The Call of the Wild

by Annie

Feedback: Oh, please do!

Rating: Uhhh...I guess PG-13 maybe, only because it has a rough word or two here and there.

Main characters: Vin, Ezra, Chris, Buck.

Note: Huge thanks to Judy and Diana. Both helped make this so much fun to write, and read--hopefully--and I can't thank them enough for offering up their much appreciated suggestions and ideas...and for laughing at the right places!

Size: Approx. 250K

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"As if I had any intention whatsoever in ruining my long weekend."

"Like you have plans," Buck teased, because there was no way in hell he was about to let Ezra off that easy. The man had not participated in even one of the team's group vacations together. Never. Nunca. None. Not a one. Buck had no intention of letting him off easy this time, and besides, Buck didn't really believe he had plans, anyway.

"I have plans," Ezra said indignantly, sorry to be having this conversation yet again. "I told you that several times already, just like I'm sure you heard me the first, second and third time I declined the invitation. I am busy. I am not going. I have..."

"Plans," Buck finished.

Ezra nodded. "Yes. Plans."

"Okay, suit yourself. But know this, you are going to miss one wild weekend."

"Wild weekend." Ezra rolled his eyes. "Watching you and our fearless leader sit for hours drinking beer and pretend you're doing something constructive. Hardly what I'd define as wild."

"It's called fishing, Ezra, and--"

"Whatever you want to pretend it to be, it is not for me."

"Vin's going, and he doesn't always fish," Buck added, not about to let Ezra weasel out of it again. He knew the man would have a good time if he came. Ezra just needed that extra nudge.

"And this knowledge is supposed to entice me to come?"

Buck looked incredulous. Does the man know what fun is about? "Well, yeah," he answered honestly. "You know Vin, he'll be up to all kinds of other things you could try. Hiking and rock climbing and..."

One perfectly sculpted eyebrow lifted with a trace of amusement. "Surely you aren't suggesting I would be at all interested in participating in said events. Really, Buck, temperatures are in the mid-nineties now. I hardly relish the idea of baking myself in the great outdoors when, instead, I could be enjoying the soothing hum of my central air conditioner unit while I sit in my enclosed, cooled patio and savor a stem of the finest wine while I peruse the weekend paper." He watched Buck approach and plant himself on the corner of his desk. "Besides, I know Mr. Tanner," Ezra continued with a dismissive flair, "he prefers solitude when performing those athletic feats of his. I would surely be a hindrance in that regard."

"Aw, c'mon, Ez," Buck was almost pleading. It would do Ezra a world of good to come play with them sometime. "Vin 'd love to have you along, and he can teach you what you don't know."

"I hardly think so," Ezra scoffed, "and besides, between the enormous amounts of junkfood our Mr. Tanner will surely be inhaling and whatever injury he will sustain--and he will sustain some injury, mark my words--he will surely not want my audience while he lays up somewhere to recover. Not to mention, cooped up with a cranky Vin for an extended weekend is hardly my idea of a good time. Adventurous as you make it sound."

"Well, I'd like you to come. Chris and Vin would, too."

"Not interested."

"So, what are y' saying here, Ez?"

Ezra sighed, fingers rubbing lightly at his brow. "Am I not speaking English? All right, listen up. I. Am. Not. Going."

"You sure?"


"It's gonna be fu-un."

"I have..."

Buck smiled, hands held up in concillatory fashion. "Yeah. I know. You have plans."

"I do."


+ + + + + + +

Two months. Two months he had waited for this, waited for this three day weekend, and now it was here and he was packed--had been packed for a week--his lucky fishing vest, his lucky fishing hat, his lucky fishing lure, all tucked safely away and ready to go...

And now this.

But what choice did he have?

None. No choice. Did he have a choice? He did not.

Surely the others would understand given the circumstances...surely they would see his predicament. Surely they wouldn't be...mad.


Oh, hell, you're just a big ol' dumbass chickenshit and you know it, Wilmington, he told himself ruefully. Just pick up the phone and make the call. They were friends. They'd understand.


With an inhale hopefully born of stalwart resolution, he dialed the number and grit his teeth.

"You're what? You're doin' what now? What the hell y' mean you ain't comin' Bucklin'?"

The phone sounded like it was dropped and then another voice came on the line and so far Buck hadn't had to say much at all, the others filling in the pieces of conversation with as many expletives as he'd heard in quite some time.

