on the parachutes. Chris watched in satisfaction as Vin efficiently finished the task. When he was done the rest of the morning was spent relaxing. JD was too wired and sat at Chris's computer playing games. Vin couldn't stand being inside any more and went out to the barn. Ezra went over to the apartment to take a long hot shower and to find some solitude. He wasn't used to working in a crowd any more than Vin was. Nathan and Josiah played cards while Buck teased JD mercilessly. Chris joined Vin down at the barn and they took the horses out for an hour. When they got back Vin grabbed a shower while Chris went over a few things with Ezra, Josiah and Nathan. Buck and JD were already dressed in the camouflage uniforms. The two of them were sitting on the couch watching TV. Chris could see JD's hair was wet. Buck must have convinced him to take a shower since there was no telling when they would get the chance again. Vin came back from the apartment and joined JD and Buck on the couch. Chris was the last one to take a shower. When he was finished he came back to the kitchen and Vin handed him a sandwich while they waited for the car. Promptly at three o'clock they heard a car horn beep. They gathered their gear and headed for the door.
"We'll see you tomorrow around noon," Chris said.
"We'll be there," Nathan assured him.
"You have my word on that," Ezra added.
"Via con dios," Josiah said as they piled into the car.
They were taken to an airbase and loaded on a plane. Five hours later they were standing in front of the commander of the Panama airbase. He was not too happy that he was ordered to fly these men over a secret destination.
"This is highly unorthodox," he stated. "I won't have one of my planes fly over unknown territory without knowing why."
"The information is need to know," Chris said coldly. "And you don't need to know."
"If you were under my command I'd have you arrested," the commander said angrily.
"Well I'm not," Chris stated. "You have your orders. Now turn to and show us where we can sack out."
The commander glared at Chris then barked an order to a corporal telling the noncom to show these men to the barracks. As they walked across the base they got strange looks. JD wasn't surprised. They were decked out in body armor, camouflage BDU's and armed to the teeth. The corporal showed them to the building then retreated. Buck laughed as Chris shut the door.
"You really know how to charm them," Buck smiled.
Vin placed his duffel, parachute and weapons next to the cot close to the wall and in sight of the door and windows. He stretched out on the bed and got comfortable. In a few minutes he was asleep.
"How does he do that?" JD asked as he took off his weapons and body armor. "He didn't even take off his armor."
"That's what they teach you in sniper school," Buck laughed. "To sleep anywhere, anyway and with one eye open."
"Vin also knows this might be our last good sleep for a few days," Chris added. "So I suggest you follow his example. We fly out at 0200."
Chris dropped his equipment next to Vin's then lay on one of the cots. JD followed Chris's example but only sat on the bed. He watched Buck unhook his weapons and remove his armor.
"How come you don't sleep in it like them?" JD asked.
"'Cause I like to be comfortable," Buck smiled.
"Nothing," JD stammered as he looked away. "Never mind."
"Yeah, kid, I'm scared too," Buck said.
"You'd have to be stupid not to be," Buck replied. "And I know you're not stupid."
"Why'd you stick up for me?"
"I don't know, Kid," Buck said as he lay back. "You looked like a wet behind the ears punk that needed my guidance."
"You know what Buck? "
"You're full of shit."
"Ain't that the truth," Buck laughed. "Now go to sleep."
Buck watched as JD took off his armor and lay down. He squirmed around until he got comfortable then was quiet. As short time later JD was snoring lightly. Buck turned towards Chris and saw his eyes were open.
"He's right Buck," Chris smiled.
"Y'are full of shit," Vin finished.
Panama 0200 hrs
JD felt his shoulder being shaken. He woke up disoriented as he glanced around. Vin was ready to go and JD noticed his face was covered in camouflage paint. The sniper's blue eyes stood out sharply against the dark colors. Covering his long blonde hair was a dark green bandana. JD got up and buckled on his armor. He noticed Chris wasn't in the room.
"He went to make sure everything was set," Vin said.
"Oh," JD replied as he watched Buck put on the camouflage paint.
"Come here, JD," Vin said. "I'll put on your war paint."
