Back on the Road Again

by Hombre

Back at the hospital Chris was fighting a losing battle to keep Vin calm. The sharpshooter had become very upset knowing that Ezra was missing.

“Vin, come on. Calm down, cowboy. They'll find him,” the blond said as he ran his fingers through his friend's hair.

The blue-eyed man put his uninjured hand to his face and sobbed. “How? You didn't see him before.”

“We didn't know he was there then and we were all concentrating on you. They'll keep looking ‘til they find him. He couldn't be too far from where we found you, could he?” Chris pointed out reasonably.

Vin shook his head and winced before stating decisively, “He's gonna be dead, Chris. I can feel it. I know it.”

“No, you don't know nothing, Vin. You can't start thinking like that,” the blond said firmly as he put his hands on either side of Vin's face and made the man look at him.

“You weren't there, Chris. We was hit hard and if he was thrown out of sight he must be hurt bad. I hurt enough with what happened to me and he had the full force of it,” Vin replied tearfully.

“Don't give up on him, Vin.”

“I should never have made him get back on a bike. He trusted me to keep him safe and I failed him,” Vin said as he fiddled continuously with the sheet with his uninjured hand.

Chris shook his head. “It was his choice, Vin. You didn't force him. You know you can't force Ez to do anything he don't want to. Now you get some rest or you'll be no good to anyone, least of all yerself.”

“Can't sleep. My neck hurts,” Vin said stubbornly.

“You've got whiplash injuries so it's gonna hurt like hell for a while, cowboy,” Chris said comfortingly. “Come on, Vin. Go to sleep, will ya?”

Vin refused to settle and Chris decided to call the nurse after the man was still fidgeting half an hour later. She gave the sharpshooter a mild sedative and a painkiller and he finally quieted down. He still didn't sleep but at least he was resting.

Chris raked his fingers through his friend's hair again and then sat down wearily. He put his elbows on his knees and rested his chin on his hands. God, what a day. From thinking we were gonna bust a smuggling gang to possibly having to face the fact that I might lose one of my men. He really hoped it didn't come to that but he had been forced to agree with Vin's opinion that Ezra couldn't possibly still be alive.

Suddenly the machines monitoring Vin started sounding urgent beeps. Medical staff hurried into the room and Chris stood hastily in panic as he looked nervously at his injured friend.

“Can you leave please,” a nurse asked as she put a hand on his elbow and pushed him toward the door forcefully.

Chris walked out without resisting and turned to look back through the window. He felt cold and unsettled as he watched the doctor and nurses treating his best friend. He wished a few of his teammates were with him to provide a bit of moral support. He looked around the hospital's hallway and although it was very busy he'd never felt so alone in his life. He turned his attention back to Vin and shivered as his eyes remained fixed on the activity that was taking place on the other side of the window.

Finally the doctor came out and stood beside the blond and looked back through the window at his patient.

“Doc?” Chris asked apprehensively.

“His blood pressure dropped because one of his ribs shifted and punctured his lung. Do you mind going to the waiting room and I'll come get you when we've sorted him out properly.”

Chris sighed and nodded reluctantly before turning to head off to the indicated room. He entered and looked out the window with unfocussed eyes, not seeing the activity in the street below or acknowledging any of the other occupants of the room. He eventually began pacing with long flowing strides and he circled the room continually in agitation as he waited for news. The doctor finally arrived back and Chris stopped pacing and made a beeline straight for him like a missile heading for its target.

The medic smiled and said, “We've put in a chest drain and we're going to put him on a ventilator for a while, if he can tolerate it. You can go back in if you like.”

Chris thanked him and walked back along the hallway to his friend's room. He opened the door and walked quietly to Vin's bedside as he flicked a quick look to the nurse who smiled back. “Will he be alright on the ventilator?” he asked anxiously.

“Yes, I've just altered the settings and he seems fine. Hopefully he can go back on an oxygen mask soon but we just want to get him stabilized properly first.”

Chris sighed in relief and sat down with a groan as he put the palms of his hands over his eyes. He rubbed his face vigorously after a while in the manner of someone washing without a washcloth. He then noisily blew out the breath he'd been holding and looked toward the bed. He took Vin's hand in his and just sat and stared at the sleeping, injured man.

+ + + + + + +

Buck stood in the street where they'd found Vin and scanned the area quickly. “JD? Go over that way. Josiah? Head down the alley opposite. Nate and I'll go toward those cars.”

“Try calling Ezra's phone again, Buck. We may hear it ringing and we can find him quicker then,” JD suggested.

“Good idea, kid,” Buck praised. He pulled out his cell and the men headed off while listening carefully.

Buck approached the two damaged cars and thought he heard the familiar ring-tone of Ezra's phone. It was the theme-tune to the film The Sting and the other men always joked with Ezra about it, calling him a con man. Buck sighed and looked round but couldn't quite place where the sound was coming from. He finally got down on his hands and knees and looked under the car nearest him.