"This had better be some funny haha on your part, Wilmington."


"Jesus, Buck. We've had the reservation for weeks now. Months."

"I know Chris, but--"

"I know. I know. Don't tell me. You haven't seen her in over a year. She only comes to the US once in a blue moon. At some point you actually considered thinking of maybe, possibly, taking the plunge and asking her to move in with you once upon a time and damn, if you're going to let seeing her pass you by. That about right? Anything else I might've missed?"

"Uh, well, no, that pretty much sums it up."

"Jesus, Buck. I hope you know what you're doing."

"Chris, if it'd been anybody but Kerry, you know I'd be right with you guys."

"Yeah, we know," Chris said and Buck heard the phone drop again. Vin's raspy voice came on the line. "You're not gettin' a refund, y' know."

"I know. I know. Hey, listen," Buck had a flash, "the place's all paid for, right? I got an idea...

+ + + + + + +

"Only upon completion of requisition form no. 45982-gfb-00386v may form no. D458783-prf be submitted. If form no. 45982-gfb-00386v is not available, form no. 45982-tbr-14390S and form no. J6672-R23x may be submitted, however form no. D458783-prF will then be replaced by form no. 45982-tos-04678T, each submitted in duplicate, and only after completing form XB-12208S." Ezra groaned while reading aloud, then threw the papers and forms onto his desk with a huff of complete disgust.

"This your big plans?" A decidedly Texas accent broke through his concentration and Ezra turned abruptly hearing the unexpected voice. Vin and Chris were standing side by side, both staring at him and both shaking their heads.

How could he have not heard them? "What?" He didn't mean it to sound as defensive as it did.

"Shit, Ezra. If this is yer idea of a fun weekend, I'd hate to see what you do durin' the holidays."

For a moment he sat there, eyes shifting from the papers scattered across his desk, paperwork needing to be done yet certainly not demanding to be, and then looking up to the two men grinning down at him.

"Why are you here?" Ezra asked, immediately on the defensive. Something was wrong with this picture. The weekend had already begun, JD off for the long weekend with Casey and her aunt, Nathan and his wife, Rain, had left that morning on a flight to California, Josiah was involved in some retreat somewhere and, as far as he had known, Chris, Vin and Buck were traipsing off into the woods for some back-to-nature fishing and whatever else people did when they felt the need to commune with Mother Nature.

No one was supposed to be in the office.

Why they were suddenly both here, staring at him, was odd...and it struck him then, and he sighed tiredly, dismissing both men with a wave. "Buck isn't here. I haven't seen him. Try that doughnut place he likes to frequent down the street."

Chris gave Vin a look, then moved to Ezra's desk and shifted forward, one hand braced as he leaned close to Ezra. "We know where Buck is. That's not why we're here."

"It's not?" Could have fooled him, Ezra thought. He was sure the three were to have left already that morning. "What? Forget a can of worms in the refrigerator or something?"

"Y'ain't foolin' nobody," Vin said softly as he also moved to lean on Ezra's desk. He fingered a clear glass prism and lifted it to twirl in his fingers, smiling as it caught the light.

Ezra grabbed the paperweight from Vin's hands and set it back down. "There is something, then, that you need?"

"Yeah, Ezra. You."

Suddenly he felt like the cornered mouse in a cat show. They looked as though they were leering. "Ah," he started, voice cracking and he started again, wondering what in the world they were up to and finding himself strangely at a loss for words. "Ah..."

Vin swept the papers into a pile, stood and grasped Ezra by the arm. "You ain't got no plans."

"I beg your pardon..."

"And you're not working all weekend," Chris finished and moved to Ezra's other side, both men now propelling Ezra toward the door.

"I'm not?"

"Nope. You're comin' with us."

"With you?" Wait a minute...

"Yep," Vin was saying, completely ignoring Ezra's protests, "see, Buck's plans changed and we got us a sudden vacancy..."

"Vacancy." Oh, no.

"And since you've been working awfully hard lately..." Chris added and Ezra's stomach dropped. He was getting a bad feeling about this.

"Chris and me decided you needed some fresh air."

"Chris and I," Ezra corrected.

Vin gave him a hard stare, ignoring him as he continued, "Okay, all of us," he stressed, "are making sure you're comin' along."

Bad feeling. A very bad feeling. "Where...where are we going?"

Wide grins shined brightly into his eyes and a sense of dread filled his veins. "Not camping," he groaned softly. Had he not been through this already? "Look, I told Buck I was not interested..."

