New Ventures

by Hombre

Alternate Universe: The Sporting Seven Partnership - Life changing events

Notes: I admit to having grave doubts about this story but if it all comes tumbling down round my ears I've only got myself to blame. I couldn't think which universe to put this one into because of the subject so I decided to create my own. Hope you don't mind and that it's not too boring or disjointed. Hope also that I haven't made the story too medical. Gee, that's a lot of hopes, ain't it? Anyway, I did some study on the condition involved but still don't take the facts/symptoms etc as correct. If anyone does suffer from the condition mentioned, no offence is meant by using it in a fiction story and sorry if I have got any details wrong. I used the following very useful web pages to help in my research and the book, The complete book of signs, symptoms and illnesses by Dr H. Winter Griffith. I used an article by K.S. Tan in the Singapore Medical Journal Vol. 40 n.11 as a basis for my story. All the boys are in it in some capacity but it is really an Ezra fic.

Can't think of anywhere I'd rather take a vacation. I'm booked in for this summer! Come and join me! Don't know what I'm talking about? Then read on.

Chris sat in the hospital waiting room along with five of his friends waiting anxiously for news of Ezra. The blond looked at each of his companions and thought back to when he'd decided to make them his business partners. When he'd first met most of them they'd all been members of a sports club that offered the types of activities they all enjoyed. Now they all worked together on Chris's ranch, which had been turned into a center that specialized in sporting holidays. The venture was on the verge of opening in a couple of months and the blond had to admit he'd been very pleased with his choice of companions.

First there was Buck Wilmington. Well, Chris'd know him for ten or was it twelve years? They had at one time been fellow police officers and the blond couldn't think of anyone he'd rather have on his side. The man had certainly stuck by Chris after the death of his family despite the way the blond had treated him. After that tragedy though, Buck had left the force to work for the sports club they frequented.

Josiah Sanchez. Chris looked him up and down. He sure was a big man. Bet he hadn't had any trouble keeping the cadets in order at the Police Academy where he'd been an instructor. He was skilled in many sports and had a fine physique. He was a good man to have on board, that was for sure.

Nathan Jackson. He was a qualified sports physical therapist and had been a Red Cross doctor early in his career. He had traveled all over the world to various disasters but had given it up after seeing too much suffering. His doctoring skills alone were worth millions. It was good to have medical help on site and that had been proved with the situation they had encountered with Ezra. The man himself was fairly quiet but spoke his mind when he was of a mind to and Chris was eternally grateful to him for agreeing to join the project.

Vin Tanner. Well, this quiet man was a bit of an enigma. A loner but quite happy in a small group too. Chris had always thought of him as shy but that didn't quite describe the man's character at all. Vin never said much but when he did speak, you usually listened and he was certainly not lacking in self-confidence. He had been an explosives expert in the army so he possessed nerves of steel and the types of sports he indulged in reflected that. Chris knew he was an excellent rider and all-round sportsman and he had wanted him on board to help with the trail riding side of his venture as well as the more dangerous pursuits.

The youngest member of the group was JD. He'd only just left university with a degree in sport and had been looking for permanent work. He had been working at the sports club just to fill in time and earn some money. He was very enthusiastic in all that he did, sometimes too enthusiastic in the way he tackled some sporting activities but Chris had known that with a bit of guidance he'd make a great addition to his team. The young man was a superb rider and was going to help Vin with the trail riding.

Last but not least was Ezra Standish, the missing man. Chris smiled as he thought of the ex-attorney. He'd gotten to know him well over the past year but he'd been unsure of the man to start with. He was too much of a smartass for Chris's liking, or so he'd thought but the man had a razor-sharp brain and had proved himself a great asset. He had been the one who had been the catalyst in getting Chris to give up his job and get his dream off the ground.

Chris's mind drifted and he thought back to the time when the project had become more than a dream.

Twelve months previously

It was all Ezra's fault, Chris decided. No, on second thoughts perhaps that wasn't quite true or fair. Ezra had made a passing comment and it had planted an idea in the blond's head. He'd let the idea grow and grow so he'd really only got himself to blame for his current predicament.

He thought back to the day that had sparked it all off and smiled. He had joined Ezra and five others on a climbing expedition that had been arranged by the sports club they belonged to. As they reached the top of their climb the dark- haired man had said, "If only we could spend our lives doing this all day instead of working ourselves to death in the city. I'd give up my job at the drop of a hat Mr. Larabee but the question of money is a rather big obstacle in the way of my dream."