“Shit! Ezra? Ezra? Can you hear me, pard?” he shouted as he saw his friend's body jammed beneath the vehicle. He felt his skin erupt in goose bumps as he shivered from head to foot when he detected no sound or movement from the injured man. Buck looked up as he heard the sound of running feet and saw his three companions hurrying toward him.

“Buck? You find him?” Nate called as he got nearer to the ladies' man.

“He's under the car. There's no way we can get him out without hurting him more,” the ladies' man stated.

“Josiah? Get an ambulance and the Fire Department,” the medic instructed as he dropped to his knees beside Buck. He lowered his head and studied Ezra's unmoving body. “JD? Get the flashlight, will ya? I can't see a damned thing under here.”

The men heard the kid run back to the car and then come back again. Nathan saw the flashlight appear beside his face and he took it from the kid's hand and turned it on. He pointed the beam toward Ezra but it didn't help much.

“I can get under there,” JD offered when he heard Nathan curse in frustration.

The ladies' man immediately clamped a hand on the youngster's shoulder and shook his head. “Just hold on a minute, kid. Let Josiah check the car thoroughly before you go climbing underneath,” Buck ordered.

The ladies' man pulled out his cell as he walked away from the vehicle and punched in Chris's number while watching Josiah work. “Chris?”

“Bucklin? Have you found him?”

“Yeah, we found him but he's trapped beneath a car and we don't even know if he's alive yet, pard,” Buck admitted quietly as he stood with one hand clamped to his brow in anguish.

“Jesus. Keep me informed. Vin had to be sedated ‘cause he got in such a state with worrying. Something else happened after that too but I'll tell you about it when you get back. I could really do with you here, Bucklin,” Chris replied quietly.

“Okay, pard. I'll phone when we get him out and we'll be back as soon as we can. Just try to stay cool, buddy.” Buck felt pulled two ways. He wanted to stay with Ezra but he could also tell how upset Chris was having to cope with Vin on his own.

Josiah spoke as soon as Buck disconnected. “It's okay, Buck. JD should be safe.”

“Alright, under you go kid. Just see if he's alive but don't try to move him or anything,” Nathan cautioned.

JD got down on his belly and wriggled quickly toward his friend. He banged his head once or twice on the claustrophobic trip but he didn't let it put him off his mission. When he was near enough he reached out and got hold of Ezra's wrist gently and felt for a pulse. He readjusted his grip slightly and lay absolutely still for a minute.

“JD? Are you okay?” Nathan called anxiously when hearing only silence.

The youngster managed to turn his head slightly toward the medic as he shouted, “Yeah, I'm fine and I'm just checking Ez. He's alive but I don't know for how much longer, Nate. Found a pulse but it's very weak and patchy.”

“Is he breathing, kid?”

“Can't tell. I can't reach his face ‘cause of the helmet and I can't really see his chest from here either. He's sorta twisted,” the youngster informed the medic.

“Alright. Check him for injuries on the bits you can touch. Just take care, kid.”

JD did as he was told but got out of the way when he heard a siren approaching and he related his sparse news, “Can't really tell much at all, Nate. There ain't enough room to move properly under there.”

The fire department arrived and managed to get the car away from Ezra. Nathan immediately knelt down and began checking the undercover agent thoroughly when he was clear.

The medic looked up anxiously and spoke to the first person he set eyes on. “Buck? I need yer help. I need to get his helmet off ‘cause his breathing's real bad.”

“Tell me what I need to do,” the ladies' man agreed nervously while he stood with hands on thighs as he bent down to hear what the medic said.

“Support his head and neck while I take the helmet off. Hold him tight ‘cause I think he's possibly damaged his back. Work from the base of the helmet and put yer hand under the rim. Hold his neck at the back with one hand and grip his lower jaw firmly with the other. I've gotta tilt the helmet back and get it clear of his chin and then forward to get it off the base of his skull. I can then pull it clear, okay?”

“Okay. I understand.” Buck knelt down and got hold of Ezra's head and neck as Nathan had instructed.

Nathan then slowly and carefully removed the helmet. He could see Ezra's chest was now barely moving so he put the side of his face down toward the injured man's nose and mouth and stayed still for a few seconds. “Shit.”

“Nate? What's wrong?” Buck asked worriedly.

“He's stopped breathing.” The medic moved his hand to Ezra's neck and found the pulse there but it too suddenly stopped. “Shit. I need to do CPR now!”

“Can we move him if he's hurt his back?” Josiah asked.

The medic looked up and nodded briefly. “Gonna have to. Getting him breathing is more important than his injuries. Can you all help? We've gotta move him onto his back but you need to treat him real gentle. You need to keep his head, body and toes in a straight line. Buck, are you okay to stay where you are?”

“Yeah. I've got him.”

“Right the rest of you straighten his limbs. He's already on his right hip so we need to keep him in that position while we line up his arms and legs.”

The men worked slowly and gently and Ezra was finally held tight on his right side.

“Okay, now roll him onto his back,” Nathan instructed.

The men did as they were told and then moved quickly out of the way so Nathan could get to work. He took over from Buck and tilted Ezra's head back gently but not as far as he usually would.

