Notes: This takes place soon after the team is formed
and takes its story line partly from the episode Serpents. And yes, this
injury can be survived as per an article I found on the Internet about a
real event. The item was dated December 1st 2000 but the actual assault took
place on 18th Feb 2000 and I discovered it on www.sptimes.com. Hope the story
doesn't get too disjointed at the end.
The word was out already. Funny how bad news always spread so fast. Why did
it always get out with more speed than good news? The bad news this time
was that the money from the bust that Ezra had been involved in had been
stolen and replaced with fake notes. Everyone had their own opinions about
who had taken it and they weren't being quiet in voicing their thoughts.
The undercover agent wandered unhappily back to the team's office after his
debriefing with Travis. The man had expressed his support for Ezra but had
suggested it might be best if he went home straightaway.
Talk about given out mixed messages, Ezra grumbled to himself. The
dark-haired man really needed to talk to someone else about events and he
hoped one of his teammates would lend an ear. However, Ezra stopped dead
outside the team's office as he heard JD's shrill voice talking about him
"Well, we don't know Ezra all that well, do we? He's only been with us a
"Son? You shouldn't start pointing the finger of blame before you have all
the facts. You oughta know better than that," Josiah said in a warning tone.
Ezra stayed where he was, unable to move, like a rabbit caught in headlights.
The youngster took no notice whatsoever of the profiler's rebuke. "Well,
he was in charge of it, wasn't he? How could it have been taken without him
knowing? He had a bad reputation before he came to us and I don't see who
else it coulda been."
Buck's voice sounded next. "JD's right. We don't know a whole lot about him;
only that he had a checkered past. He may have reverted back to his old ways
for all we know," the ladies' man said.
Even you believe I'm guilty, Bucklin? Ezra thought sadly. I thought
you, at least, knew me better than that.
"Yeah, well, his eyes always light up when he sees money," Nathan chipped
"Hey, guys," Vin said softly but angrily. "Why are we turning on him? He's
one of us, ain't he? We support each other through the bad times."
"This is different, Vin. We don't know that he's innocent," Nathan said.
Ezra turned and walked away, unable to listen to any more, but he missed
hearing Vin sticking up for him again.
"Nate? We don't know that he's guilty either. I know we don't know
him well, but I think I can read a good man when I see one, and Chris sure
as hell can. Ez didn't steal that money and I'm real surprised that
you could all be so quick to judge him. Think yerself lucky that Chris is
still interviewing a suspect or he'd have all yer hides for talking like
"Yeah, well, we'll see who's right when they've done the investigation,"
the medic said quietly as the men started work again.
Meanwhile, the undercover agent had hurried out onto the sidewalk. Ezra wandered
the streets of Denver before finding his way to a bar where he knew his
colleagues would never think of looking for him. Not that he thought they
would be looking for him. If they were, it would only be to arrest
me, he thought sullenly. He stayed there until the early hours of the
morning before making his way back to his place of work again. He sat down
at his desk and wrote quickly on a spare piece of paper before placing the
missive in an envelope. He then entered Chris's office and placed the letter
on the man's desk where he couldn't miss seeing it on his arrival. Ezra looked
round with regret at his workplace and left.
+ + + + + + +
Chris wandered into his office with his customary strong, black coffee to
kick-start the day. He sat down at his desk and picked up the envelope he
found there. He opened it curiously and sat back in his chair while yawning
loudly. He suddenly sat up straight and his mouth closed with a snap when
he read the letter's first few lines.
|Dear Mr. Larabee,
I will save you the trouble of firing me
by leaving of my own accord. It seems I have already been tried and convicted
by both my fellow workers and a lot of people who don't even know me. I know
there's no point in saying that I was not responsible for the money's
disappearance because my word seems to hold no weight with any of you.
I thought that when I came to work for you
I had at last found my place in the world. Somewhere I could thrive and settle
down, but I was wrong. After this afternoon's episode I feel as though I
am still on the outside looking in. I cannot continue to work with people
who hold me in such low regard and believe me capable of theft. I, at least,
expected a bit of loyalty from those whom I thought knew and, bigger fool
me, trusted me. Appearances, it seems, can be very deceptive.