Chris had laughed and replied, "Yeah. Spending yer life enjoying yourself would be great but as you say unless you're a millionaire it'll just have to remain a pipe dream."

The blond came back to the present with a jolt and thought for the umpteenth time, Why should it be just a dream? Why can't it become reality? Damn you, Standish, I haven't been able to think of anything else since that day.

Chris suddenly remembered where he was and he tightened his grip instinctively. He was half way up a rock face and it wasn't quite the right place to let his mind wander. He sighed and climbed to the top as quickly and safely as possible and then sat and surveyed the country spread out below him.

He let his mind drift again and it inevitably returned to his dilemma. Take the plunge or not? As each day passed he was becoming sorely tempted to take the plunge. Ever since Sarah and Adam had been killed he'd been getting increasingly disillusioned with his job, so why not give it up? He'd need some heavy investment admittedly to get his plan up and running and he wondered if some of his fellow sporting freaks would be interested in his proposal. Seeing as it had been Ezra that had sparked his obsession, the blond thought he should approach him first to see what he thought. He nodded his head as he made his decision and vowed to test out Ezra's opinion and go on from there.

+ + + + + + +

The following week, Chris and Ezra met up at the club to enjoy some canoeing. Ezra was going to give him a lift to the river they would be using rather than taking two separate cars. The sports club offered all sorts of activities and each week they chose one sport to indulge in. Last week it had been climbing and next week it would be fencing. The club had many members but Chris had already picked out the men that he thought might be interested in his plan. They were the men he spent most time with and although he didn't know most of them very well he knew enough about them to know that they possessed the qualities he needed if his venture was to get off the ground.

"Mr. Larabee. How's your week been?" Ezra asked, making him jump slightly.

"Same old, same old," Chris replied with a smile.

"What? More criminals behind bars, I hope," Ezra said.

"Yeah, somethin' like that. As long as one of your shyster attorney colleagues didn't get them off on a technicality that is."

"I'm a Prosecutor, Mr. Larabee, not a Perry Mason. Never did fancy working with the low-life of society."

"Unlike me ya mean?"

"Ah.well..perhaps I didn't phrase that very well. We both work for the good of the State, Mr. Larabee. You clear the baddies off the street and I work to make sure they stay off," Ezra said as he pulled into the parking lot by the river.

"Can I have a word before we meet up with the others, Ezra?" Chris asked before they got out of the vehicle. If he didn't say what he wanted now, he might lose his nerve altogether.

The attorney frowned and turned to face him as he said, "You don't need my help in a legal capacity, I hope?"

"No. It's just something you said last week got me thinking and I wondered if you'd be interested in an idea I've had."

"What did I say to make your brain work overtime?" the attorney inquired with a quizzical smile that revealed his gold tooth.

"About giving up work and indulging in your hobbies for the rest of your life."

"Yes, I remember but it was just a joke, Mr. Larabee. It's not possible however much we'd like to do it," Ezra said dejectedly.

"Well, I was thinking of setting up a holiday center that specialized in the types of sports we like doing. I would need investors and experts in the sports I would be offering but I've already got the land that we'd need. Would you be interested?"

Ezra sat staring at him with his mouth open as he digested what he'd been told. "I think you need to give me all the details, don't you? It would depend on the amount of money you need but it certainly sounds intriguing. You really are dangling a very tantalizing carrot in front of me, aren't you?"

"We'll meet after this, shall we?" Chris asked as he saw the twinkle in Ezra's eyes. He could see that the man was as excited as he was.

"Yes, though whether I can concentrate on canoeing now after what you've just said is another matter. If you see me drowning through daydreaming please rescue me. Who else do you propose to join your merry men in this proposal?" Ezra asked as an afterthought.

"Well, I'd have to ask Bucklin or he'd never forgive me seeing as I've known him for years. Then I thought of Josiah, Nathan, Vin and JD. What do you think?"

Ezra nodded thoughtfully before answering. "Good men. All experts in their favorite pastimes but I do wonder about the finances of the two youngest men. Why not invite them along to our meeting today? Might as well ask everyone at once."

