The Call of the Wild

by Annie

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It took no time at all walking straight through the trees in search of a trail before nerves began to unravel...began to fray...began to fester...

"Whose idea was this trip in the first place?"


"I could just throttle him for this."

"Hell, Ezra. You ain't happy 'less'n you're in some four star resort."

"Five, actually. And I'm here, am I not?"

"Only 'cause we dragged you along."

"Kicking and screaming."

"Oh, please, Mr. Larabee. Chris. I was not screaming, I was merely expressing a few remaining doubts about my participation in this little back to nature jaunt...and deservedly so, as I now see."

"You ain't findin' this to be fun, I'm guessin'?"

"Let's just say I'm finding it all to be utterly...predictable."

"Nah, this ain't predictable. This is adventure, Ez!"

"You know, Mr. Tanner, if you're feeling left out, I'll be more than happy to throttle you, too!"

"Ain't gonna get you to the cabin any faster."

"No. But it would make me feel better."

"Well...long 's you're havin' fun."

"Fun. There's that word again."

"Aw, hell, Ez. By the time we hike through these woods an' get to the cabin, you'll be thinkin' you're havin' the time of your life."

"Oh, Lord, I can hear the dueling banjos now."

"Squeal like a pig, Ezra."

"That is not funny. Do you see me laughing? I don't find that the least bit amusing, Mister Larabee, not the least bit."

+ + + + + + +

"Hold up. I'm sure the trail's thisaway."

"You're sure?"

"I'm sure."

"You said that a while ago."

"Well, I'm sure now."

"Lord I hope so. Seems we've been walking for hours."

"Ezra, it's only been forty minutes."

"Try twenty."

"Twenty minutes. Is that all? Does feel like hours."

"Well let me assure you, it's been the longest twenty minutes of my life."

"Okay, hold on...uh...this way...yep. It's this way."

"You know, you've said that three times now."

"An' have I steered us wrong yet?"

"Well now, I wouldn't know considering we haven't come to any place I've ever been before."

"Sure could use a beer."

"I could use a martini."

"Here, I got a twinkie."

"That ain't exactly a beer, Vin."

"No, but it's still mighty tasty."

"Why? Is it so old now it's fermented?"

"Twinkies don't get old, Mr. Larabee, twinkies are ageless, oblong shaped, petrified lumps of indestructible preservatives. Oh, I know! Perhaps we ought to leave a trail of twinkie crumbs so we may find our way out later in the event we become lost...that is, if Mr. Tanner here can spare to part with a bit of it."

"I ain't gonna get us lost, dammit."

"Please. You just don't want to give up your twinkie."

"Well I ain't sharin' now, if that's what you're after."

"Believe me, I am not. Now, you're positive the trail is in here somewhere."

"I got the map, Ez. Says here the trail runs parallel with the highway, alls we gotta do is cut through the woods straight on and we have ta run smack into it. No way we can miss."

"You've been saying that for an hour and a half."

"Forty minutes."


"Feels like eternity."

"Gee, Ez, I get the impression you still ain't enjoyin' this."

"Why, whatever could have tipped you off?"

"Y' know, if y' just loosened up a bit, took that stick out yer ass, you might just end up havin' some fun."

"I resent that."

"Knock it off you two and just look for the next marker."

"You're quite positive we're headed the right direction?"

"Does a bear shit in the woods?"

"Well," Ezra said tightly after peering down at his shoes, "apparently something does."

+ + + + + + +

"I have a blister."

"My blister has a blister."

"Must you?"


"Must you feel compelled to comment on every thing I say?"

"Just talkin' about my own blisters...don't got a thing to do with you."



"Doesn't have a thing to do with me."

"Then why you makin' such a stink about it, Ez?"

"Do you practice being this irritating at home?"

"Nahhh, reckon I just come by it natural."

"Christ, I wish I'd brought my gun."

"You sayin' something there, Chris?"

"Not a word, Vin, not a word."

+ + + + + + +

Mile after mile after mile...

"We've passed this way already."


"I distinctly remember having passed that tree at least once."

"Ezra, you're fuckin' delirious," Vin scoffed and pressed them forward. "It ain't the same tree."

"Isn't the same tree," Ezra corrected, about at his wit's end. He was convinced that half the time Vin chose his assault on the language on purpose just to annoy him. Did the man never open a book?

"Good. That settles it, then."