The young man went over and sat next to Vin. Now that he was closer he could see that Vin's paint was done in tiger stripes. The sniper dipped his finger in the black grease paint and applied it to JD's face. After the black was on Vin added some green and smeared the colors together.
"Make sure you cover him good," Buck said. "That lily white skin of his will glow in the dark and give us away."
JD gave Buck the finger as Vin finished what he was doing.
"Least you ain't got to wear a bandana with your dark hair," Vin commented.
Vin helped JD buckle on his parachute. He checked JD's gauges to make sure they were set to the weight he was carrying. While he was checking Buck's chute, Chris came back in.
"We're good to go," Chris said.
Vin helped Chris into his gear then handed out the helmets and small oxygen tanks they would need for the high altitude jump. They grabbed the rest of the gear and followed Chris. A jeep was waiting outside to take them to the plane. They boarded the plane and a short time later it took off. They were in the air for two hours when the pilot told them they were approaching the drop zone. Vin pulled on his helmet and connected the oxygen tank. The small tank hooked to the front harness of the chute. JD thought Vin looked like a giant bug. The helmet was all black with huge lenses covering the eyes. JD pulled his on and was surprised when he could see in the dark. Everything was green and looked eerie. Vin walked to the door and gave everyone a thumbs up as he opened it. Vin waited by the door for the signal from the pilot. When Vin got the signal he turned to them and saluted with two fingers then fell out the door. JD could swear Vin was smiling.
Colombia 0400 hrs
JD watched as Chris disappeared after Vin. He stepped to the door and froze. Everything was pitch black with no point of reference, even with the night vision goggles.
"You'll be okay," Buck said over the radio. JD could hear him clearly inside his helmet. "Just watch your gauges. I'll be right behind you."
JD nodded then took a deep breath and jumped. JD panicked when he couldn't decide which way was up or down. He felt something grab his leg and he yelped.
"Relax, Kid," Buck said. "I got ya, you're okay."
Buck straightened JD out and they stayed together as they fell through the darkness. Buck checked the gauge and saw they were getting to the altitude to open the chutes.
"Almost there," Buck said. "Ready?"
"Ready," JD replied with more confidence then he felt.
"Remember, head for the clearing," Buck said and pushed away from him as he gave JD a thumbs up.
JD watched as Buck pulled his ripcord and went shooting up. He waited a few seconds before he pulled the cord so he wouldn't get tangled with Buck. He pulled the cord and waited for the gut wrenching jerk as the parachute filled with air. Once the chute was open JD lazily drifted towards the ground. As he got closer the night vision goggles, or NVG's as they were called, brought the vegetation into detail. JD saw the clearing and used the guide wires to direct his descent. A short time later he touched down and marveled at the precision of the parachute. He quickly reeled it in and made his way to the edge of the clearing.
"What took you so long?" Vin asked and JD jumped.
"Jesus, Vin, scare me why don't you!"
"Sorry. We're over here."
JD followed Vin deeper into the jungle. When they were all together Vin helped JD out of his chute then helped him bury it. JD could see Vin was already wearing the smaller version of the NVG's and he pulled his out of his pocket. He strapped the harness around his head then clipped the goggles into place. They did a radio check and everything was fine. Vin took a compass reading then checked the map.
"The village is two miles south of us," Vin said. "The ruins are a little over a mile to the east."
"Right, let's head for the village," Chris said. "Vin you take point, Buck you're after him, then JD. I'll watch our six. Everyone stay in visual contact with the person in front of you."
They nodded and moved out.
Colombia 0900hrs, the city of Cordon
Ezra couldn't remember the last time he had such a terrible flight. As soon as the plane leveled off at cruising altitude, a baby two rows back started to scream. Then kept on screaming for the entire flight. When the plane landed in Colombia, Ezra was never so glad to get off. Josiah had ignored the child and slept through the flight. Nathan did his best to ignore the crying but at the end, even he'd become frustrated. Ezra led his unlikely companions towards customs after claiming their luggage. They waited in line until they were called. Ezra handed his passport to the clerk who glanced at it.
"You are German?"
"Ja," Ezra said in a perfect accent.
"State your purpose," the official said in a bored voice.
"We come to explore the ruins of Tocar," Ezra said.