"Look, I need to make sure it's viable before mentioning it to them. Can you help me with the details? I don't want to look a complete idiot by telling them everything and then finding it's not possible to do because I hadn't considered some technical or legal matter. I just wanted to tell you about it first and get your opinion 'cause you put the idea in my head. Can we go back to my ranch when we finish here?"

"Excellent idea. I'd be more than happy to help, Mr. Larabee."

"Great. Thanks, Ez. I really appreciate it. This idea of mine's been gnawing away at me since last week and I need to know either way whether it's gonna work or not."

The two men got out the car and met up with their fellow enthusiasts and enjoyed a very wet afternoon's entertainment before adjourning to the ranch. Ezra went away from the meeting with a mountain of paper and his head ringing. It was going to take him quite some time to get through all the paper work Chris had given him.

"You and your big mouth, Standish. Yes, Mr. Larabee, I'd be more than happy to help," he mimicked himself. "As if you don't have enough paper work of your own to deal with you gotta bring some home too. Oh well, if Mr. Larabee's ideas are sound you could throw all your outstanding paper work at the office out the window and just walk away." The attorney walked to his car and carefully placed the papers on the passenger seat. He drove home and was up all night as he read every sheet.

+ + + + + + +

The next day, Ezra did a lot of phoning around to ascertain what was needed to set up Chris's venture. He wrote down all the details and then called to update Chris. Ezra convinced the blond that his idea could become reality with a lot of hard work and the legal side seemed to be the least of his worries. It was the building of appropriate facilities that was going to be the biggest hurdle to overcome. Chris contemplated all he'd been told and made up his mind to approach the other men at the sports club at its next meeting.

That weekend, Chris sat on the bench in the club as he got changed for his fencing practice. He looked at each of the men he wanted to talk to and studied them intently. Chris then talked to each man individually and they all agreed to meet at Chris's ranch after finishing their session at the club. He didn't give too much detail but he told them enough to get them interested.

Chris led the men through to his living room after they'd all arrived and handed round drinks. Buck sank down on the couch and stretched his long legs out in front of him and asked curiously, "What's all this about, Chris?"

"I have a proposal for you. I know that, other than Buck, I don't know you all that well but I think you'd be perfect partners in a venture I'm considering. I want to start a sports and activities holiday center. We'll specialize in the sports we like best. Hopefully we'll get groups of people to stay for a week or so to do different activities. We could offer climbing, trail riding, canoeing during the summer and skiing in the winter as well as any other activities you think we could do. I breed horses so that part would be fairly easy to set up. What I need though are investors and also people with the knowledge of the sports we would be offering to take care of the guests. Most of you are qualified instructors in one or more of the sports I want to offer. What do you think? I know this is out of the blue and you may not wanna get involved but I'm just asking your opinion."

"Jeez, Chris. It's a big step, pard. How will we know if it's gonna be successful?" Buck said skeptically.

"You've got no sense of adventure, Mr. Wilmington. Go on, live dangerously. We could always go back to our previous professions if it proved unsuccessful," Ezra pointed out reasonably.

Chris smiled and said, "Well, if you do decide to join us, Bucklin we may get groups of energetic ladies staying and I expect you to treat them properly. I don't want my ranch to get a reputation as a brothel because of your promiscuous lifestyle."

"Me? Jeez, I just go out with a few women throughout the course of my life and I get called all sorts of nasty things," Buck grumbled as he picked at a loose thread on his shirt irritably.

"Come off it. No woman's safe with you around. You drop yer pants as soon as you hear high heels coming in your direction. Think your pants believe they're supposed to be worn round yer ankles 'cause they're hardly ever up round yer waist, are they?" Chris laughed as he saw the incredulous look on his friend's face.

"Too right, pard. Never know when you might lose yer lust for life so to speak. Have to make hay while the sun shines so they say and I gotta keep my assets in working order, ain't I? Wouldn't want it to forget what to do," Buck stated decisively.

"Well, don't drop your pants too often in the cold weather or you might lose your assets to frostbite and I'm sure even Nathan wouldn't be able stick it back on for you," Ezra grinned.

"Jeez. Well now everybody knows that I like women and the pleasures that go with them, shouldn't we get back to the matter at hand?" Buck pleaded plaintively as he turned red.

"Yeah, I think we've embarrassed you enough," Chris agreed. "JD looks as though he coulda done without so much information about your sexual antics."

"He's a man. He knows all there is to know, don't ya kid?" Buck boomed as he patted the kid's back enthusiastically.