"Settles nothing," Ezra protested, "No settling, whatsoever. I wasn't agreeing with you, I was merely pointing out the small fact that..." Ezra paused, striking and killing an enormous mosquito on his cheek," that we have apparently been walking in circles the past hour."

"We're not going in circles, Ezra," Chris said softly through clenched teeth. He was pretty sure he now had a good idea of what lockjaw must feel like. His dentist was destined to make a fortune if Chris ever managed to survive this trip.

"Oh, I see. And you're sure of this because..."

"Because we're following a trail to the cabin sent to Vin by the owners. Seems to me, Ezra, that unless the owners are a big bunch of sadists and get off on knowing their potential renters will never reach their intended destination, doomed to wander the woods for hours on end, then the trail marked on the map they sent to us goes somewhere."

"Goes to the cabin," Vin said confidently.

"You don't know that," Ezra grumbled, not about to acquiesce to Vin no matter what the topic at this point. Had Vin said the sky was blue, Ezra would have argued the fact. Something bit him on the neck and he smacked his skin hard.

"You sure are attractive t' them 'squiters.'" Vin commented.

Ezra scowled. "Let me guess, you have no such problems."

"Not a one."

Another high-pitched whine in his ear and Ezra was smacking himself in the side of his head as he killed the offending creature. He watched as Chris, too, sought to defeat the persistent pests, then watched Vin, who was apparently not bothered in the least.

"How is it, Mr. Tanner--"

"Thought I was Vin, now I'm back to bein' Mr. Tanner."

"Oh, I believe in addressing those that've passed with proper respect."

"Jeeze, I ain't dead, Ezra."

"You will be," Ezra and Chris both replied, then looked to one another with raised eyebrows. Apparently that was something the two of them could agree upon.

"Do tell, Vin," Ezra asked, "how is it you manage to traipse through the deep of these mosquito infested woods and seem not to acquire bug bite one. Just what is your secret?"

Chris, too, was giving the young man his attention. Even as he stood there, Chris felt another of the blood-sucking things begin its assault on his neck. He swatted it dead. "Yeah, Tanner, what is it about you they don't if I couldn't think of a few things at the moment."



"Sprayed m'self with Off. What's the matter with you boys? No way I'd set foot in this forest without protection from 'skeeters.'

Ezra stood dumbfounded. "You have insect repellant? And you chose not to share?"

"Oh, I tried t' offer it up, if you 'member," Vin said quickly. He wasn't at all sure he cared for the expression he found on either man's face. And why was Chris smiling that way?

"No, I don't 'member. How 'bout it Ezra, you 'member?"

"Can't for the life of me say that I do, Mr. Larabee. Perhaps Vin here will further enlighten us to this delightful conversation we supposedly had...before I dis-member..."

"Aw, hell," Vin said, "'tween the both of ya, I'm surprised y' can 'member your own names half the time," he chuckled anxiously, suddenly feeling like a mosquito about to be swatted down and rummaged through his backpack in search of a can which he held out at arms length to the two advancing bodies. "Here. I was just gonna suggest y'all help yourself t' some a mine. There's plenty t' go around. G' head...knock yourselves out. Please."

+ + + + + + +

Hot and bug-bitten they trudged on...walking and walking and walking...

"You're not eating again?"

"You askin' or accusin'?"

"I smell...something...garlic."

"Slim Jim."

"Mr. Tanner, you are your own convenience store."

"Just like travelin' prepared."

"Seems I've heard that before."

"Vin, you see the next marker?"

"Yeah, Chris, it's over there on that tree. We're goin' the right way."

"Oh, thank the Lord. Now, I assume this place 'll have a working telephone?"

"Let's hope so, Ezra."

"Yeah, then we can call for pizza."

Figured Vin would be thinking of eating. "I had in mind more to call the auto club so they can rescue your stranded vehicle. Not to mention, my stranded clothing."

"My fishing rod and tackle."

"An' all the food."

Chris and Ezra exchanged puzzled looks. "Food?"

Vin's stomach rumbled at the mention of the word. "The box in the back on the floor."

"I wondered what was in that."

"Foods in it," Vin told them and damn, it sure would be nice to get to a phone and order up a pizza.

Pizza. Now that he'd thought of it he knew his stomach wouldn't forget. If there was a God above there'd be a Domino's delivery in the area. "Vin," Chris began, confused, "you brought food?" All that bitching Vin did earlier about being hungry and he'd had food in the car?

"Well, yeah. Not much. Only carrying a twinkie or two and these Slim Jims. Left everything else in the Jeep. Y'know, just some staples. Like--"

"Oh, this has got to be good," Ezra said, his eyes rolling.