"Yeah, well. So we heard. Deep down, though, we figger you really wanted to come. And Buck ain't comin' so..."

"You're taking his place," Chris stated and both men escorted Ezra to the parking lot.

"And we're all gonna have fun," Vin finished.

Ezra's stomach sank. Camping. "Oh, lucky me."

+ + + + + + +

Two hours later and he was packed and waiting in front of his building, not at all convinced the weekend wasn't going to be a total disaster.

A battered Jeep pulled up and Chris and Vin climbed out and Ezra's doubts doubled.

"I thought you said you were driving," Ezra said pointedly to Chris, hands on hips.

"I'm driving," Vin offered.

Ezra glared at Chris. "I was under the assumption we would be traveling in your truck."

Chris shook his head.

"I'm driving," Vin said again.

"This is not the arrangement I was told to expect. I distinctly remember being told you were to drive."

"I'm driving," Vin added yet again. No one was paying a scant bit of attention to him but he didn't care. He was just happy to be driving.

"He's driving," Chris said nodding in Vin's direction.

"So I've surmised. And the problem?" Ezra asked of Chris, not at all happy with the circumstances. He couldn't stand the idea of being stuck riding in the back of the blowing, noisy tin can Vin called transportation.

"Problem was...he lost," Vin chimed in happily. He picked up Ezra's suitcase and shoved it into the back of his Jeep, groaning loudly under the weight. "Jesus, Ezra. Whaddaya got, everything y' own in here?"

"I believe in traveling prepared," Ezra said without turning his eyes from Chris. "Lost what?"

"Prepared? Prepared for what?" Vin asked, though still he was being ignored. No matter. He slid Ezra's hang-up bag into the back seat on top of the suitcase and shook his head at Ezra's needing the garment bag in the first place.

"Bet," was all Chris said.

"And the wager?" Ezra asked, curious enough to pause as he climbed into the back of the vehicle.

"None of your damn business," Chris muttered and Ezra glanced to Vin who was nodding enthusiastically, his eyes dancing.

"He bet--" Vin's words were quickly cut off when Chris' hand covered his mouth and a low whisper entered his ear.

"Say one more word, Tanner, and you'll be riding strapped to the top of your own Jeep."

Vin's eyes relaxed back to normal as he nodded and watched Chris then slide into the shotgun seat. He climbed into the driver's seat and winked to Ezra in the rearview, mouthing the promise, 'Tell ya later.'

Ezra rolled his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

It wasn't any one particular conversation that Chris could later remember that had begun to set his nerves so on was a culmination of the entire ride getting out of Denver...

"You really eat them things?"

"Actually, I think I'm rather addicted to them."

"An' you really like 'em?"

"Well, yes. I know they're a bit strong for a mint, but I can't seem to stop."

"Lemme see that box. Curiously strong. What the hell's that mean?"

"It means, you won't like them. Hand them over."

"Y' know, maybe I ought to start sucking on those instead of smoking."

"Well, Mr. Larabee. What a novel idea! Now, where might I have heard that before, do you suppose?"

"Sarcasm won't get you a turn in the front seat, Ezra. And okay, so I know you all have made that suggestion before...just, now maybe I'm ready to give up my cigars. Let me have one, Ezra. I could go for a mint."

"I could go for a Big Mac."

"Surely you jest."

"Jesus, Vin, you just ate two Egg McMuffins a half-hour ago." Not to mention, Chris remembered, hash browns, a biscuit and several glasses of orange juice all topped by a chocolate shake. Vin had ordered the smallest size, stating he didn't want to drive on a full stomach.

"Well, I'm hungry."

"When are you not hungry?"

"When I'm eatin'."

"Have you ever been checked for a tapeworm?"

"Y'now, Ezra, it's an awful long walk back to your apartment from here."

"I'm merely suggesting perhaps there is medical explanation as to why you have this apparent bottomless pit syndrome."

"I'm just hungry."

"You're always hungry. Here, have a mint."

+ + + + + + +

"There! Again. You did it again!"

"What? I ain't doin' a thing."

"You are. You're doing that thing with your...see? You just did it again!"

"I didn't do nothin', Ezra. What am I doin?"

"You're blinking at me, just to be annoying."

"What? Just somethin' got in my eye is all."