I will fight the allegations made against
me on my own as it appears I cannot rely on help from any of you.
Ezra P. Standish
Chris cursed and screwed up the letter knowing he should've spoken to the
man himself the previous night. He'd instead become embroiled in interviewing
the gang leader from the bust. After that, Travis had called him in about
the theft, and it had been very late when they'd finally finished. He'd tried
phoning the undercover agent once but he'd received no reply at his house
and the man's cell had been turned off too. The blond drove by Ezra's house
but saw that the man wasn't there, so he decided that as Travis had already
spoken to Ezra, he'd leave talking to the undercover agent himself 'til the
next day when things had calmed down a bit. Now it was too late and things
had really gotten out of hand. Shoulda tracked him down last night. I'm
his boss and I shoulda been there for him no matter what.
His attention was brought back to the letter as he dropped it on the desk,
and he stood up angrily as he remembered it contents. "Godammit! What the
hell did you lot say to Ezra yesterday?" he yelled as he stormed outside
and glared at his team furiously.
"Didn't see him, Chris. He never came back," Buck said.
"Well, he musta done 'cause he seems convinced you believe him guilty of
theft. Did you talk about the subject at all?"
There was an uncomfortable silence before Josiah spoke up. "One or two things
were said in the heat of the moment, Chris. Vin and I tried to put a stop
to it and we both tried to contact him last night to make sure he was alright
but we couldn't find him anywhere." The big man shrugged. "All I can say
is that Ez wasn't here yesterday when we were talking," the profiler said,
feeling guilty over their backstabbing behavior the day before.
"He overheard ya then 'cause he's just quit his job," Chris ranted as he
fixed each man with a stern, angry look.
"Guilty then," JD said tactlessly as he raised his eyebrows and pursed his
"What the hell did you say, kid?" Chris asked ominously as he loomed
over top of the youngster.
"Why leave if he's innocent?" JD replied, seemingly uncaring as he shrugged.
Chris knew that the kid was only saying what everyone else would also think
on hearing the news, and it stoked his anger up another few notches. "Jesus
Christ! Maybe it's yer attitude toward him that had somethin' to do with
it. Read that," Chris shouted as he threw the crumpled sheet at the youngster.
"Before criticizing him you should all look to yer own damned halo's.
None of you are the angels you seem to think you are. I'm gonna go and see
if I can find him and set matters straight. Make sure you've revised yer
thoughts by the time I get back or there'll be more than one person looking
for another job." The blond turned abruptly and stormed out of the room.
JD grimaced as he spread the sheet out flat and read out loud for all the
men to hear. There was silence when he'd finished.
+ + + + + + +
Chris drew up outside Ezra's house and saw the man's Jag in the drive so
he walked up to the front door and knocked loudly. Ezra opened it after a
couple of minutes and looked astonished to see him.
"Ezra? Can I have a word?" Chris asked as he studied the strained-looking
undercover agent. It was obvious that the man had been up all night.
"I don't see what benefit that would have."
The blond sighed when he heard the defeated tone in the man's voice. He tried
a bit of encouragement to see if he could begin to change the man's mind.
"I don't want to lose you, Ez. Yer a damned good agent and I thought you
were fitting in well."
Ezra snorted and said sarcastically, "So did I until yesterday. It seems
a few of your colleagues were only fair-weather friends and as soon as something
bad happened they showed their true colors."
"Can I come in?" Chris asked, knowing he had a lot to sort out with the man.
He'd never had this type of problem to deal with before and he hoped he would
handle the matter correctly.
"Whatever," Ezra said as he stepped back inside the house and led the way
to the living room.
As soon as Chris sat down, Ezra asked, "Do you believe I did it?"