“I'll breathe into him so can you do the chest compressions, Buck?” Nathan received a confirming nod from the ladies' man before he bent down and began trying to revive his friend. They worked solidly for a few minutes with a marked lack of success.

“Ezra? Come on dammit! You've been waiting all this time for us to find you. Don't give up now, pard,” Buck pleaded. Or, Buck thought to himself, Perhaps you were waiting for us to come so you didn't die alone.

“Nate?” Josiah asked quietly as he stood watching with a comforting hand on JD's shoulder.

The medic again had his face close to Ezra's, checking for any signs of life. He looked up and nodded as he smiled faintly but not confidently. “I've got a pulse again but it ain't regular and I don't know how long it'll keep going for. Breathing is back too. Where's that damned ambulance?” Nathan asked frantically.

“They're on the way. I just called to hurry them up,” the profiler assured his worried friend.

“Help me put him in the recovery position, will ya?” Nathan decided to turn the injured man onto his right side again now he was breathing. “Can you all help again? I'll keep hold of his head if you can grab his shoulder and thigh and pull him toward you, Buck. Do it real slow and careful.”

Buck did as he was told until Ezra ended up facing him with his left leg and arm slightly bent to provide a bit of support. Once Nathan was happy, he turned to Buck and said, “Keep hold of his leg and put yer hand on his shoulder to make sure he stays in this position. I'll keep his neck aligned. Are you still okay with this, Buck?”

“Yeah. I'm fine at the moment but my arms are beginning to ache,” the ladies' man admitted, sounding embarrassed that he might be letting the medic down by confessing his fatigue.

“Okay Buck, don't fret. Josiah? Come and sit at Ezra's back and support him at his hip and shoulder as well, will ya? Don't touch his spine though, whatever you do.”

“Sure thing, brother.” The profiler moved into position and gently put his hands on Ezra's body and increased the pressure.

The men sat quietly until the ambulance finally arrived and the paramedics took their time to load the injured man in the back. Buck climbed in with Ezra while the other three men got in the car and set off as Nathan phoned Chris with an update.

“We're coming in, Chris,” the medic said quietly when the blond responded to his call.

“Thank God. How is he?” The blond frowned when he only heard silence. He came out in a cold sweat, fearing the worst. “Nate? Is he alright?

“If I say he's dying it ain't far from the truth.”

“Shit. What's wrong with him?”

“Done something to his back and broken his ankle for starters. There's maybe internal injuries too ‘cause he's in shock but I can't say how bad they are. He stopped breathing just after we found him too, Chris. It don't look good for him.”

“Shit,” Chris said as he disconnected.

In the ambulance, the paramedic who was in the back with Ezra suddenly called out to his colleague, “Pull over now, Pete. He's arresting.”

The vehicle came to a rapid but smooth stop and the driver climbed through to help his colleague. The ambulance was full of the sounds of beeping from the machines and cursing from the paramedics. Buck moved out of the way rapidly and watched the two paramedics work on his friend. He sat quietly and sent continuous silent prayers up to God as he shook with worry. The paramedics worked solidly for quite some time before the driver hurried back to his seat.

“Is he alright?” Buck asked anxiously with a lump in his throat.

“Got a pulse and he's breathing shallowly but we need to get him to the hospital pronto. To be revived twice in such a short time don't bode well,” the paramedic confessed bleakly.

The ambulance continued on its way at speed and Buck moved to sit by Ezra's head again. He stroked the man's hair and face and talked to him constantly. “Stay with us, pard. It ain't yer time to die, you hear me?”

They pulled in outside the hospital within minutes and Chris was waiting impatiently outside the entrance. He watched the undercover agent wheeled inside with Buck hurrying along beside him. “Buck? How is he?”

“He stopped breathing and his heart packed up on the way. We had to pull over for them to revive him again.”

“Dammit. Go with him while I speak to Nate.”

Buck turned on his heels and ran after his injured friend. The other men arrived on foot after parking the car and they ran to join Chris at the entrance.

“How's Vin?” Nathan asked.

“In a lot of pain and very upset. He got too upset for his own good with worrying about Ezra. One of his ribs punctured a lung and he had a bit of trouble breathing so they put him on the ventilator and put a chest drain in.”

“He'll be okay, though?” Josiah asked anxiously.

“Hope so but they ain't being very communicative. It scared me shitless when it happened, I can tell you. Come on, let's get inside and see how they both are.”

The four men hurried along to Vin's room where they met up with Buck to wait for news of Ezra. Vin woke when he heard the men talking and he looked around with wide eyes. The sharpshooter then fixed Chris with a penetrating stare and asked the question with his eyes.

The blond nodded and said, “They found him, Vin. He's here.”

Vin looked around again, expecting his friend to be nearby, before looking back at Chris in confusion.

“No Vin. He's in the OR. He's badly hurt but don't you fret and make yerself sick, you hear me? Ez needs you to be strong,” Chris said as he patted Vin's shoulder and smiled in encouragement.

The sharpshooter settled back on the pillows but he didn't look too happy. His heart began beating faster as he fidgeted continuously, unable to settle after being given the bad news concerning his friend. Josiah moved to sit next to him and the big man kept up a quiet one- sided conversation and his deep, calming voice had the desired effect and Vin dozed peacefully.