JD squirmed and said not very convincingly, "Yeah, sure Buck."

Chris smiled and turned back to the other men. "Do you have any questions? About the project, I mean, not about how many women Buck can bed in one night."

"Put a sock in it Chris," the ladies' man complained as he threw a cushion across the room at his friend.

"I wanna ask something, Chris," Josiah said as he scratched his chin thoughtfully. The Academy Instructor had to admit the project was tempting. "How much would we have to invest?"

"Well, I've done some rough calculations with Ezra's help and this is what I've come up with if all seven of us are partners. If there are less people involved obviously the amount goes up for those left." Chris handed round sheets containing all the details he thought the men would need to make their decision.

Vin took the paper but couldn't read all its contents. He looked round nervously and Ezra, who was sitting next to him, quietly told him what was written on it. The attorney had encountered the longhaired man's dyslexia before and he made sure that Vin understood the proposal completely without embarrassing him in the process.

Vin smiled gratefully at Ezra and said to Chris, "Look Chris. I appreciate you wanting to include me in it but there's no way I can afford it. I'd love to work for you in some capacity if the idea does get off the ground but I just haven't got the money to be an investor."

"I'd be happy for you to work for me, Vin. There'd certainly be lots of opportunities on offer. Look guys, I don't expect the rest of you to give me an answer straight away. Take it away and think about it. I won't be offended if you don't want any part in it. I know I may not have approached this in quite the right way but I've never done this sort of thing before."

"Well, you can count me in, Mr. Larabee. I can't decline seeing as I've done quite a lot of work on this dream of yours already. I'd look even more foolish than usual if I don't trust my own calculations," the dapper attorney said with a laugh.

Chris smiled and said, "Thanks, Ez. Look, I'll leave it there and if you're interested call me or we'll meet up next week at the club anyway."

The men said their good-byes and drifted off home with much to think about.

+ + + + + + +

By the following week Chris had four investors, including himself. He made his way to the club wondering what the rest would say. So far he had Bucklin, Josiah and Ezra on board. As soon as he pulled into the sports center's parking lot he saw JD waiting outside for him.

"Chris? I'm in if you'll have me," the youngster blurted out as soon as Chris joined him.

"If I didn't want you I wouldn't have asked you, JD. Are you sure you can afford it?"

"Yeah. I had a bequest from an Aunt years ago. It's just been sitting in the Bank gaining interest and it's more than enough."

"Great. That makes five." Chris put his arm round the youngster's shoulder and herded him inside the sports center.

The two men greeted the others and got changed ready to play squash. After a good hours competition they adjourned to the local bar for a drink and to discuss the plan again. Vin had been unwilling to go with them because he wasn't involved but Ezra managed to persuade him.

Chris bought the first round of drinks and Nathan finally gave his answer.

"I'm in too, Chris," the therapist said. "Sorry for taking so long but it was a big decision."

"I know it was, Nate. Well, that makes six of us then."

"Better make that seven, Mr. Larabee," Ezra said with a broad grin.

"What? Who?"

"Mr. Tanner."

"Ez! I said I couldn't afford it," the explosive's expert said as he turned red with embarrassment.

"I'm willing to pay your share. You can pay me back out of the massive earnings we're going to make," the attorney offered.

"I can't, Ezra. It's too much. I don't want you to lose yer money."

"Think positive Vin, I wouldn't lose it. I'll just sue Mr. Larabee for my losses if his venture doesn't succeed but then I'd have to sue myself too, I s'pose," Ezra said thoughtfully as he scratched his ear.

Vin was very reluctant to accept although he really wanted to be involved. "Why don't you just buy two shares? Why are you giving it to me?"

"I know how much you want this Vin and I know how much Mr. Larabee wants you involved. You'd be a fine asset to the team."

Vin frowned and stated, "I don't want charity."

"It's not charity. You'll pay back every cent you owe or I'll start charging interest, believe me," the attorney warned with a sly grin.

After much discussion, Vin finally accepted and so the 'Sporting Seven Partnership' was born.

"To us!" Chris said as he raised his glass for a toast.

"To us!" the rest of the men said.

Chris looked round the group and smiled. He could see the excitement on their faces and he knew how they felt. It was quite a change for all of them and at the moment the future looked rosy. He just hoped it stayed that way.

"What jobs are we expected to do?" Buck asked after he'd swallowed his drink in one go.