"Somethin' got in my eye," Ezra mimicked, much to the annoyance of Chris. "Something in your eye, my ass--"

"I ain't interested' in your ass," Vin smirked.

"Really? Could've fooled me the way you keep winking at me in the mirror."

"Winking at you."

"Yes. Just to be annoying..."

"Guess y' hadn't noticed here, Ez, but I'm kinda busy driving. Don't think I got time to be makin' eyes at you."

"You did. Three times. I saw you in the mirror."


"Yes. Wink. And I'm finding it...annoying."

"I'm finding you both annoying," Chris hissed.

"You're full a shit, Ez. Why would I be winkin' at you? Hell, you ain't even that cute."

Ezra turned to Chris, finding the back of the man's head shaking. Was he laughing? He flicked the back of Chris's ear. "Find this amusing, do you?"

"Actually, no," Chris said, hoping the two of them would just shut up. Forty-five minutes into the drive and they were already acting like a couple of kids. "And if you do that to my ear again, Ezra, you really will be walking the rest of the way."

"You were laughin'," Vin stated, giving Chris a fixed stare.

"Watch the road," Ezra warned.

"Well, I'm not laughing now," Chris said firmly.

"You were, though. Your head was shakin'."

"Vin. Watch the road."

"I am watching the road."

Chris shook his head. "Believe me, I am not laughing. Just...stop making eyes at Ezra."

"I wasn't doin' no such--"

"And Ezra, stop staring at Vin's eyes in the mirror."

"As if," Ezra huffed, giving voice to one of JD's favorite phrases.

+ + + + + + +

"It's hot in here." And it was, which was no surprise considering it had to be near 95 degrees outside. "Mr. Tanner, if you'd be so kind..."

"Problem, Ez?"

"I think he wants you to turn up the air conditioning."

"I could open up the back. Take off the top."

"No thank you. I don't relish the idea of becoming the dog with its head out the window. Just turn up the air."

"Uh... I'd have t' turn it on first and--"

"You do have air conditioning? Mr. Tanner? Vin?"

"I do...I did. I mean, it was workin' okay 'couple days ago..."

+ + + + + + +

"It's my car."

"Yes, but I'm also riding in it."


"So. That infernal--noise--is setting my teeth on edge."

"Ain't noise."

"Oh, I think I have to agree with Ezra on this one, Vin."

"You see?"

"Ain't my problem y'all got no taste in music."

"Music? Music? You couldn't possibly be referring to that unholy sound...that caterwauling...that horrible screeching emanating from your radio." "Ha. Ha. Ha."

"Now, if you'd just be so kind as to shut it..."

"You touch that again 'n' you'll lose that finger."

"Resorting to violence now, are we? Come, come , Mr. Tanner..."

"How about I just turn it off altogether."

"It's my car, Larabee."

"My ears."

"My sanity."

"Okay, fine. Y' just turn it off then."

Immediate silence filled the air...

"Reckon I can just sing."

...followed by the soft click of a car radio being turned back on.

"Thought y'all might see it my way, it bein' my car an' all."

+ + + + + + +


Ezra looked at the back of the long hair in front of him and frowned. 'Woodchuck' he blurts out of the blue. It was as though the man's brain flew out the window at times. "Mr. Larabee..."

"Ezra, enough. We're not at the office, we're not on assignment. Can't you just call me Chris."

"Fine. Chris. I wanted to ask you about this new departmental procedure for the claiming of expenses."

"Oh, yeah. It's been changed."

"So I've discovered," Ezra said solemnly, thinking of the forms piled on his desk that proved it. "I thought using the original form was bad enough, but now--"


"Now, they've changed the one form to something out of Hell, itself," Chris finished for him, thoroughly agreeing with Ezra's complaints over the government's red tape procedures. "Now you have to get two forms or--"

"Oh, don't I know it. It was hard enough to find both those forms, too. I had to go down to our personnel department and get that woman...what's her name?"

"Who?" Chris asked, "the redhead or the one Buck's been hitting on the past three weeks."


"Three weeks? You mean Buck hasn't succeeded in dating the both of them yet? Surely he wouldn't miss that opportunity."

"Last I heard, Buck was after the blond. I'm pretty sure the redhead dropped him like a hot potato last month."

"Well that explains why I couldn't gain her attention, then. And speaking of Buck, you've not yet explained just where the company Romeo is for the weekend, and how I became the oh, so lucky recipient of his vacation plans."

"He had a date."

"You're joking."