Finally after many hours a doctor arrived. “Mr. Larabee?”

“How is he?” Chris inquired as he stood up quickly.

“Can I have a word outside?”

The blond's heart skipped a beat and he flicked a quick look at Vin. The man was awake again and was watching him so he smiled apprehensively in the hope of allaying the man's fears. Chris followed the doctor outside and the medic turned toward him with a grim face.

“He's dead, ain't he?” Chris stated quietly as he shivered as if an icy wind had blown over him.

The doctor shook his head negatively and smiled bleakly. “No. We've got him stabilized for the time being but I'm afraid he's damaged his back.”

“How bad?”

“He's chipped a few vertebrae and badly damaged some of the nerves and muscles in the area as well. We need to take him for surgery to remove the bone fragments because they're pressing against his spinal cord. It's called fracture dislocation and as far as we can tell at the moment he hasn't got any feeling below the break.” The doctor indicated with his hand on his own body the area that was involved before continuing talking. “Once he's had surgery we hope he'll get sensation back but it could be a week or more before we know for sure. He's gonna be flat on his back for quite some time and will need extensive physical therapy.”

“Do you think he will recover fully?” Chris asked quietly as he digested what he'd been told.

“I'm sorry, I really can't say at this stage.”

Chris sighed at the lack of a positive answer. “Can I see him?”

“Just for a minute. He's not awake and he won't be for quite some time. We're going to keep him sedated for the time being anyway to keep him as still as possible. We'll be operating fairly soon but he needs to be really stable before we attempt surgery or we could lose him for sure.”

Chris nervously followed the doctor along to Ezra's room, for some reason dreading seeing his agent. He stepped inside quietly and approached his bruised and battered friend. “Hey, Ez. You had us all worried. You just concentrate on getting better and I'll come and see you again later.” Chris sighed and ambled back to Vin's room with his mind full of thoughts.

“Chris? Are you okay, pard?” Buck inquired. The ladies' man had been waiting anxiously outside Vin's room after seeing Chris walk off with the doctor. He could see how preoccupied Chris looked and his heart stood still as he waited for the expected bombshell to be dropped.

“Yeah, I'm alright,” the blond replied unconvincingly as he rubbed his hands up and down his arms in a futile attempt to get warm. He'd never felt so cold and he shivered again, unable to stop his body shaking. He looked up at his oldest friend and saw the question in his eyes so he smiled bleakly and nodded. “Ezra's still alive, Bucklin.”

Buck's heart lifted and he took a step forwards and placed a hand on his friend's back and gave it an encouraging rub. “What did the doc say to ya?”

Chris shook his head sadly. “In effect he's broken his back.”

“Shit.” Buck stared at the blond before transferring his gaze to the floor.

“Look, we'll talk later. Is Vin alright?”

“Anxious for news. He's just been removed from the ventilator, which is a faint silver lining in this whole damned business. He's still in a lot of pain though,” the ladies' man informed the blond.

Chris took a deep breath and walked into Vin's room with a confidence he didn't feel. Vin's eyes had been glued to the door awaiting his return.

“Chris?” the sharpshooter said gruffly as soon as he saw the blond.

“He's alive,” the blond said simply.

The injured man narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he studied his best friend worriedly. “Why do I get the feeling there's a but in there somewhere?” he observed before coughing softly and rubbing his chest.

Chris sighed and looked down at the floor before raising his eyes to meet the sharpshooter's. “He's broken his back.” The blond heard the collective inhaled breath from all his men at the news. He sighed and continued with the bad news, glad to get it out in the open. “Well, what I mean is that he's chipped some vertebrae and hurt the nerves and muscles there. At the moment he's paralyzed from the waist down ‘cause the broken bones are pressing against his spinal cord.”

“Will he walk again?” Buck asked as he put a hand on JD's shoulder. He'd seen the youngster tremble when they'd been told the news and he tried his best to comfort his friend.

“The doctor doesn't know at the moment. They're gonna operate to remove the bone fragments soon and hopefully he will then get the feeling back but he's gonna be confined to bed for a while whatever happens.”

“That'll suit Ez down to the ground, Vin. You know he already spends half his life in bed,” Buck said with a slight smile.

Vin smiled sadly. “That's through choice, Bucklin. Least he had the option of getting up once in a while. When's he gonna get up of his own accord again now?”

Chris could see the tears in his friend's eyes. He wiped them away and signaled for the other men to leave them alone. Chris waited until he heard the door close and then said, “Come on, Vin. Ezra'll probably be up before you know it. If we tell him he won't be able to get up for a couple of months, he'll be up in one just to spite us.”

The sharpshooter smiled and reached out his uninjured hand toward his friend. Chris took it and squeezed it before sitting down again and saying, “How many times have we thought we'd lost him? He's defied God and the Devil every time.”

“His luck will run out one day, Chris,” Vin said quietly as he wiped his brow with the back of his hand, which he took out of Chris's grasp.