"Like, couple more twinkies, s' more Slim Jims, bag a these chips got this spicy cajun season on 'em...let's see, what else...oh yeah, couple cans a chocolate pudding, the kind don't need refrigerated. Man, I love that stuff. 'Specially the rich fudge. Oh, an' I stuck some AirHeads in there, too. For dessert. Love them things."

"Staples," Chris repeated, shaking his head. Spicy chips and chocolate pudding and candy. Good thing there was a small grocery store not far from the cabin, else they'd all starve on Vin's box of staples.

"Good Lord, Mr. Tanner, how old are you? Twelve?"

"Insults ain't getting you no chocolate pudding."

"Lucky me," Ezra muttered and swatted dead yet another mosquito on his cheek, "guess I'll have to forego the 'AirHeads' as well."

"A delicacy," Vin told him of the sugary taffy-like candy. "And you ain't getting' a one."

"Oh, the pity." Ezra mocked a long sigh. "No AirHeads for Agent Standish. I suppose I'll just have to allow my teeth to rot out some other way."

Vin slipped the man a look. "I'm thinkin' you need an attitude adjustment." And then, just because...he winked.

Ezra slanted a look back. "You wink at me one more time and you'll likely find yourself in need of quite the adjustment as well."

"Wink? Hell, I didn't somethin' in m' eye is all. Yer seein' things." He couldn't quite put his finger on just why it was he was enjoying teasing like this with Ezra. He just was.

Chris was riding the crest of his last nerve. Listening to these two was aging him by the minute, and he wasn't at all sure how much more he could take...

Ezra was sneering at Vin. "I have heard one-eyed sharpshooters aren't much in demand these days, and if I see that eye so much as twitch in my direction during the next hour..."

It was like he was traveling with a couple of kids. Arguing, whiny, belligerant children who couldn't stop picking and needling each other...

Vin was sneering back at Ezra. "Oh yeah? What are you gonna do if I DO wink, Ez, poke my eye out? And what? Mess up that manicured fingernail y' got goin' there? I don't think so. Besides, you' d have to catch me first an' everyone knows how fast I am...and how sloow you are..."

Both of them. Grown men, needling each other and bickering like little brothers, that's what. Brothers. A small smile graced Chris's lips...but only for a moment...

"Slow? Oh, I'm slow? This coming from the man, or should I say child, who can't remember to fill up the gas--"

Chris had had enough. "Ezra. Stop."

"Yeah, Ezra," Vin happily chimed in. "Stop. You're buggin' Chris."

"I'm bugging Chris? I'm bugging Chris?"

Vin grinned. "Nice you an' me agree with each other like we do."

Ezra huffed. "Mr. Tanner, if there's one thing that will never come to'll be you and me embraced in any manner of accord."

"Embracin'? Jeeze, Ez, first y' think I'm winkin' at you, an' now ya want me to hug you? You're scarin' me here, pard."

Chris was shaking his head. "Vin...leave it."

"I believe I can handle my own verbal battles with this boy if you don't mind," Ezra interjected, his voice directed at Chris but his eyes on Tanner.

"Y' know? That's twice now you insuated I'm some sort a child here, Ez."

"Well, if the immaturity fits..."

"Ezra," Chris hissed, "don't egg him on."

"I am doing no such thing. Besides, I'm not sure that's possible. I doubt he'd recognize anything not fried or sugar-coated first. I couldn't possibly egg him on..." Ezra smirked at his own humor. If he wasn't so hot and so tired and so thoroughly bug-bitten, he'd even maybe slightly admit that he was actually enjoying this sparring with Vin. Admit, too, he was even having a bit of fun while trampling out in the wilds of nature.

Good heavens. Fun.

Who knew?

Chris was less than amused. The bickering was getting to him. The heat was getting to him. These two were getting to him.

He could plead justifiable homicide, couldn't he?

"Enough," Chris bellowed, reasonably sure he could convince the court system that he'd been provoked to the point of losing his mind. It could happen. Insanity pleas were offered up all the time.

"You," he pointed to Vin, "You walk ahead. You don't wink, you don't mumble, you just lead, and for God's sake, don't get us any more lost than we already have been. And you," he pointed to Ezra who opened his mouth to protest, then thought better of it and closed it again, "you follow behind. Not one word, one sound, one humpf of disdain from you. You got that?"

Both men nodded.