Chris glanced to the rear of the Jeep.

"You're not joking," Ezra amended himself. "A date. Guess that would be the only thing to tear him away from basking in the marvels of these great outdoors."

Chris just looked at him.

"Sorry. Just couldn't help myself. I am sure this will turn out to be a simply splendid vacation out in the wild and wooly."


"Speaking of wild and wooly," Ezra commented and he and Chris turned to Vin. "Just what are you going on about?"


"Animals. And you're announcing this selection of assorted fauna because..."

Vin was smiling. "I keep spottin' 'em while we drive. Just thought I'd let y'all know when we pass by 'em. I got good eyes, y' know."

"Well, see if you can't keep them on the road."

"I am watching the road."

"Anyway, Chris. I filled out the first form and--"


"Good heavens," Ezra rolled his eyes. It was going to be a long drive to the cabin. And, with that, he said a little prayer of thanks for the fact there was a cabin and not just some lean-to set up in the middle of nowhere. Life was miserable enough without having to make it more so by sleeping on the cold ground for days at a time. Camping...sheesh. "How are these accommodations, anyway?"

"Paper I got says they're real nice, Ez," Vin said confidently.

"Indoor plumbing?"


"Running water?"


"Hot running water?"




Didn't sound too bad, Ezra thought. "How did you find this place, anyway?"

"Buck brought up the idea to go fishing, and then Vin and I started looking at places until Vin stumbled across this one up in--"




"No. I'm sorry. You did not see a bear," Ezra said, peering hard out the back of the Jeep.

"I did," Vin told him.


"No, Chris. I did see a bear."

"A bear. By the side of the road," Ezra added skeptically. Right. A bear.

"Sure did."

"You did not."

"Ezra, I did. Right back there. Not my fault you two was just gabbin' away and missed it."

"There was no bear," Ezra stated firmly. "I would have seen it."

"Y' just don't know how t' look is all," Vin told him and Ezra began to protest when Chris interrupted.

"Ezra. Leave it."

"You believe he saw a bear?"

Vin glanced at Chris who was suddenly pinching the bridge of his nose. "Got a headache comin' on there, pard?" Vin asked him and grinned. "Gettin' old 'll do that to ya, I hear."

"You do tread on shaky ground, Mr. Tanner."

"I'm not that old, Vin," Chris growled.

"Eyes are the first to go, so they say. Guess'n that's why y' didn't spot the bear."

Chris wanted to deck him.

"There is no way you saw a bear," Ezra stated. "I simply do not believe that."

"There was a bear, Ezra. Big as life. Bigger, even."

"You don't say," Ezra said sarcastically. This was getting absurd. Even if Vin had seen a bear, which was highly unlikely he was sure, then truly Ezra would have seen it as well, he was convinced.

"Just forget it, Ezra," Having already traveled this road with Vin before, and not about to venture down it's brutal path again, Chris hoped Ezra would take his advice and drop it. Vin did have keen eyes and Chris already lost one bet today due to that sharp eyesight.

"No, Chris," Vin cut in, "he don't believe me. I saw the damn bear, Ezra."


"Y' wanna make a little wager on that, Ez?"

"Ahh. Wager. Music to my ears. Okay, Vin. I'll take this bet. Now how shall we prove that the bear--" His words cut short when the Jeep lurched to one side as Vin cranked the wheel to turn it completely around.

"Oh no," Chris moaned as they headed back the way they came, apparently in search of the bear. Fortunately, the road was remotely traveled. No other traffic was in sight.

"No, no, Chris. This is in the bag," Ezra said smiling and running his tongue quickly over his gold tooth, his little version of rubbing the Buddha's belly for luck. "And you believe this bear will still be frolicking by the side of the road, I take it?" A small niggling doubt tickled his brain. But, no, he told himself, there had been no bear. He looked and would have seen it had it been there. Vin smiled in the rear-view and Ezra smiled back. He'd call the bluff. "How much?" Like taking candy from a baby.

"No money."

"No money? Not a monetary reward?" He knew it. A bluff. Of course Vin wouldn't want to bet any monies, he was about to lose. "All right, all right, so what then shall be the stakes of the wager?" he asked Vin.

"Biggest bedroom," Vin said.

"Hey," Chris protested, "I'm not involved in this. You can't go betting off the biggest room between the two of you."

"I accept the conditions," Ezra said succinctly.