Chris always vetted the people he wanted in his team very thoroughly before
offering them a job. Although he knew Ezra had been a loose cannon on occasion
in his previous jobs, he had recognized his potential. "No," he replied
"That didn't sound overly convincing. Why don't you just admit your true
"Ezra? I don't believe you stole that money," the blond said, more
The undercover agent stared at him with narrowed eyes as if trying to ascertain
if Chris was lying. He eventually lowered his eyes and looked at the floor
as he shrugged his shoulders. "Well, you would be the only one with that
"That's not true. I think Josiah and Vin are on yer side from what
they said to me earlier. Why do you think the others don't trust you?"
Ezra raised his eyes defiantly. "I heard them say so. I was on my way back
to the office but I stopped outside because they were talking about me and
they made their feelings perfectly clear. Josiah and Vin, as you said, were
the only ones who stood up for me in any way and they weren't overly forceful.
I cannot work with people who change sides so easily. It makes for an
uncomfortable workplace, and with my job, I need to know I can rely on every
single person in the team to look out for my welfare."
"Yeah, I know, Ez. Quitting just makes you look guilty though," Chris said
as he thought back to JD's comment that morning.
"Their opinions were voiced before I'd even handed in my notice and that
is what I find so hard to stomach."
Chris studied the man in silence for a couple of minutes before saying, "I
really feel that I've let you down in not showing my support for you earlier.
I'm real sorry that I didn't get to speak to you yesterday, Ez. I tried to
find you but I gave up when I came by and saw that you weren't at home. Vin
and Josiah tried too but obviously with the same lack of results I had."
The blond patted Ezra's shoulder apologetically. "Come back and fight to
clear your name. I'll back you all the way but I can't guarantee that you
won't be suspended from duty until we sort things out. You can't do this
on yer own. You know the old saying, don't ya? A lawyer who represents himself
has a fool for a client. Let me help ya instead."
Ezra smiled at the adage but shook his head negatively. "I don't know if
I want to come back. As I said in my letter, your team was the first place
I felt truly happy. Everywhere else I felt I was on the outside looking in,
and I feel that way again now so I obviously don't belong."
"Don't give up at the first sign of trouble, Ez. Come back with me now and
we'll sort something out, I promise."
Ezra clenched his jaw but eventually nodded in agreement. Chris patted his
back and then took him outside and made him get in the Ram. He drove back
to their office building and they walked along the hallway together in silence.
Ezra slowed his pace and hesitated before entering the team's area with his
"Come through to my office, Ez," Chris said as he put a hand in the small
of the undercover agent's back to urge him on.
"Wait, Chris," Buck called as he took a hurried pace forward to catch the
man's attention. "We wanna talk to Ez."
"Sure. Come in when yer done," Chris said as he left his men to sort out
Ezra stood in the middle of the room awkwardly and wouldn't look at any of
the other men.
"Ez? We wanna apologize."
"What for? For voicing your opinion, or for the fact that I overheard you
as you sullied my character? What I can't abide is the fact that you didn't
even bother asking me what happened before making your feelings known. Whatever
happened to innocent until proven guilty? I thought I could, at least, trust
my workmates to stand by me but it appears I can't and I feel
dreadfully betrayed by your actions," Ezra snapped as he turned quickly
and walked into Chris's office and closed the door loudly.
The blond had heard the brief conversation and was glad that Ezra had stuck
up for himself. Perhaps all was not lost after all.
Back outside, the five men stood dumbstruck.
"Well, s'pose we deserved that," Josiah said quietly. "It's gonna take a
lot to set things straight, ain't it?"
Inside Chris's office, the blond pointed to the couch and said, "Take a seat,
Ez. Now tell me exactly what happened at the bust. I want to know the precise
movements of the money bag."
Ezra sat down and crossed his legs. "I'm not sure what I can tell you that's
different to what I told AD Travis yesterday." Ezra shrugged. "The bust went
to plan, as you know. I handed over the money and collected the documents
as arranged, then you came in and I retrieved the money."
"Did you ever take your eyes off the money?"
Ezra frowned and thought back to the bust. "Well, I s'pose the bag containing
it was put down on the floor behind a desk when I handed it over. I'm afraid
I looked at the people in front of me, rather than the bag, as I didn't know
what they intended to do to me."