"You both got that?" they nodded again and, as Chris turned his back to them to adjust his pack, both silently mimicked his latest diatribe. And then catching one another mouthing the same words with identical expressions behind their leader's back, was hard to keep from laughing.

"I heard that," Chris declared softly without turning to look at either of them.

Vin shuddered as he maneuvered himself to the front of his scowling boss.

It was as though the man had eyes in the back of his head.

+ + + + + + +

After another hour...or had it been thirty? they all kept on, all thinking the same thought...

It had to be up ahead. The cabin. It just had to be up ahead. They'd walked too far for far too long for it not to be close.

Please, let it be close.

"It's gettin' dark."

"Hotter, too."

"I was under the impression it would be cooler up here at night."

"How long have we been walking?"

"If either or you say it's only been forty minutes I'm going to shoot you."

"It was twenty, then."

"And that matters now, how?"

"Has to be a few hours by now."

"Really. I was thinking more like days."

"I'd say we been walkin' 'xactly--"

"Too long."

"An eternity."

And then...


All movement stopped as all eyes strained to see through the murky shadows of the trees, and sure enough, the faint yellowish glow of a light could be seen beckoning...beckoning to them through the thick maze of leaves.

"Y' think that's it?"

"Do I care if it isn't? It's a light. And light means people. And people mean telephone."

"An' telephone means pizza."

Chris looked at Vin, the man's eyes bright with the prospect of eating. "You do have a one-track stomach, don't you."

"You say that like it's a bad thing."

Ezra gave each of them a shove. "Onward gentlemen. I do believe our salvation is at hand."

The three men rushed forward up the so-called trail they'd been following for long enough. Dusk had come, shadows lengthening and darkening the depths of the woods' interior, making the obviously seldom-used trail even more treacherous than it had been, and the beam from Chris's flashlight not illuminating enough area to run by. But seeing the light gleam so near to them spurred each faster, each rushing heedlessly toward its brightening glow.

And so it came as quite a surprise to Ezra when first Vin took a step only to silently disappear from view, and then right on his heels, Chris vanished from sight.

Ezra found himself rooted to his spot for a second before realizing what had happened. Both men had fallen down what appeared to be quite a steep embankment that rose up several feet from the banks of a nearly waterless, but terribly muddy, creek bed.

In the dark the small break in the land had just looked like another stretch of shadow.

With hands on knees, his cashmere and suede jacket tied loosely but safely around his shoulders, Ezra crept forward and peered over the side, then down toward the pile of limbs that was his friends.

Chris's neck was killing him, the pain shooting sparks of hurt all the way down to his toes, a fact he decided was a good sign in that he supposed it meant he hadn't been paralyzed by the fall. He sure felt like he was broken, though.


He probably could've said more, was certainly thinking more, but for the moment that little gem of a word would have to do and he shut up, content to just lie there and marvel at the stars floating so lazily around his head.

Something akin to a moan, or even groan, maybe, could be heard, the sound faint and muffled and coming from somewhere...

"Mr. Larabee? Chris?"

"Ezra?" He looked right and left but all he saw was dark night. And more shooting stars. Huh. Could've sworn he'd heard Ezra.

"I'm up here."

And then Chris looked up, and up, and up...until he could just make out the barest outline of Ezra peering over the side of what looked to be a huge canyon. Ezra seemed awfully far away. "You okay up there?" Chris called out to him.

How the hell 'd Ezra get way up there?

"I think I should be asking that of you. Are you all right?"

Chris thought about that for a second. His neck was killing him. His ankle was killing him, too, he realized. And something hard and sharp was jutting into his lower back and that wasn't at all pleasant. But all in all... "Yeah. All right. At least, I think I'm all right."

"And Vin?"



Oh, shit.

Chris rolled off the obstruction biting into his back and realized instantly just what--just who--it was who broke his fall. And who was also making the f aint moaning sound. "Christ, Vin. You okay?"

Vin was lying face down in what looked to be several inches of thick mud. For a fraction of a second Chris wondered how the hell he could breathe with his face stuck in the mire that way, and then realized what exactly that thought meant and quickly, but gently, eased the young man over onto his back. Vin came loose from the mud with a pull and a loud squelching sound, that like something out of a cartoon. Chris wiped what mud he could off of Vin's face and softly called to him.

"Vin? You hear me, Vin?"

Vin let loose another soft moan and his head rolled from one side to another, but other than that he didn't respond to Chris's question.