"I've had a few ideas but I expect you to muck in and help with all the jobs no matter how dirty they are. Did you hear that Ezra?" Chris asked with a grin.

The attorney looked up and smiled broadly. "Yes, Mr. Larabee. Loud and clear. I don't mind getting dirty if it's in a good cause and if that cause is helping to line my pockets with lovely lucre then all the better."

"Jeez and here was me thinking he was in it for the pleasure of working with me," Buck said as he punched the attorney on the arm and grinned.

"No, no, Mr. Wilmington. I made a list of all the pros and cons before I went into this venture and I can say you came well down the list of pros or maybe I even put you in the con column," Ezra replied thoughtfully.

Buck laughed out loud and said, "You're the only con around here, pard. The biggest con I know too, I'll have you know."

"You're not still thinking I cheated during our cycle race the other week, are you? I told you what happened and I definitely did not get a lift in a car to make sure I got to the finish first. You're such a sore loser, Bucklin."

"Takes one to know one."

The blond raised his hands to halt the good-natured argument. "Children, children. Stop arguing or I shan't let you out to play at all," Chris chided as he smiled.

"Yes, Dad," the two reprimanded men said in unison and burst out laughing.

Buck sighed and then said, "So tell us your initial thoughts then about who does what, Chris. I'm all ears."

"Well, I thought I might take care of the day-to-day running of things. Bookings, invoicing, maintenance, you know the sort of things."

"All the fun stuff then," Buck said as he stifled a pretend yawn.

Chris grinned. "The sports that we offer still have to be decided properly but what I had in mind was climbing, trail riding, skiing, canoeing, quad bikes and a shooting range. You're all qualified for those so it's up to you who does what really. We might need to think about indoor sports too so we've got something to offer if the weather's real bad and I'd be glad to hear of any ideas you have on that score. As well as the sports we offer there's the maintenance of equipment and looking after the horses. We can sort out specifics later but Ezra I would like you to do the meeting and greeting of guests if that's alright with you."

Chris thought with Ezra's impeccable manners and dress sense that he would be perfect for the role. He'd also seen the man in action when dealing with disgruntled people and he knew he'd be able to take any problems that arose in his stride. His unflappable demeanor would be a real asset.   "Of course, Mr. Larabee. That would be most agreeable. I am a people- person and it would be very satisfying."

"Great. What do you think, Bucklin?" Chris asked.

"You seem to have it all under control and it sounds fine to me, pard. Offering a mixture of indoor and outdoor activities is real sensible. You could have an indoor rifle range for starters. You've really thought of everything," Buck said enthusiastically.

"I can hardly wait," Ezra said. "It's all very exciting I must say."

"Sure you can handle getting wet when it rains, Ez? I sorta thought you might melt," Vin drawled. "You don't seem cut out for the outdoor life. I always think of you as a slippers- and-pipe type of person."

"I can handle a bit of rain, never fear. I admit I like my creature comforts but I am used to vigorous activity as you well know. I beat you hands down last week when we played squash after work."

"Yeah, I know but that's an indoor sport. You always complain if it's cold when you have to go climbing."

"I don't complain all the time," Ezra disagreed.

"Na, just every second Wednesday," Buck retorted as all the men laughed.

Present day - back at the hospital

Chris smiled as he remembered the beginning of his venture. It had been very exciting as well as nerve-wracking but so far it had proved very successful. Things had been going too smoothly, Chris decided, he ought to have known better. Something bad had to happen and it had. The first three months of their partnership had gone swimmingly as they started to get the ranch ready for the guests. They had all decided to stay in their jobs until the center was due to open but they spent all their spare time out at the ranch doing any jobs they could. They'd given themselves a deadline of a year to be ready but as time went by Chris had become increasingly concerned about Ezra's health.

The blond came back to the present and looked up as he felt a tap on his shoulder and found Buck standing in front of him holding out a cup of coffee. Chris took it gratefully and smiled worriedly.

"You okay, pard?" the ladies' man inquired as he sat down beside his friend.

"Just thinking back over things. If only the doctor's had realized that something was seriously wrong with Ez it would have saved a lot of upset. I know Ezra was getting scared when the doctors told him before that there was nothing wrong. I think he began to worry that we would assume he was faking it."

"I know Chris but they have to take note now don't they and hopefully they can do something about whatever he's suffering from. We never doubted for a minute that he was sick."