"Did you check the money when you retrieved it again?"
"Well, no. I saw no reason to. That may have been naive but it had
only been gone from my hand for less that five minutes and no-one had left
the room," Ezra said as he shrugged.
Chris looked thoughtful. "It wasn't out of your sight after that moment?"
"No, I brought it straight back here to Travis and it was in his office that
we found that the money was not the batch I started out with. It was all
fake. You checked the money yourself before the bust, didn't you?
It was real dollars but when I came back it was fake and I can't explain
Chris sat back and considered the possibilities. "What if the bags were switched
at the bust while you weren't watching?"
"Maybe, but it would have had to be quick and we caught the gang, so where
is it now?"
"How about if they hid it there somehow? They could then get someone else
who wasn't present at the bust to collect it later. They specified the type
of bag we used for the drop so they could have had a twin under the table
to swap ours with, couldn't they?"
"Maybe, but it's still all supposition," Ezra replied sounding disheartened.
"Yeah, I know, but you didn't take it so this seems to be the only
explanation. You weren't out of my sight before the bust so the only place
it could have happened was when you handed the bag over. Come on, let's get
the guys to check my theory out."
"That's if they believe it. They were quick enough to jump to conclusions
and assume that I had stolen the money, as did everyone else. You only have
my word that I came straight back here after the bust. I had no-one with
me to confirm that fact."
"Your word is good enough for me, Ez. It'll be good enough for the others
too, you'll see."
Chris went outside and called the rest of his men through to the conference
room and first gave them a lecture. "Okay, guys. I won't have disharmony
in my team. Ezra is innocent of the charges against him and you'll have me
to answer to if you disagree with that. You either stand with Ez and me,
or you leave now. Do I make myself clear? So are you staying or goin'?" Chris
asked as he looked at each man individually, even Vin and Josiah.
He received five stayings so he nodded and told them his thoughts
on how the money had been taken. "Check yer informants. See if what I'm saying
is true. Someone on the streets must know what happened."
Josiah nodded and turned to Ezra. "We'll get to the bottom of this, Ez. I'm
real sorry some of us doubted you."
Ezra smiled bleakly. "Well, you and Vin didn't, if I recall the conversation
correctly but I think it will take a bit more than an apology to make matters
right. That's not to say I don't appreciate it, though. It's certainly a
step in the right direction and I really hope that we can put this whole
nasty episode behind us and start afresh."
The blond waited until the two men stopped talking before speaking again.
"Okay, guys. Let's get to it," Chris said as he clapped his hands to instill
a bit of energy in the men. "Ez and I are gonna go to the warehouse and see
if we can prove our theory about the money being hidden."
+ + + + + + +
The two men drove back to where the bust had taken place and they wandered
over to the table that Ezra said had been used.
"This is the desk. I stood here and the bag was placed approximately there,"
Ezra said as he pointed.
Chris walked round the item of furniture slowly raking it with his eyes from
top to bottom as he passed each side. He could see nothing out of the ordinary
after his visual inspection and he sighed. He then got down on his hands
and knees and felt about underneath. After about fifteen minutes of silence
had passed by with no results, he suddenly smiled and nodded his head.
"Well, I'll be damned," he said in triumph.
"Mr. Larabee? Have you encountered something that fits the bill?"
"There's a secret compartment just the size of a briefcase in the left side.
It works on a sorta spring mechanism. Have a look for yerself."
Ezra dropped to his knees and looked where Chris pointed. "Well, hopefully
that will convince a few of the doubting Thomas's," he said quietly.
+ + + + + + +
The two men made their way back to the office to find their colleagues still
Chris cleared his throat and was glad when five pairs of eyes turned his
way immediately. "Guys? I checked the desk at the bust myself and I found
a hiding place. Now we just need to prove that they used it to put the money
in. I've called Forensics to check it out 'cause they obviously missed it
before. Hopefully they'll find something to substantiate my thoughts."