"Where are you from?"
"We are archeologists with the Strasbourg University," Ezra answered.
"He's not German," the agent said indicated Nathan.
"Of course not," Ezra said. "He is a colleague from South Africa."
The official asked no more questions and stamped their papers. Ezra thanked him and they passed through customs. Travis arranged for a truck to get them to the site. They made their way to the rental desk and an hour later they were on their way out of the city.
"Well that was interesting," Ezra said in his familiar southern drawl.
"Just be thankful they didn't stop us," Nathan said. "Do you think the others are okay?"
"I'm sure they are," Josiah answered as he concentrated on maneuvering through the traffic.
"And if they aren't this is going to be a short trip," Ezra added as he closed his eyes. "Now if you will excuse me I will try to regain the sleep I was denied on the plane."
Josiah laughed as Nathan rolled his eyes. The medic pulled out the maps Travis provided and directed Josiah through the traffic. Once out of the city, traffic was less and Josiah increased his speed. It would take them at least three hours to get to the dig site.
Colombia 1030 hrs, outside Indian village
JD was bored. They'd been watching the village since 0600 and nothing was happening. The humidity was rising and JD was getting uncomfortable. Earlier he'd been the main course to every blood-sucking bug. Vin took pity on him and showed him a plant that if you rubbed the leaves on your skin it kept most of the bugs away. Vin also had him crush some of the leaves and stick them in his clothes. JD looked like a walking shrub. Buck teased him but JD didn't care, it helped. He looked through the binoculars at the village and wasn't surprised when all he saw was some people tending the garden. He glanced over at Vin who was dozing under a canopy of lush vegetation. Buck and Chris were a few yards away watching the village from another angle. JD cursed as he slapped his neck.
"They just like you," Vin said quietly.
"Yeah, well, I wish they liked you."
"You just have to ignore them," Vin said with his eyes still closed.
"Yeah, right," JD snorted and turned back to the village. As he watched a truck pulled up inside the ring of buildings. "Hey, Vin."
Vin was instantly alert when he heard the urgency in JD's voice. He came to JD's side and pulled his binoculars out of his pants pocket. They watched as armed men got out of the truck. They went to the nearest hut and went inside. A few minutes later they came out leading some people.
"Chris, you see this?" Vin said keying his mic.
"Yeah, we got it."
Vin could see the hostage's hands were tied and the men pushed them forward. Once they were in the clearing the guards stepped back and watched them. The hostages started walking around and stretching their legs.
"Now we know where they keep them," Vin said.
"Yup," JD nodded as he watched. "Hey are those Russian assault rifles?"
"Yup," Vin said then glanced at his watch. "Good rifles too. Hey Chris, it's about time to head out."
"Let's just see what happens," Chris replied.
The guards let the hostages wander around for fifteen minutes then marched them back inside. Once they were secure the soldiers went over to an elderly man. They were saying something in Spanish but JD didn't understand. The soldier grabbed the old man by the collar and was about to hit him when a young woman stopped him. The guard backhanded her for interfering.
"Bastard," JD growled.
The soldier screamed something then jumped back in the truck. The old man helped the woman to her feet and they watched as the truck drove away.
"Vin could you make out what they said?" Chris asked.
"The soldier complained to the chief that they weren't working fast enough," Vin answered. "Morales wants them to pick the marijuana faster. He also told them if the hostages escape then the villagers were dead."
"How do you know?" JD asked. "They were too far away to hear."
"I can read lips," Vin smiled. "Comes in handy sometimes."
"That just complicated things," Buck said.
"Ya think?" JD said sarcastically.
"Let's get the others," Chris said.