“So will ours. Everyone dies, Vin. It's the one certainty in life but I admit that some die sooner than they ought and some not soon enough.”

“He's scared of dying,” Vin said suddenly as he stared unseeingly at the ceiling.

“I know he is, cowboy.”

“Are you?” Vin asked as he slowly turned his gaze to the blond.

“Can't say I've ever thought about it. Try not to, I s'pose. Guess that means you could say I am then, if I don't even wanna contemplate it.” Chris shrugged at his lack of clarity. “How ‘bout you?”

“Didn't used to be. Didn't have much to live for when I was on the streets. Reckon I wouldn't have cared too much then but now it's different. I've got things to look forward to, friends that I love and a world of opportunities that I never had before. I don't wanna lose that.” Vin paused and sighed. “Dying just seems so unreal. Just can't imagine not seeing, hearing or breathing anymore, ya know? Once we're dead it's as if we never existed. Yer forgotten after just one generation and it sometimes makes me wonder what the point of life is.”

“I know what you mean, cowboy. I know what you mean.” Chris reached out a hand, which he balled into a fist and made as if to punch Vin's chin lightly. Vin had a way of putting thoughts into words that sometimes astounded the blond and he never ceased to amaze Chris.

The green-eyed man looked up again after a while and saw that Vin was finally asleep. He relaxed and leant back in his chair as he ran both hands round the back of his neck and massaged the tight muscles there. He'd never felt so old and he closed his eyes briefly to try and summon some energy into his body as he wondered whether Ezra would recover.

A doctor came in a few minutes later to check on Vin and told Chris that Ezra been taken for surgery. The blond had to wait an anxious few hours before the man was returned to his room to recover. The paralyzed agent had been put in traction and the sedatives withdrawn now that he was being kept still by other means. The operation had been successful in removing all the bits of bone but as yet the doctors couldn't give any news about the paralysis. The injured man showed no sign of wanting to wake up and Chris couldn't help but worry.

The only piece of good news they received for that day was from the FBI. They contacted Chris to say that Carl and the vast majority of the gang had been captured. The overseas contacts were being hunted down and several had already been apprehended. The assignment had been a success but at a high price.

+ + + + + + +

Each day merged into the next as the men divided their time between work, home and hospital. Chris hadn't slept in days and he was developing an even shorter temper than normal. His friends treated him with kid gloves but Vin was too wrapped up in his own guilt to notice until it was too late.

The sharpshooter was still having a hard time accepting what had happened and was convinced that he was to blame for Ezra's injuries. As soon as he set eyes on the blond when he arrived to visit, he said, “Do you think Ez will ever forgive me, Chris? He trusted me and I let him down. He felt safe coming with me.”

“You couldn't help what happened, Vin. It wasn't your fault,” the blond said automatically. He'd been saying the same thing for the past seven days and he was getting heartily sick of it. He literally bit his tongue but he could feel his anger reaching breaking point. He clenched and unclenched his fists as he walked toward the window while he counted to ten in the vain hope of staving off the inevitable explosion.

“It was my fault,” the sharpshooter repeated with a forlorn look on his face, totally unaware of the coming storm.

Chris reached his limit, unable to hold it in any longer and he let rip big time. “Crap! Stop wallowing in self-pity, Vin! It don't suit ya,” the blond snapped irritably. The vein in his forehead started throbbing visibly and he looked absolutely furious. “Least you'll be able to walk again. Count yer blessings and quit whining for Christ's sake.”

“Chris, don't!” Buck protested immediately. His voice altering in pitch from high to low and back to high again in angry rebuke.

“Shut the fuck up, Bucklin! I'm fed up to the back teeth with his constant poor-little-me act. I can do without it. He's got it easy compared to Ez,” the blond yelled before leaving the room angrily, slamming the door behind him.

“Don't fret Vin. You know he's prone to blow a gasket once in a while and it was more than likely to happen given the current circumstances. He's just real upset about Ez. He ain't mad at you really,” the mustached agent said placatingly when he saw the shattered look on Vin's face at the outburst.

“Sure sounded like it,” Vin muttered mournfully as he turned his face away from the tall agent so he was staring at the wall.

Buck patted Vin's shoulder, not knowing what to say and then left the sharpshooter with Josiah while he went in search of Chris. He found the man outside smoking a cigarette feverishly. “Chris?”

The blond looked up wearily and held up a hand in surrender. “I don't need a lecture from you, Bucklin. I know I behaved badly and I'll apologize to Vin later but I just feel so damned helpless. It's not like Vin to feel sorry for himself and I don't know how to cheer him up. I don't know how to stop him fretting and feeling guilty about what happened. Then I keep wonderin' whether Ezra is gonna walk again or even if he'll wake up and I don't know which way to turn. I really thought I'd lost them both, ya know?”

Buck leaned against the wall beside Chris and said, “You can't blame Vin for feeling guilty, pard. Imagine how you'd feel if you were in his shoes. You'd be climbing the walls too, wouldn't ya? The only thing that's gonna cheer him up is knowing Ezra's gonna be okay.”