"Took something fairly major to happen before the doctors took him seriously though, didn't it?" Chris said angrily.

"Yeah. Drink yer coffee before it gets cold and try not to lose control of that notorious temper of yours."

Chris looked at his oldest friend and smiled as he said, "Fat chance."

Chris went back to his musings and thought about the first indication of the trouble that lay ahead for the ex-attorney.

Nine months before

The first part of the scheme that Chris had wanted to complete was the building of a cabin for each of his partners to live in when the center was finally opened. He needed the men on site and they were all happy to comply. Things began taking shape nicely and now there was only one cabin left to finish.

Chris and Ezra were working on it together and the blond was eager to get it done that day so they could concentrate on other things. The rest of the men were off doing other jobs or trying to find the best places to use for some of the sports they would be offering.

It was a hot day and Chris and Ezra were sweating profusely as they worked feverishly to put the finishing touches to the kitchen. Although Ezra had complained bitterly at having to get his hands dirty he was now lending a hand with gusto. He'd proved he could turn his hand to any job and it had surprised Chris immensely.

The attorney disappeared outside saying he needed a drink but when he didn't return after about ten minutes, Chris walked out to see where he was. He found the man sitting on the porch with his forehead resting on his knees. The blond watched his friend closely and moved toward him when the man didn't stir.

"You okay, Ez?" Chris asked.

Ezra jumped slightly and raised his head as he put a hand to his brow. "Just felt slightly dizzy. Thought a breath of fresh air and a drink might help."

"Did it?"

"Not really," Ezra replied as he put a hand to his chest and rubbed it distractedly. His vision was blurred and the ranch house and its surroundings swayed back and forth as he stared at it.

Chris noticed that his friend sounded a bit breathless and he squatted down beside him and reached out a hand and rubbed his back comfortingly. The blond looked up again as he heard hoof beats and saw Nathan coming back from testing out one of the new trail rides. The blond stood and cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, "Nate! Come over here a minute, will ya?"

"There's no need to call Mr. Jackson," Ezra objected half- heartedly but he had to admit that he still felt weak and lightheaded.

Nathan saw the two men by the cabin, one standing and one sitting with head bowed and he kicked his horse forward and dismounted quickly in front of the blond. "What's the matter?" he asked worriedly as he looked at Chris and then Ezra.

"Don't know really. Ezra came out here to get a drink and when he didn't come back I came to see if he was alright. He says he feels dizzy."

Nathan turned his attention back to the man on the ground and he sat beside him. The therapist could see that the attorney was very pale. He put out a hand and felt his brow but it wasn't hot. "Ezra?"

"I'm sorry to bother you, Nathan. Don't know what came over me but I felt most peculiar," Ezra admitted as he wiped a shaking hand over his face.

"Maybe you just overdid the work today. It's very warm and perhaps you got a bit dehydrated. Do you feel alright now?" the therapist asked.

"Bit dizzy still but better than I did."

"Here, have some more water," Chris said as he passed his bottle to the man. Ezra took it gratefully and splashed some of the cold liquid on his face after taking a few sips to quench his thirst.

"Well, I think you'd better take it easy for the rest of the day. I'll help Chris finish up here. Go into the house and lie down for a while and make sure you keep drinking," Nathan ordered as he watched the man closely. His color had improved in the short time Nathan had been watching him and he hoped his friend had now recovered. The therapist stood and helped Ezra to his feet and escorted him slowly to the ranch house.

He left the man in the living room on the couch and walked back out to join Chris again. He went inside the cabin and began helping the blond to tidy up.

"He okay?" Chris asked as he looked up as Nathan walked in.

Nathan smiled and nodded. "He seemed a bit unsteady but hopefully once he's replaced the fluids he's lost he'll be alright. He looks better than when I first saw him anyway."

"Well, we were working very hard. Perhaps a bit too hard. It's been a big change in lifestyle for us all and maybe he wasn't up to it after having a desk job. I know he does his sports but that's only once a week if he's lucky."

"He complained enough about doing manual labor, didn't he?" Nathan laughed.

"God, you can say that again. His hands would be as soft as a baby's ass if he didn't do rock climbing. Don't think he's done much manual work in his life, that's for sure," Chris agreed with a smile.

+ + + + + + +

A few days passed and they forgot all about the episode. The men, having finished work on the cabins, began other projects. A construction company arrived to begin work on the guest accommodation so that was one less thing for them to worry about.