Buck stood up and patted Ezra's back. "We'll prove that you had nothing to
do with the theft, Ez. I know you won't forget the comments that you overheard
and I feel real ashamed at sayin' what I did about you. I'd really hate to
lose you as a friend 'cause we've had some good times together. Can I make
a fresh start by first getting you a cup of coffee?"
Ezra couldn't help smiling at the offer. It is an olive branch of an unusual
variety but it is an olive branch just the same, he thought to himself.
"A coffee would be good. Thank you, Bucklin."
After having his promised drink delivered to his desk, an hour passed in
silence with not much progress toward their goal at all.
"Bingo!" JD suddenly yelled.
"Got somethin', kid?" Buck asked wryly as he looked across at his younger
"You bet. Seems Chris was right and we were wrong. One of my informants says
that the money was picked up by someone belonging to another gang. Well,
that's not quite right actually. What I mean is, it's the same old story
of one gang member working for both sides. He was the one who took the money
for that short time and swapped the bags. He arranged everything and it worked
like a charm and he was, obviously, even prepared to go to jail for it 'cause
he was caught. It was all done to set you up, Ezra. You dealt with the leader
of the second gang a while ago when you were using the same undercover persona
as now. He was imprisoned but escaped soon after and joined up with the remnants
of his gang again. He thought you'd double- crossed him at the time so he's
out for revenge. He thought that stealing your money and getting you arrested
would satisfy him. Taste of yer own medicine, so to speak. George Martin
was his name, do you remember him?"
"Oh yes, I certainly remember him. Perhaps we need to set up a showdown with
me as bait to see if we can double-cross him for a second time. He has worked
very closely with the infamous Hernandez in the past and it would be real
feather in our caps if we could arrest two of the biggest crime lords this
city has ever produced. I could, maybe, get Martin talking about his involvement
with Hernandez, possibly get him to mention specific jobs that they've pulled
together. He always was boastful so I don't expect he'll be able to
help himself." Ezra looked thoughtful and shrugged. "Or I can ask for my
money back from the bust, I s'pose. Offer him a trade; he can keep the money
if he snitches on Hernandez. I expect he'd like to get rid of some of his
Chris stayed silent as he considered his options. "Okay, we'll go with yer
second idea 'cause it fits in with everything nicely. JD, tell yer informant
that Ezra's alter ego has heard of the deception and is out for his blood.
He's out on bail or somethin' like that. Try and find out where the gang
is based as quickly as ya can 'cause I think we need to strike as soon as
possible so that we can put this whole business behind us. I'm gonna find
out how the hell the money was taken from the bust in the first place, seeing
as the building was supposedly under guard at the time. Someone's head is
sure gonna roll for that, if I have my way. I'll see Travis straightaway
too and ask him not to suspend Ez or this plan ain't gonna work."
+ + + + + + +
"Okay, are you all set, Ez?" the sharpshooter asked as the men gathered to
put their plan into action.
"I think so," Ezra replied while checking his equipment.
"Good luck, then. We'll be watching yer back."
Ezra stared at Vin as he bit his lower lip apprehensively before dropping
his gaze. Would they really be watching my back or getting ready to stab
it again? Ezra couldn't help asking himself.
The sharpshooter put his hand on Ezra's shoulder when he saw the worry on
his friend's face. The long-haired man could read the thoughts in Ezra's
mind just by the look on his countenance. "Come on, Ez. The guys have well
and truly been shown the error of their ways. We know yer innocent and now
we need to concentrate on catching the bastard that set you up so everyone
else knows yer innocent too. Please trust us, Ez. We wanna
make amends and I promise there won't be no more backstabbing."
Ezra's head snapped up at that comment, and he held Vin's gaze for a while
longer before nodding.
The black-clad team leader had watched the interaction between the two men
silently. He knew from Ezra's reaction to the backstabbing comment that Vin
had read the undercover agent's thoughts perfectly.
The blond looked at his watch and stepped forward to get things moving again.
"Right. Off ya go, Ez. We'll be around the area as arranged and I'll be listening
in and coordinating things from the truck. Everyone know what they're doin'?"