“Yeah, we could all do with knowing that, Bucklin,” Chris replied quietly as he ran a hand over his mouth and chin before sighing loudly. He felt totally spent. He could summon no energy whatsoever and felt like collapsing in a heap at Buck's feet.

The ladies' man put a hand on his friend's shoulder when he saw the man literally sag before his eyes. He frowned worriedly and said, “You've gotta let us help ya take the strain, pard. You've always gotta try and sort out everyone's problems. Leave Ezra to us, or if you want a break from Vin you go and sit with Ez instead. Just delegate some of the heartache, will ya?”

Chris looked up and smiled. He was really pleased he had the tall man as a friend. He was always there to make him see reason and to keep him from totally losing perspective. “Thanks, Bucklin. I'll come back in later, okay? I just need a break and some fresh air.”

“Sure, pard. Take yer time and I'll go back and sort Vin out,” Buck agreed as he disappeared.

Chris finally wandered back to his friend's room after half an hour. The other men were all there with Vin but they immediately rose and left when Chris reappeared. The blond walked over to the window and looked out before turning to Vin and sighing. The sharpshooter's eyes met his and Chris sighed again when he saw the hurt look there. He knew a very big apology was needed but he didn't know if he could find the right words. “I'm real sorry, Vin. I just lost my cool and I didn't mean what I said. It's really been a hellish week for everyone and I reached the end of my rope but I shouldn't have taken it out on you.”

Vin remained silent and Chris frowned.

“Vin?” the blond said as he moved toward his friend and sat in the chair nearby. He got hold of Vin's hand gently and studied it distractedly as he said, “I don't know what else to say, cowboy. I'm really sorry and I'll make it up to you somehow. Do you forgive me? I know I act like a jerk sometimes but I was only letting off steam. Just picked on the wrong person at the wrong time. I can't apologize enough for what I said to you.” Chris looked at the man in the bed with a worried look on his face when Vin still remained tightlipped. “Vin? Come on, cowboy. Talk to me, will ya? I really don't want this to come between us.”

Vin could see tears in the blond's eyes and heard the hitch in his voice. He realized just how bad the man was feeling because it was very rare for Chris to show his vulnerable side. Vin squeezed his friend's hand and smiled suddenly in an attempt to cheer the man up. “Okay, that's enough, Chris. Can't stand you begging for mercy. I just wanted you to grovel a bit.”

“You bastard,” Chris said as he grinned in relief and squeezed Vin's hand tightly in return. He wiped his eyes and then sat back as he kept a firm grip on the injured man's hand. He felt the need for some physical human contact to help him get through the rest of the day.

+ + + + + + +

After another week had passed slowly, Ezra finally woke. Nathan had been spending most of his time with the undercover agent while the others kept Vin company in turn.

“Ezra?” the medic said as he saw the man's eyes open. He reached out a hand and put it gently on the injured agent's arm.

“Nathan? Is that you? Where am I?” Ezra asked quietly as his eyes moved slowly to look around the room. He realized he couldn't move but he wasn't awake enough to wonder why. He sighed loudly and then settled his green eyes on Nathan questioningly.

“In the hospital. Can you remember what happened?”

“No. I've got a headache, I can't think.” The two men sat in silence for a while and then the undercover agent gasped. “Vin! I was with Vin……… Nathan? Was I with Vin?” Ezra asked in confusion.

“Yes, you were,” the medic confirmed quietly as he patted the man's arm, pleased that he'd remembered some details.

Ezra then asked worriedly, “Is Vin alright? He's not dead, is he? You would tell me, wouldn't you?” The man started getting upset and flustered.

“Calm down, Ez. He's improving well so don't get upset,” Nathan smiled. “Get some sleep before ya tire yerself out.”

The undercover agent disobeyed immediately and asked another question. “What's wrong with me?”

The medic put his hand on Ezra's head and ran his fingers through his friend's hair in an attempt at comforting him while he imparted his news. “You chipped some bones in your back. Can you feel anything in your legs?”

“They tingle,” Ezra said distractedly, not really thinking of the significance of the question and totally unaware of how happy his comment had made Nathan.

The medic ruffled his friend's hair in pleasure and smiled. “Enough talking, Ez. Now do as yer told and get some more rest or I might be forced to get Chris to come and sort ya out.”

As soon as Ezra was asleep, Nathan hurried off to Vin's room to relate the improvement in

Ezra's condition. The way he noisily entered the room, though, made the men inside think he would be conveying bad news. Chris sprung up with fear in his heart but when he saw the look on the medic's face he relaxed slightly.

“Nate? You look like the cat that swallowed a nice fat canary. What's up?” the blond asked as he watched a smile spread across Nathan's face until he was grinning from ear to ear.

“Ez is getting some feeling back. He woke up a while ago and said his legs were tingling.”

“Great! That's two lots of good news.”

“There ya go, pard. You can catch up on some shuteye now, can't ya?” Buck said to Chris as he punched the man's upper arm lightly.


“No maybe about it. You go home right now and get some rest and when I say now I mean now, alright? And as for you, Vin Tanner, you can stop fretting and getting yer panties in a bunch over yer guilt. Just think of all the energy you've wasted with worrying unnecessarily,” Buck chastised quietly.