"Oh no," Chris quickly informed them, "You two aren't betting away the bed I'm sleeping in. Bet something else."

"Who elected you papa bear with the biggest bed?" Vin wanted to know.

"I'm the oldest," Chris told him and Vin shook his head about to protest when Chris cut him off, "and, I'm your boss."

"And I'm the next eldest," Ezra said, happily staking position if things were about to be parceled out based on longevity. He turned and grinned at Vin. "I guess that makes you baby bear with the broken bed."

"It was a broken chair in the story. The bed was just right."

"Oh, well, good. Then you should be satisfied with whatever you end up with."

"Least I'd get the girl."

"No one's getting anything until Vin turns this thing around the right direction," Chris told them.

"First, the bear," Ezra said. No way had Vin spied an actual bear...but he was wary of what Vin was doing. The wiry tracker had to have some sort of con going on to push the bet this far.

"What're we bettin' then," Vin asked, and Chris just shook his head at the glint in the man's eyes. Vin was enjoying this far too much.

"How about who'll do the dishes?"

"All the dishes?"

"Ever' last one."

"Er, dishwasher?" Ezra asked hopefully.

"Now you're just getting' greedy," Vin smiled and Ezra shook his head. He supposed he should be thankful for the hot running water.

Vin turned the Jeep sharply again across the grassy median and pulled over to the shoulder, grinning triumphantly. Ezra looked around but saw nothing in the way of roaming wildlife.

"No bear."

"Open your eyes, Ez. Y'ain't getting' any younger neither, I reckon," Vin said and grinned. "Maybe y'all could get a group discount on bifocals."

"What are you prattling on about?"

Vin pointed out the windshield. "Bear."

And there, big as life--no, bigger, even, just as he'd said--on an enormous billboard that Ezra had not even glanced at the first time around, was a bear...with a hat...and he was warning against forest fires.

"This is the bear?"

"The very one."

"This signage is your bear."

"Big as life."

"Well then, I win."

"Like hell you do," Vin protested and pointed to the billboard looming overhead. "Chris, is that a bear?"

"Looks like a bear to me," Chris said without looking up. He just wanted to get on the road, how was it these two could find the most remote things to argue about?

"Looks like a parks services announcement to me," Ezra quipped.

"It's got a bear on it. I said I saw a bear. That there's a bear. I win," Vin stated, not about to let Ezra weasel his way out of the bet.

"I think not."

"It's a bear!"

"It's an icon. A symbol. A logo."

"It's got fur."

"Painted fur."

"It's a bear!"

"It's a picture of a bear. A facsimile. It cannot breathe. It cannot see. It cannot bite."

"I can bite."

"That's enough," Chris snapped, his head pounding and not at all interested in this ridiculous argument. "Let's just head on and get to where we're going, shall we?"

"Well, he's doin' all the dishes."

"I'm doing no such thing."

"Will you two just shut it? Christ, you're worse than Buck and JD."

Ezra was aghast. "I beg to differ."

"Jeeze, Chris, that was just low." Vin pulled the Jeep back onto the road and they headed down the highway. "Who put a burr under your blanket, anyhow?"

Chris closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. ""

+ + + + + + +

The past half hour of the ride had been the most enjoyable so far, Chris decided. Ezra had drifted off to a light sleep in the backseat, and Vin pretty much was concentrated on driving to where they were going, and so all in all things were quiet. Peaceful. The silence was sheer bliss.

And not to last.

The engine shuddered a few strangely familiar times and Vin glanced down. "Oh, shit," came his cry at the same time a startling bang was heard and the Jeep began to buck.

"Take cover!" Ezra yelled in confusion from the backseat, having been awakened abruptly by the unexpected noise.

"Back fire," Vin yelled back and got the Jeep back under control where it ran smoothly for another few feet or so, then just up and died right there on the shoulder. It groaned as if to say, 'thank you for the rest'.

Vin sat staring out the windshield for a moment, shaking his head, and then turned to face Chris.

"Oh no," Chris muttered, taking in and knowing instantly that look plastered on Vin's face. "Don't you tell me--"


"No, don't say it--"

"Ain't my fault, you know."

"Shit, Tanner." As if the past few hours spent listening to Vin and Ezra bicker like a couple of kids hadn't been grating enough...Chris was pissed now and staring out the window at the darkening sky. He shook his head. This was just all so typically Vin. He almost hoped it was just some big pratical joke he and Ezra had cooked up for their idea of fun. Then again, he knew better. Things like this were a constant if Vin and Ezra were involved. "Shit," he repeated.