"Is he all right?" Ezra was trying hard to make out the dim outlines of the two men, but with the diminishing light and the darkening shadows it was hard to tell just what was what--or who--down there.

"I think he hit his head pretty hard," Chris told him as he felt around Vin's skull and Ezra could hear the tight shade of concern edging into his words. More there than if Vin had simply had the breath knocked out of him.

"Head wound. Then he's sure to be fine," Ezra muttered, not wanting to think Vin might be seriously injured, and all the while working to find some way to get down there and help his friends.

His friends. Words echoed again in his for yourself, Ezra...

Screw that, mother, dear.

"Hold on, Chris. I'm coming down."

Chris nodded, then thought about that. "No, Ez. Wait. Don't--" But it was too late.

Ezra found a handhold on a thick, ropy vine that trailed down from a large tree overhanging the creek bed and with a quick yank, and even quicker assessment, assumed the thing would hold his weight as he lowered himself down to his fallen comrades.

He assumed wrong.

Oh, Lord, he had assumed wrong.

As soon as the words left Chris's mouth, a sharp crack sounded immediately followed by the unmistakable sound of a body falling heavily to the ground.

"Ezra?" Chris almost whispered the name, half afraid he'd get no answer.

A pained voice floated toward him through the dark. "In the flesh...and blood, too, I fear. what was that you were saying about my not coming down here?"

+ + + + + + +

Getting down the embankment had been easy and fast. And painful. Getting up the embankment was likely to be a logistical nightmare.

And a whole lot more painful.

Chris had a nasty lump rising up under his hair and could hardly put any weight on his right ankle whatsoever. His neck was at an awkward angle, too, but Ezra thought it best to not mention that. He figured Chris was well aware his head was near to perpendicular to his body, and probably didn't need that pointed out to him in any way, shape or form. He wasn't broken, but he sure was bent.

Not that Ezra was faring much better.

The fall had landed him just exactly at the correct angle to dislocate his left shoulder. The very one that had been dislocated not once, but twice before. And though he always did give some creed to the saying, 'third time's the charm'--believing the phrase fit marvelously well in some situations, such as one's acquiring a taste for sushi, or, when dealing with the less than above-board men he investigated as an undercover agent. Almost always he'd find himself finally ingratiated into their ranks after that third 'charmed' meeting. But now, right now, right this very minute, he could in all honesty say that this third time was definitely NOT the charm.

His shoulder hurt.

It hurt bad.

And Vin was a mess. Dark blood mixed with even darker mud and both covered most of his face. Most of the front of him, actually, though in the shadows it was hard to tell which was what and how much of either...but then Chris shined the flashlight on him, and Ezra caught a glimpse of quite a lot of red oozing from what he hoped would turn out to be just a very small cut on the young man's forehead. Vin had apparently landed face down on something harder than his own hard head, which, had Vin been faring better and the circumstances of their current situation a little more auspicious, was something Ezra would gladly have made a few snide comments about. All in fun, of course.

But, seeing that things really weren't looking up--the three of them stuck in the bottom of some sort of sludge filled ravine, for heaven's sake--he decided to keep his humor to himself. No fun baiting Vin if he wasn't aware enough to respond, and by the hard look on Chris's face at the moment, well, Ezra decided his best course of action was to just shut up and be quiet. Besides, the throbbing pain in his arm was pretty much becoming all-consuming. It was all he could do to concentrate on keeping his own breathing regulated.

So, Ezra sat in the heat, in the dark, in the mud, trying somehow to keep his jacket up around his shoulders where it might, just might, stay clean enough to wear again someday, and trying as well to position his arm into a place where it didn't feel like it had been savegly wrenched from his body. It wasn't easy.

He peered through the dark, the beam of the flashlight providing some light to see by, and watched Chris try and rouse Vin, who, though still pretty much unconscious, was beginning to stir. He looked to be all right, other than the nasty lump and cut on his forehead.

Other than that. As if having a lump the size of a potato sprout forth from your forehead was nothing to be concerned about. As if Vin ever had any sort of injury befall him that didn't warrant either stitches or casts, ambulances or helicopters.

Well, Ezra would admit, he was worried.

Fact was, Vin's eyes hadn't opened more than a sliver and he had yet to utter a sound other than the soft moans escaping him as he lay in the thick mud.

And Chris was worried.

He was hunching over Vin and gently wiping off what he could of the excess mud and blood, though not having much success. His hand rubbed Vin's shoulder and he spoke softly to him, waiting for him to come around. And then Chris remembered the packs.