Ezra and Vin had been assigned to test out the slalom course that Chris had set up for canoeing. Vin sat waiting patiently at the river for the attorney to arrive and the man was late as usual.

"Ah, Mr. Tanner. Disarmed any good bombs lately?" Ezra asked with a grin as he wandered toward his friend as if he had all the time in the world.

"Quite a few Ez and made some too. Here catch," Vin said as he tossed something spherical at the attorney.

Ezra caught it instinctively and found he had a hand grenade in his grasp. "Good God Almighty," he said as he started juggling it from hand to hand as if it was a hot potato.

"It's perfectly safe, Ezra. It's just a toy," Vin laughed at the look on the attorney's face.

"God and you're in charge of the bomb disposal team. I despair. How old are you exactly?"

"Don't rightly know, Ez. Think I was five when my Ma died so must be about twenty- five now, I s'pose. Never celebrated birthdays when I lived on the streets so I kinda lost count. Can't even remember when my birthday is, now that you mention it. Never had nothing to celebrate anyway, so it weren't important."

"My God," Ezra said quietly as he stared at his companion. "Wasn't your birth registered?"

"Don't think Ma could be bothered with forms and all that official malarkey. Found she hadn't told no one I'd been born. Had a hell of a job convincing the army I existed, I can tell ya," Vin laughed. "Got it all sorted eventually but who needs a piece of paper to prove you're alive anyway? I sure as hell don't."

"Well that's one way of looking at it I suppose. Are you ready for our foray down the Amazon then?"

"Yeah, I've been ready for the past hour but had to wait for some no- account attorney to arrive," Vin said sarcastically. Ezra smiled and they carried their canoes to the river and saw the water was running particularly fast.

"This looks great," Vin said as he placed his canoe in the water and climbed in. The craft wobbled precariously but Vin sat down quickly and the canoe settled.

"Well, just remember it's not a race against the clock, Mr. Tanner. I don't want to have to pull you out of the water if you get too enthusiastic and fall in."

"Spoilsport." Vin grinned before continuing seriously, "There doesn't look as though there's gonna be much chance of taking it slow with the way the water's going today anyway. It's gonna be real challenging."

"Yes, I must say I'm quite looking forward to it. I'll see you at the other end."

Vin set off and Ezra let him have a bit of a lead so they didn't collide further downstream. Ezra followed and enjoyed an exhilarating row all the way to the end. The course was exceptional and Ezra grinned when he reached Vin. Both men were dripping water and they shook themselves like a pair of dogs.

"That was a blast. Haven't had so much fun in ages. Chris has excelled himself," Vin said as he took off his lifejacket.

"If everything else is set out as well we're going to make a fortune, Mr. Tanner. Sports enthusiasts from all over will be queuing to use the facilities."

"Don't get carried away, Ez. We ain't even open for business yet."

"With the variety of sports on offer and the quality of the staff we can't fail."

"I know I'm good Ez but I'm not so sure about you," Vin laughed and ran away as Ezra swung a fist at him.

The two men put away their equipment and wandered back to the ranch house companionably to give a report to Chris. The blond was very pleased with his friend's comments and hoped everything else would work out well too.

+ + + + + + +

Three weeks later, Buck and Ezra were in the living room in the ranch house after finishing their jobs for the day. The rest of the men were packing up and their two friends were waiting for them so they could go out for a drink to celebrate the end of phase one of the building work.

"Jeez, I'm starving. Can't wait until we go out to have something to eat. Do you want anything, Ez?" the ladies' man asked as he rubbed his stomach hungrily.

"Yes. I'm feeling slightly peckish myself. I'll come and see what's on offer."

Buck rose and headed to the kitchen and realized Ezra wasn't behind him. He turned round as he heard Ezra groan and he saw the man sit down hastily, looking rather sick. The ladies' man ignored his rumbling stomach and hurried back to his friend and said, "Ezra? What's up, pard?"

"I'm sorry, Bucklin.....I feel most unwell," Ezra mumbled as he raised a hand to his mouth.

The tall man squatted in front of him and narrowed his eyes as he scrutinized the man intently. "You were alright a minute ago, weren't ya? How do you feel exactly?"

"Very dizzy and nauseous." Ezra's eyes closed for a brief moment and Buck thought he was going to pass out when he swayed suddenly.