"I would be most grateful if I could be informed as to the exact problem?" Ezra asked, not at all liking the expressions he was seeing on the faces of his traveling companions.

"We're dead in the water," Vin said flatly.

Ezra huffed. "So I gather. Can't you just get out and...fix it?"


Ezra waited for more but instead found himself listening to a most heavy expanse of silence. Neither man in the front was looking at one another. Or at him. And nobody was smiling. In fact, Chris was positively smoldering. Ezra gently prodded Vin for more information. "You could fix it...but..."

"He forgot to fill up the tank," Chris said between clenched teeth.

"I'm sorry?" Ezra was sure he'd misunderstood. This was just not happening.

"He. Forgot. To. Fill. Up. The. Tank."

And there it was.

Where he wanted to rant at Vin until tomorrow about how he didn't really want to be here in the first place and how could anyone be so idiotic as to not fill the gastank before a long journey, Ezra, instead, quelled the outburst bubbling just below the surface and thought for a long, calming moment before pulling out his cell phone. "No matter," he said softly, "I'll just call my auto service club." He flipped open the phone and stared at the screen.

"No service," Chris said aloud having already checked his own phone as Ezra read those exact words on his.

"This is unbelievable."


Ezra scowled. There were times when Vin could be so frustratingly closed-mouthed. He muttered tight-lipped to the back of the man's head, "And your solution to this little problem is..."

"Hell if I know," Vin stated and Ezra wanted to smack him silly, because Ezra knew he didn't get dragged out here for this back to nature weekend against his will, mind you, only to find himself stuck on a relatively deserted road with the sun sinking rapidly toward the horizon in a car with no gas! It was a joke, some desperate little attempt by that damned sharpshooter to get Ezra riled...and wouldn't this be so like Vin to find it all just oh, so amusing. "You can't possibly be telling me we we've merely run out of gas when you knew we were traveling this distance?"

Vin laughed shakily. "Real coincidence, ain't it?"

Nonono. Ezra's palms itched to wrap around the man's scrawny neck. "I'm not finding this the least bit amusing. So you tell me right now this is all one huge practical joke offered up at my expense because--"

"I'm sorry," Vin finally spoke up and had the grace, at least, to sound sincerely apologetic, "I wasn't expectin' to be drivin'' my gas gauge ain't worked right for coupl' a months now, an' JD'd borrowed it for a long while yesterday on account his bike's in the shop again, an' I just didn't think on it maybe bein' empty when we left the city this morning what with all the excitement."


"Well, me driving. I wasn't expectin' to...and I'm...I'm sorry."

"You're sorry," Ezra said flatly. He turned to look at Chris who still hadn't turned his own gaze from outside the windshield. "He's sorry he says. The man says he's sorry."

"So I heard," Chris answered stiffly. "I knew I should've driven."

"But you lost, 'member?" Vin reminded him and then thought better of pressing that point home when he caught the steel glint of Chris's eyes. And then he remembered..."Hey! We're in luck!" He dug in his pockets for a second before pulling out empty, then remembered and reached over to rummage as well through the glove compartment. He pulled out a folded square of paper and a key and grinned.

"Oh. You're smiling. You've somehow remembered a secret stash of gasoline you've hidden in there, perhaps?" Ezra's sarcasm was ignored as Vin unfolded the paper and smoothed it flat.

"What is that?"

Vin held up the paper to show the others. "This here is the key to the cabin...and a map the owners sent me of the whole area. It's got all the hhiking trails around here marked." He peered at the paper. "See? Look here, it shows the highway down here on this corner..." Vin scanned the woods outside.

"Scouting for another bear, perhaps?"

"I think we ain't that far from this trail here," Vin said, ignoring Ezra and pointing to a squiggly line on the crumpled paper. Ezra shook his head but Vin continued, "An' this other one it connects to looks like it leads to our cabin, that blue square right there."

Ezra sat back in the seat. He looked from Chris, now studying the map, and then back to Vin who was grinning happily. "Surely you're not suggesting we go traipsing into this unknown jungle," he gestured to the woods lining both sides of the road, "and commence a blind search for this supposed cabin in the wood."

"C'mon, Ez," Vin was getting a bit excited now. He loved hiking and this was going to be a challenge. "It'll be fun."

"I'm sorry. It sounded as though you just said, 'fun'."