"I got a first-aid kit in there someplace," he told Ezra who rummaged around with his one good arm until he felt the small box. Ezra pulled out a capsule and handed it to Chris. Smelling salts.

The whiff of ammonia roused Vin instantly. He half sat up, opened his eyes and cried out, "Pickle."

If the situation hadn't been so dire, if each of them hadn't hurt so much, Chris and Ezra might've laughed. As it was, they both shook their heads and Chris pushed Vin back supine. "You with us here, Vin?"

The world was spinning and flashing brightly colored stars against a very dark background, all in all a mighty nice fireworks display Vin thought--except they were exploding a little too loudly inside his head. And they smelled godawful.

Really, really godawful.

A voice nudged against his mind trying to interrupt the dazzling, deafening, stinky show and he tried his best to ignore it. He didn't care what was being said, or who was saying it or why, though he did wish someone'd get rid of that smell...and yet...

"Chris?" The sound of his own voice startled even him, and then his head pounded so fiercly, so loudly, so intensely, that for a brief second he thought it must've surely blown apart. He didn't want to say anything else after that.

"Jesus, you had us worried, Vin."

He wanted to tell Chris to hush up and stop yelling and help him put his head back together, but it just seemed too much effort to get those words out, and besides, watching the fireworks change into long threads of moving trails was much easier to do. And a whole lot more interesting, too. They were so bright. In fact, if he closed his eyes they all seemed to turn different colors...and he watched them shift for a while against the back of his lowered eyelids...and then it felt too damned nice to keep his eyes closed...and drift...

Chris waved the ammonia capsule under Vin's nose and watched as Vin's eyes shot open again.

"Stay with me here, Vin. I need you to answer some questions."

Huh? Questions?

"Listen. Vin, look at me. That's it, keep, keep your eyes open. Over here. Good. Now, you remember what happened? Where you are?"

Vin let the voice drift away. He really didn't want to listen. He didn't much care, it was so much better not to have to listen...

"Wake up, Vin!"

Well, hell. Larabee wasn't going to let him.

Ezra watched Vin slowly come around. Watched as Vin grabbed the capsule out of Chris's hand and launched it away. Pretty good throw for a man just waking up. Ezra then clumsily made it to his feet and stepped away. He knew it was now or never. He could do this...he could...

Chris heard Ezra's faint groan as he got to his feet. He waited a second to make sure Vin wasn't going to drift away again, then turned to his other agent...

No Ezra.

Then, in the same second it took to wonder where the man had got off to, a heavy, dull thud broke the relative quiet that surrounded them. This immediately followed by an abbreviated scream of pain, choked back and cut off, and Chris knew.

Knew instantly...

"Ezra!" Chris turned the flashlight into the dark at his back and found Ezra's face. White and bloodless and tight with intense agony. "Jesus, Ezra," he whispered aloud, knowing immediately that the man had slammed his dislocated shoulder back into place by himself.

All by himself.

The bright light of the beam drove painfully into his eyes, and Ezra closed them tightly. He knew Chris was turned toward him, and, if he could've spoken aloud, he would have. Would have said those words that came so naturally to him whenever he felt pain and knew someone was watching. But he couldn't speak, could hardly even think of speaking. It was all he could do to just breathe, and for a few moments, he concentrated on doing just that.

In and out...riding with the pain...breathe in slowly and let it out even more so...

He lifted a hand to let Chris know not to bother with him, that everything--that he--would be, as always, just fine.

Fine. He didn't need the concern.

He'd be fine.

But apparently Chris read something else entirely in that small hand gesture, or maybe, Ezra thought, he really didn't possess the impassive poker face the others were always iimpressing upon him he really didn't have. Whatever it was, Chris rushed over best he could and grabbed for Ezra's good hand, holding it tightly, yet gently, as though hoping to impart at least some measure of comfort toward the obvious agony Ezra was enduring.

Comfort. From Chris. Chris Larabee.

Ezra was rather stunned.

"Jesus, Ezra," Chris said again and placed his other hand lightly against the back of Ezra's neck. Holding on. Not letting go.

Ezra focused on the hands...on his hand held by Chris's. He panted through the pain in his upper body, breathing hard through his nose, then out through his mouth, hoping to calm his frantically pounding heart. Still his overactive stomach.

He thought he might just pass out.

"I--" he started but couldn't seem to manage more and he felt like vomiting and then Chris cut his words off anyway.

"Won't do that again. Ever again. Not without my help."