“Fretting shows I care about him, Buck,” Vin disagreed softly as he tried to keep his emotions in check. He was so relieved that Ezra was alright that he had the overwhelming desire to cry.

Buck noticed the sharpshooter's shining eyes and he patted his arm comfortingly. “I know pard but you didn't do yerself any favors, did ya? Look what happened ‘cause you got all worked up. Made yerself even more sick, didn't ya?”

“Couldn't help it,” Vin said sulkily as he wiped his eyes with the back of his one working hand.

“Well, you can stop now and join me in some rest too. Ez ain't the only one who's got physical therapy to look forward to in the near future. Save yer strength for that,” Chris said as he patted Vin's shoulder, while grinning broadly in relief.

+ + + + + + +

Both patients continued to recover well although at very different speeds. Ezra was progressing at a snail's pace but Vin was now up and about albeit still moving with care. The good news about Ezra had certainly helped the sharpshooter kick- start his recovery. He began progressing in leaps and bounds and Chris had very been relieved at the improvement in his friend's mental state.

Vin was finally allowed to visit Ezra so Chris wheeled the sharpshooter along to his friend's room in a wheelchair and positioned him by the bed. Chris hoped he was doing the right thing and that seeing Ezra still confined to bed and depressed wouldn't upset Vin too much.

“Ezra?” Vin said quietly as soon as he saw his friend turn his unhappy gaze toward him.

The undercover agent smiled wearily. “Hello, Mr. Tanner. Excuse me if I don't get up.”

“Oh shit, Ezra,” Vin said tearfully as he bowed his head. He felt a comforting hand on his shoulder from behind where Chris was still standing. The blond increased the pressure of the touch and then patted his back twice in encouragement.

Ezra smiled grimly and apologized, “I'm sorry, just my dark sense of humor coming to the fore.” He sighed and then asked, “Is your bike beyond repair, Vin?”

“No, it'll mend. JD's currently knocking it back into shape for me.”

“Do you think he could do something for me? I feel I need knocking into shape,” Ezra said wearily as he placed one hand flat over his eyes to block out the light.

“I'll ask him but I think you're beyond hope,” Vin replied with a smile and immediately regretted his comment.

“I tend to agree,” Ezra muttered quietly.

“Ez? He was only joking. He didn't mean you weren't gonna heal,” Chris interrupted quickly. “Yer doin' well all things considered.”

“Yes, I s'pose you're right,” Ezra whispered as he looked at Vin again.

Vin met Ezra's green eyes and winced in embarrassment. “I'm real sorry about what happened, Ez. I feel damned guilty about it.”

“Why? It wasn't your fault. It was the gang that caused our injuries not you.” Ezra paused and took a deep breath. “I also gave into temptation and that is never a good thing. As you sow, so shall you reap, I think the saying goes. I'm more to blame than you so don't waste any sleep over it.” Ezra's voice faded and Chris could see his friend's eyes flutter in exhaustion.

“You didn't deserve this Ez,” Vin said quietly.

“Come on, Vin. Let's allow Ez to get some rest,” Chris said as he reached out and squeezed Ezra's upper arm as the man fell asleep.

Chris wheeled Vin back out into the hallway and stopped as he squatted down in front of the injured sharpshooter. “You okay, Vin? Didn't upset you too much seeing him like that?”

“No, I'm fine, cowboy. It was good to see him for myself. Still seems a bit down though, don't he?”

“Yeah, but that's only natural. I know it's been hard for you relying on secondhand news about how he was. He'll be out of here soon, I'm sure.” Chris stood up and ran his fingers through Vin's hair before wheeling him back to his own room.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was finally released and Vin, who had now fully recovered, arrived at the hospital to drive him out to the ranch where the others were waiting to greet him. The sharpshooter had been waiting for this day for a long time and he couldn't wait to see his friend. He hurried along to Ezra's room as eager as kid on Christmas morning.

“Hey, Ez. You all set?” he asked as he bounded into the room.

The undercover agent looked up and the sharpshooter could see Ezra's eyes look past him to see if anyone else had come. Vin thought his friend looked a bit disconcerted when he realized that Vin was on his own. “Hello, Mr. Tanner,” the dark- haired man replied distractedly after a while.

“You alright, Ez?” Vin asked with a frown as Ezra kept flicking his gaze to the door.

The dark-haired man looked embarrassed and didn't answer straightaway. The truth finally dawned on Vin and his heart skipped a beat, his excitement gone in a flash to be replaced by disappointment.

“You don't trust me to take you, do ya?” he asked quietly.

Ezra avoided his eyes and said, “I don't know what I feel. It's so stupid of me to be scared.”

Vin sat beside him on the bed and patted his knee. “No it ain't, Ez. I shoulda thought about how you'd react to me driving you.”

“It's not that really and I didn't mean to make things awkward for you. I think I'd be anxious whoever took me. It's like when I had my first accident all those years ago. I didn't have the confidence to get in a car or even on a train.”