Buck put out a hand to steady him and Ezra opened his eyes and gasped. "Ez. Just sit tight and I'll get Nate," he said worriedly as the man got paler before his very eyes and started breathing rapidly.

He stood up and looked out the window to see if he could see one of his friends and he spotted Josiah walking away across the yard. Buck hammered on the window as he opened it and then shouted to the big man, "Is Nate here? Ezra's not well."

"I'll go get him," Josiah offered before turning and running back the way he'd come.

Buck turned back to his sick friend as he heard him groan again. "Take it easy, Ez. Nate'll be here in a minute. Do you feel any better?"

"Just a bit shaky," Ezra replied as he held a hand to his head.

Buck rubbed the man's arm and then looked up as he heard the sound of running feet. Nathan and Josiah came into view and the therapist knelt down beside Ezra when Buck moved out of the way.

"Ez? What happened?" Nathan asked as he felt Ezra's pulse and brow.

"Just felt sick all of a sudden."

"He got very pale and I'm sure he blacked out for a split second, Nate," Buck said from the sidelines.

"Can you remember what you were doing beforehand?" Nathan asked as he tried to determine what would have caused his friend to feel sick.

"No, I can't remember. I just got up from the chair I think and had to sit down again quickly. I think I was rather hungry so perhaps that made me feel a bit faint," Ezra said quietly as he rubbed his eyes to try and clear his vision.

"Yeah, we were just gonna get something to eat, Nate. I went on ahead but when I looked round to see where Ez had got to I saw him sit down pretty hasty and looking set to puke," Buck confirmed.

"Maybe you stood up too quickly. That sometimes makes you feel light- headed and dizzy. Do you feel okay now?" the therapist asked as he turned his attention back to the attorney.

Before Ezra could answer, Chris ambled into the living room and saw the huddle of men surrounding someone who was seated. He couldn't see who it was and the blond wondered what was up so he walked toward them to investigate. "What's going on?" he asked as he drew near and saw it had been Ezra that had been hidden from view.

"Ezra nearly passed out," Josiah said and looked at Chris worriedly.

"Are you okay?" the blond asked anxiously as he put a hand on Ezra's shoulder.

"I'm quite recovered but I think I will go and have a lie down for a bit before we go out this evening," the agent said as he rose slowly and left the room, accompanied by Josiah. The attorney rejoined the men as planned in the evening after having a rest and reported that he felt fine. It was as if there had been nothing wrong with him at all earlier in the day.

+ + + + + + +

Work carried on apace on the ranch and the time flew by. The guest accommodation was well under way and Vin and Buck were starting to buy some of the sports equipment they would need. Chris was already getting inquiries from interested parties now that JD had set up a website advertising their wares.

Vin and JD began working on the quad bikes that had just arrived. Chris had got some cheap from a friend and the two men had agreed to do the work on them to make sure they were up to scratch.

"Not bad shape considering that they're used," Vin said as he studied them carefully.

"Yeah. They're gonna be great fun when they're fixed," JD said as he set to work on the first machine.

After working solidly until mid-afternoon the two men stepped back to admire their work. The machines looked like new and that was more than could be said for Vin and JD. They were liberally covered in grease, oil and dirt. The two men packed up their tools and headed to the ranch house to clean up. They wandered through to the living room to find Chris to tell him they'd finished.

"Good God, watch out Mr. Sanchez. We've been invaded by the creatures from the black lagoon," Ezra said as the two men came into view.

"It's us, you jerk," Vin said with a bright smile showing through the oil on his face.

"Mr. Tanner? What in Heaven's name have you been doing? Bathing in mud perhaps?"

"Well you can't mend machinery without getting dirty. You'd probably manage it though. I think we'll have to call you Teflon from now on. No dirt ever seems to stick to ya," Vin laughed as he patted Ezra's shoulder.

The attorney looked at the area that Vin had touched and brushed it irritably to get rid of any dirt that may have settled there. Ezra then fixed the man with a stare and stated, "I'm careful to stay clean and there's nothing wrong with that. You, on the other hand, seem to indulge in dirt. I can't understand you at all."

"Well, I'm a complex person, Ezra. I have hidden depths to my character," Vin said sounding totally sincere.

"I advise you to keep them well concealed in that case. A fetish for dirt is something you shouldn't brag about," Ezra said earnestly as Josiah laughed.


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