Ezra looked up and met Chris's eyes in the slight light angling off the flashlight's beam, and for a long pause they stared, eyes locked and reading each other. Then Ezra looked away, embarrassed almost for recognizing the concern he saw there in Chris's return gaze.

Concern for him. Care for him.

He gathered his breath, felt the pain in his shoulder, arm and neck begin to shift from hideously excrutiating to just horrendously painful, and shook his head in answer to Chris. "No, I won't."

...friends are overrated...

God, Maude was so wrong.

+ + + + + + +

"You don't think there are any crackers out there, do you?"

"Crackers!" Vin yelled out, after having said nothing for quite some time. He drifted back to saying nothing.

"Crackers, Ezra?"

"Yes, know," Ezra explained, suddenly realizing he'd voiced aloud what he'd been thinking. "Like in the movies. Like in that movie."


"That's the one."

Chris listened to the sound of the woods at night. Quiet, yet filled with sound. Crickets, cicadas...the occasional frog. The whine of a mosquito. Silence without being silent. "Think it's just pretty much us out here."

Ezra nodded. "I know. I wasn't really worried. I just figured after all else that has happened...well. just seemed the natural turn of events would be for some less than desirables to suddenly show up and..."

Chris looked up and grinned. "Haven't heard any banjos playing, Ezra."

Well, thank God for that.

Between the three of them it was going to be hell to get back up that incline. It was dark out now and the hill was steep and slippery with mud. And none of them were in any shape to make the climb with ease.

Vin was a mess. Wet and muddy, bloody and bruised, and most likely concussed. Whatever had hit his head left a goose egg the size of Montana in its wake, also leaving him addled enough for Chris and Ezra to have cause for concern, although he, himself, wasn't entirely aware there was a problem. Repeatedly asking them what had happened, were they there yet, and whether or not the fish were biting.

They'd got him to his feet where he promptly vomited up most of what was in his stomach, and most of that landing on Ezra's right shoe. Vin then wavered where he stood, seemingly disoriented enough that Chris and Ezra decided to leave him resting while they figured out a way to get them all up the hill without adding any more bruises, mud, or vomit, to anyone's body.

Chris's ankle was throbbing, and putting any amount of weight or pressure on it sent spots flying before his watering eyes, leaving him shaky and sweating. Ezra managed to find a thick stick strong enough and long enough for Chris to use as a crutch of sorts, and he leaned on it heavily as he watched Ezra shine the flashlight up the incline.

For his own part, Ezra's shoulder was killing him. Throbbing painfully with even the tiniest amount of movement, and sending sharp shooting pain throughout every nerve ending in his neck and shoulder. Arm. Back. It was making him nauseous.

"Y' need a sling for that," Chris pointed out and Ezra nodded, knowing that just keeping the injured limb tucked into his unbuttoned shirt wasn't going to be enough.

"Gimme that," Chris ordered.


"Your jacket. We'll use that."

"I beg your pardon?"

"The jacket, Ezra. We can rip it at the seam and readjust it to wrap and brace your arm."

"Oh, I think not."

"Hand it over, Ezra."

"Are you mad? Have you any idea how much this jacket cost?"

"You can't risk letting that arm get any more hurt."

"I cannot possibly replace this jacket, which is the very reason I brought it with me instead of leaving it in that tin can of Mr. Tanner's." "Ezra, it's all we've got to really wrap your arm."

And Ezra knew that was true. It was already aching unmercifully. With a long sigh and a tear in his eye, the latter coming more from the pain of marring that beautiful piece of clothing than the pain in his shoulder, he handed it over, turning away briefly and then wincing at the sound of the luxurious fabric tearing.

Chris bound the arm tightly enough so Ezra wouldn't be able to move it. And it did feel better, mostly due to the bindings, Ezra begrudgingly admitted, but still...what a waste of his prized jacket. "You did rip it along the seam, right?"


"Mr. Larabee? Chris? The seam? You did keep to the seam--"

Vin moaned then, pulling their attention away from the ruined jacket, and they turned to where he was still reclined against the base of a tree.

"Vin?" Chris shined the beam of the flashlight away from Vin's face, enough he could see the man's features but not enough to cause Vin any more undue pain should the light hurt his eyes.

Vin turned, his eyes squinting even in the indirect light. "How's your head?" Chris asked and Vin seemed to wince from the sound of his voice. Chris knelt in front of the obviously dazed man, stuck out three fingers and hoped for the best. "How many?"

"Fry 'em," Vin whispered softly then let his eyelids slip shut.