“I know what you mean. I ain't got back on my bike yet. Chris's got it back at the ranch ‘cause I can't bear to look at it,” Vin admitted quietly.

Ezra looked at Vin in astonishment. “I'm sorry, Vin. I s'pose I never thought you'd ever be scared of anything.” He patted Vin's thigh. “Come on, let's get out of here.”

“You sure? I can get Chris to come, if you prefer,” Vin suggested as he studied the man critically.

“No, we've both got to get our confidence back. Let's start over, but if I ever so much as look at a bike in the future I give you permission to hit me.”

“Sure, Ez.” Vin smiled as he stood up and took Ezra out. He helped the man get in the Ram and could feel him trembling so he patted his arm and smiled before climbing in the driver's side. He flicked a look across at the man and smiled encouragingly when Ezra met his gaze. “Ready?”

Ezra winced and nodded slightly but Vin could see the man gripping the door handle tightly with one hand. The sharpshooter started the engine and pulled out into the traffic. He was extra vigilant throughout the journey to make sure nothing untoward happened to make his already uptight passenger even worse. They arrived at the ranch in one piece though and Ezra was pleased to see the rest of his friends all there. Vin passed Ezra his crutch and helped the man out of the vehicle. Ezra leaned against his temporary support and smiled at the welcoming committee.

“Hey Ez. Good to see ya, pard,” Buck said as he patted the man's back and then winced as he remembered that Ezra had injured it.

Ezra smiled when he saw the look on the tall agent's face. “It's alright, Bucklin. I'm not going to fall to pieces if you touch me.”

“Glad to hear it, buddy. Don't know what I'd have done if you'd fallen at my feet like a shattered plate.”

Ezra snorted with laughter and said, “You'd probably have swept me up and put me in the trash can. You wouldn't have the patience to fit me back together again.”

“Yeah, reckon yer right. Never could abide jigsaws,” Buck said as he smiled broadly.

Chris then escorted Ezra inside and the men took pleasure in being a whole team again. They always felt insecure when one of their number were missing.

+ + + + + + +

The following week, Vin arrived in his jeep at the ranch to see how Ezra was getting on. The undercover agent climbed carefully down the stairs to meet his friend when he saw him arrive from his bedroom window. He opened the door and smiled at the sharpshooter as he climbed out of his vehicle.

“Where's your bike, Mr. Tanner?” Ezra asked. He knew his friend still hadn't ridden it since the accident and he was going to do something to rectify matters. The undercover agent had overheard Vin talking to Chris a few days earlier about not wanting to get on the bike again until he was sure Ezra had recovered fully. The long-haired man thought it might be a bit insensitive to start riding again as if nothing had happened. Although Vin himself was ready, he didn't want to upset Ezra by being too hasty.

“In the barn,” Vin answered quietly as he eyed his friend anxiously.

“Come on then. Next part of the healing process. Take me round the yard on it,” Ezra ordered, sounding more confident than he felt.

Vin smiled but also looked worried. He had a feeling he knew why Ezra wanted to do it and he wondered whether the man was really ready. Ezra walked toward him and looped his arm through the sharpshooter's and pulled him toward the barn. Both men came to a halt just inside the door and stood and stared at the bike as if it were a monster.

“Come on. It wasn't the bike's fault either, Vin,” Ezra cajoled, urging himself on as much as Vin. “It's just a chunk of metal.”

“You sure you wanna do this?” Vin asked, having second thoughts himself.

“No, but then I was never sure, was I?”

Chris had followed behind them curiously and threw Vin his keys. The sharpshooter climbed on the bike and stroked the machine as he flicked a quick, nervous look at the blond. The slender, black-clad man returned the smile broadly and then patted Ezra's back when he saw the man hesitate and cringe. Ezra passed over his crutch to Chris and looked up into the green eyes that were watching him before he swung his leg over the back and got hold of Vin's waist loosely. The younger man started the motor and sat in the barn for a while before finally pushing off into the yard. He did a couple of circuits and pulled up outside the house with a slight grin playing on his lips.

The two men climbed off and Vin turned to Ezra with a smile. “Thanks, Ez. Can I hit you now?”

“I beg your pardon?”

“You said I could hit you if you ever looked at a bike again.”

“Damnation,” Ezra sighed and threw his gaze up to Heaven as Vin slapped his arm gently. “You're like a damned pachyderm except without the big ears and trunk, Mr. Tanner.”

“What the hell does that mean?” the sharpshooter asked sulkily.

“Well, elephants never forget so they say. Only you would've remembered what I said last week about hitting me.”

“I don't know that I like being compared to an elephant. They're all wrinkly.”

“Well, that describes you to a T,” Ezra laughed. “Wouldn't you agree, Mr. Larabee?”

“Hey, leave me out of this, Ez. I sure as hell ain't getting involved,” the blond replied as he walked away laughing. He heard the two men start trading insults and he shook his head, knowing the good-natured discussion would continue all day.

“Hyena,” Vin said to Ezra.

“Jackass,” Ezra replied as he hobbled away as fast as he could with Vin hurrying after him shouting insults.

The End

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