JD gathered the equipment and put it in their packs. Vin scattered leaves and other debris over the area to wipe out any evidence they had been there. JD followed Vin and he was surprised how silent Vin could move. The sniper was a few yards ahead when JD saw him put his fist in the air. JD instantly squatted down and disappeared into the underbrush. He kept and eye on Vin as the sniper looked around. JD got the eerie impression that Vin was stalking something. The fact that his face was painted like a tiger added to the impression. JD was getting nervous wondering what Vin heard. Try as he might he couldn't hear anything besides the noises of the jungle. He didn't have to wonder long when he finally heard rustling. Vin placed a hand on JD's arm to get his attention. JD looked at Vin as he used hand signals. Vin pointed to his eyes signaling he was going to have a look. He then pointed to JD then at the ground. JD nodded that he understood and watched as Vin melted into the jungle. JD tried to make himself as small as possible but he could swear he stuck out like a sore thumb. It felt like an eternity that Vin was gone when JD saw Chris step onto the trail. He wasn't sure if he should stand up. He didn't want Chris to shoot him.
"JD," Buck called quietly.
"Didn't want you to shoot me," JD said standing.
"Where's Vin?" Chris asked glancing around.
"Right here," Vin said materializing beside them.
"Jesus!" Buck exclaimed. "Damn it, Chris! Why'd you pick a walking spook for the team."
"Was checking your back trial," Vin said ignoring Buck. "Y'all make more noise then a herd of elephants."
"Move out," Chris said ending the chatter. "Vin take point. Everyone spread out."
They went in the same order as before with Buck following Vin, than JD and Chris brought up the rear. Chris waited for JD to get five paces ahead of him then ducked under the leaves. They swayed as he passed betraying his departure. Soon the leaves were motionless and any evidence that someone passed was gone.
Ruins of Tocar 1200 hrs
Ezra wandered around the ruins as they waited for Chris and the others. As he walked through the crumbling walls he wondered who had lived here. Ancient things had always interested Ezra since his mother took him on a rare vacation to Egypt. They visited the Valley of the Gods and the great pyramids. His love for archeology was kindled but his mother had other plans for him. What those plans were Ezra still didn't know. Ezra sighed and walked back to the others.
"Find anything interesting?" Josiah asked.
"I'm afraid not," Ezra said sadly. "Alas these ruins have been stripped by fortune hunters."
"Grave robbers have been around for centuries," Josiah said.
"Unfortunately," Ezra sighed.
"Nathan contacted the others," Josiah said. "They'll be here in a little while."
Ezra sat down by the tent and got comfortable. Nathan was fussing with the coffeepot when they heard a noise. They were close to one of the walls and all three of them ducked behind it. After a few minutes they watched Chris walk out of the tree line followed by JD and Buck.
"Where's Vin?" Nathan asked in concern.
"Checking our back trail," Chris said as he got closer.
Vin joined them a few minutes later and Ezra stared at Vin's painted face then glanced at JD. Ezra realized he wasn't seeing things and turned to the younger man.
"I understand Mr. Tanner's painting himself as a tiger seeing as how he likes to stalk his prey," Ezra began. "But why, prey tell, do you have whiskers and a black nose?"
"Huh?" JD asked confused.
Josiah smiled and handed the youngest a mirror. Buck tried to keep from laughing as JD saw his paint job for the first time. The sniper had blackened his nose then gave him three whiskers in black on each cheek. They were then blended with the green but there was no mistaken what he looked like.
"Damn it Vin!" JD cursed. "You painted me like a puppy!"
Buck started laughing and JD got mad. He hit the older man for not telling him. Chris just smiled. He knew all about Vin's wicked sense of humor. Vin was also good at practical jokes. JD was really mad, then realized it was sort of funny. Chris was glad to see that the youngest could take a joke. JD looked in the mirror again and started laughing.
"It is kind of funny," JD smiled.
"Boy, Kid, you don't know how hard it's been not laughing every time I looked at you," Buck said holding his sides.
"No hard feelings?" Vin asked.
"Nah," JD smiled back. "Next time I'll know. My mom always said to look out for the quiet ones."
"Ain't that the truth," Josiah laughed.
"Now that you've had you're fun, let's get back to business," Chris said.
Chris filled the others in on what Vin heard at the Indian village. A heated discussion ensued and Chris finally put his foot down. They were here to rescue the hostages. If they could they would help the villages, but not before their primary objective was achieved. Chris said they would rescue the hostages tonight. Buck and JD moved out a position North of the ruins, Chris and Vin to the East. The other three would remain by the ruins in their archeology roles in case someone came by. Tonight they would earn the money the colonel was paying them.
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