Chris sighed and opened his door, knowing there was no alternative to Vin's suggestion. They would have to find the place on foot. He hoped there would be a phone at the end of the trail. A stocked bar, too. And if luck had it and he happened across a gun, well...who'd really blame him for shooting one annoying Texan? He looked at Ezra and sighed. "Yeah, he did. He said fun."

"Oh," Ezra replied, nodding his head as he climbed out of the back of the Jeep, "just wanted to be sure. I'd hate to think I was partaking in all this fun and failing to recognize that fact."

+ + + + + + +

"Y'ain't bringin' all that!"

Ezra looked at the garment bag he held in his hand. "Well, I most certainly am not leaving it behind."

"Ezra," Chris began, finding himself as stunned as Vin on this matter, "we got a ways to walk according to the map. No way are you going to want to lug your clothes all the way there."

"Have you any idea just how much money this luggage alone costs? I have no intention of abandoning my wardrobe for it to be plundered and pilfered by any passers-by."

"You gotta be kiddin' me, right?" Vin looked around at the still area. "Ain't no one but us out here right now."

"Please, don't remind me," Ezra said and unzipped his garment bag. He pulled out a lightweight jacket and draped it over one arm. "Alright, then. Fine. I'll leave the bag. Now let us proceed."

"Y'ain't seriously takin' that. Shit, Ez, y' don't see me carryin' my clothes around."

"Mr. Tanner--Vin--there is cotton flannel and then there is cashmere." As though that explained it all. Ezra shook out the jacket and redraped it over his arm. The suede and cashmere jacket was the perfect weight for cooler nights up in the mountains, he'd bought it on a trip to Europe and was loathe to leave it behind. Bad enough he had to leave behind the rest of his clothing, he was not about to leave this.

Vin slugged his backpack over his shoulder and watched Chris do the same. They trekked toward the woods looking for an entry. Vin scanned the map and found the road they traveled on and the correct mile marker where they'd abandoned the Jeep. He pointed to the dense trees. "Looks to be the trail's this way, maybe half a mile or so straight into the woods and we oughtta run right into it."

"Let's do it, then," Chris said and headed into the woods, glad to know he had a good-sized flashlight tucked into his pack. Light was fading in the late afternoon, and would even more so once they were under the cover of the trees.

"And how well is this trail marked?" Ezra wanted to know. Wanted to know, too, just how long it would take to come upon this cabin.

"Map says here it's a double blue hash mark to follow. And only about seven miles into the trail it'll dump us out pretty near the cabin."

"Seven miles? Why don't we follow the nicely paved, smooth road, instead of trekking through the wilderness pretending we're the descendants of Davey Crockett."

"Hey, I used t' have one of those hats when I's a kid."

"How nice for you I'm sure."

"Damn. I loved that hat."

"It just seems to me the road would make for a much nicer, not to mention, easier, walk."

"Yeah, well it ain't seven miles if y' follow the road."

"He's right," Chris explained after studying the map he'd snatched from Vin, "the road apparently takes us up and around, then cuts back in. It's nearly twice what it'd be if we just cut through the woods and then follow the trail on the map Vin's got."

Ezra sighed. How in the world he was here and not in his apartment savoring a lively Pinot Noir was beyond him. Somehow this was all Buck's fault. He sighed again and nodded toward the trees. "Lead on then, Davey."

+ + + + + + +

"You know, Ez...I'm really glad you came along."

"I beg your pardon?" Ezra had heard the words but...what...

Vin looked at Ezra for a moment then shrugged and turned back to continue to lead them through the thick trees. He knew what it was like to hold doubts about people and he really was glad Ezra had finally agreed to join them. Vin spoke again over his shoulder. "I just...I just thought it'd be nice t' have y' come along is all. I mean, you ain't never come along on a vacation before. Just wanted to let you know I'm glad you're here."

A blast of warmth flowed through Ezra's veins at the words. Warmth of friendship. Words his mother had always said to him came rushing back in his ears. 'Friends are overrated, Ezra', she'd said, 'do for yourself and you'll always be better off.' Relying on oneself had been the only way he'd known, the only way he'd lived for so long...until...

He stumbled over a root. "Well, call me an idiot, but I suppose it never occurred to me before just how much fun I might be missing by not coming."

Vin laughed out loud. "Guessin' you're just an idiot then."

"I am my mother's son," Ezra sighed.


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