Damn. "He needs a hospital," Chris said.

"Did he say five of them?"

"Not exactly. Sounded more like fry."

Ezra looked up to meet Chris's concerned expression. "It's like his brain is fed directly from his stomach."

"He needs a doctor," Chris said and then gave Ezra a long look. "So do you. We've got to get up that hill and get to a hospital." Both men peered through the dark to gaze up the steep, rough looking incline.

"It's going to be awful, you realize," Ezra said and slowly shook his head. "We are the proverbial walking wounded."

"Just give me a hand getting Vin to his feet and let's get this over with." Which was easier said than done as they began the climb, or crawl as it were, having to stop midway just to catch a decent breath. The top of the slope, which now seemed much more like a cliff than not, was still as far away as any of them could ever thought possible.

"I absolutely cannot continue," Ezra muttered just less than half-way up the hill. He wiped sweat from his eyes at the same time managing to smear a considerable amount of dirt across his forehead.

"We there yet?" Vin mumbled softly.

"Depends on where 'there' is to you right now, Vin," Chris replied wearily.

Ezra braced himself against a rather large root and tried in vain to ignore the sheer agony that was his shoulder. Chris was stretched prone behind him, with Vin somehow wedged in between them both, the sharpshooter groaning softly and still not completely with it.

"Shit," Chris said stiffly, feeling testy with his ankle throbbing as well as his arms from heaving up what had to be most of Tanner's weight on the climb. "Just shit."

Ezra nodded in the dark. "Clear, concise. Don't think I could add anything more to that."

"For once," Chris breathed.

For a few moments they rested, pulling in ragged breaths and trying to ignore their collective aches and pains, difficult as that was proving to be.

It was taking what seemed eons. For every few feet they progressed forward, they'd inevitably end up sliding backward again through the slippery mud, which wasn't adding anything positive to anyone's disposition.

"Christ, Ezra," Chris barked, bracing his one good foot on a thick root he hoped would hold, all the while supporting what had to be the whole of Vin's weight and probably most of Ezra's as well as the inched up the slope, "You napping up there or what?"

Ezra was pulling up with his good arm, doing his best to ignore the agony in his bad, and trying hard not to kick out with his feet, lest he hit one of the two men behind him. Hearing Chris's complaints made him want to do just that. "Oh, yes," he snarled, "I thought perhaps a little siesta right now would be in order. I can't imagine anything more restful than lying in several inches of thick mud while perched precariously on the side of a cliff. How 'bout you? Taking a brief snooze are we? Because as far as I can discern, there seems to be a considerable lack of push from the caboose."

"We takin' a train?" Vin whispered dazedly.

With a collective groan, they resumed the slow haul up the mountain, pulling, pushing and prodding each other and Vin until they finally crested the top and rolled as one onto the relatively horizontal ground.

For a few minutes, no one spoke.

"That was fun," Chris hissed sarcastically, his ankle and head and general disposition feeling decidedly splintered.

"Really. You don't get out much, do you?" Ezra lay on his back, breathing heavily through the sharp pull of his injured shoulder. "Far be it for me to put the cart before the horse, but in the future, should you be so inclined to include me again on one of these little back-to-nature me a giant favor, and just--don't."

Chris turned, barely making out Ezra's features under the pale light of the far-away moon. "It's not usually this bad, Ezra."

"How lucky for me," Ezra muttered and shifted against the large stick he was just now noticing was poking not so gently into his posterior. Had Vin been more aware, he would have thought that terribly poetic, Ezra mused. Lucky for him, Vin didn't quite know just what planet he was on.

"Well," Chris panted, catching his breath and trying hard to ignore the increased throbbing of his rapidly swelling ankle, "least the worst seems to be over."

"Seems to be," Ezra repeated and with that sat up, helping Vin up to sitting as well and even in the dark catching Vin's odd, slightly panicked expression. "Mr. Tanner?" he asked at the same time Vin's eyes widened, and then Ezra's widened, and then Chris winced at the sound and smell of Vin's retching.

"You were saying about the worst?" Ezra said disgustedly, doing his best to shake loose the nasty mess adorning his front as he turned to glare at Chris.

Even without the flashlight's beam, Chris could make out the heated flash in Ezra's eyes. And they said he had a glare...

He rummaged through his pack and handed Ezra a handful of napkins he'd stashed in there during the last fast food stop, then crouched down to the seated Tanner in an attempt to clean him off as well. "Well, guess it's over now."


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