"Okay, Ez. Just remember to get him talking about Hernandez and the
money. You need to get him to incriminate himself before we can come in."
Ezra nodded and left the office to get in his car. He drove to the warehouse
and sat outside for a few minutes, just surveying the area. Nathan and Chris
took the surveillance van and parked nearby where they had a good view of
Ezra's car, as well as the building's entrance. Vin, as usual, took the high
ground so he could see the surrounding area in detail. The other three set
up where they had previously been told to so that they could cover the other
Ezra got out of his car when he saw his colleagues arrive and he then walked
into the warehouse unchallenged, which should have made him suspicious. He
only met resistance when he reached the innermost sanctuary of the gang.
He sweet-talked his way in easily though and was shown to Martin's office
after being searched thoroughly. Although it proved not to be thoroughly
enough, because they didn't find the wire he was wearing.
Ezra set eyes on his quarry and said, "Martin? I believe you have been trying
to set me up and I don't appreciate that. How about settling this once and
The criminal looked up and grinned cruelly. "Well, look who it is. If it
ain't that bastard Gooding. Which rock did you crawl out from under?"
"The equivalent of Alcatraz but luckily for me I didn't need to be a birdman
to escape. My lawyer tied those foolish police in such knots they're still
trying to untie themselves. While I was under arrest, I got to hear that
you may have been the cause of my incarceration so I'm here to sort matters
Martin scowled. "What the hell do you expect me to do? Say sorry?"
"Yes and pay back the money you stole."
The man guffawed at that. "Hah! You've got balls, I'll give you that." "I
should hope so or I don't know what my paramour would say," Ezra said with
a quiet smile.
Chris snorted and smiled at the comment from where he was listening to the
conversation in the surveillance van, but he was brought back to the unfolding
events when he heard Ezra's voice again.
"Have you got the money or not?"
"Hell, no. Already used it to buy a consignment of drugs," Martin said honestly.
"Really? Then I think I'll take charge of that in recompense." Ezra smiled
and raised an inquiring eyebrow. "Either that, or you can give me some inside
information on Hernandez."
The gang leader frowned suspiciously. "Why do you want him?"
"He killed a friend of mine. If you give me Hernandez, I'll forget about
my stolen money. If not, I will pursue you to the ends of the Earth. I still
know enough to get you locked up for years and I have my contacts in the
police who will be only too pleased to arrest you," the agent warned.
"Yeah, well, I know one or two things about you too, Gooding," Martin
said cryptically while really emphasizing Ezra's makeshift name.
Ezra didn't quite like the way the man spoke, or the manner in which he sneered
at him afterwards. It made him think that the man knew something that would
prove dangerous to his continued good health. Not for the first time he wished
he would be wrong in one of his assumptions. Ah, when am I going to learn
that I never get what I wish for?
+ + + + + + +
Chris adjusted his headphones as he listened to what was going on inside
the warehouse. So far things were going to plan. All of a sudden though,
he heard a very strange noise on Ezra's mike. It started with a strangled
cough and then continued as a gurgling, gasping sound, followed by choking.
A few seconds later, the blond froze as Martin's voice addressed him directly.
"Larabee? Chris Larabee? You listening? Thought yer spy could catch me and
Hernandez, did ya? Well, he failed. Better say good-bye to him 'cause by
the time you arrive he'll be dead, if he ain't dead already!"
"Shit! Move in! Everyone, move in now!" Chris yelled as he picked
up Nathan's medical bag. He then threw open the back doors of the truck and
pounded toward the warehouse with fear in his heart. Damn, how had Martin
known my name?
He was aware of the rest of his men running after him to intercept the gang,
as they scattered in attempts to escape. Chris only had one target in mind
though. He wanted to find Ezra and fast. He heard another set of feet following
him and he knew it was Nathan.
"Over here, Chris! This way. This way!" the medic yelled as he turned
right suddenly and spurted ahead of the blond.
Ezra was lying on his side with his back to the rapidly approaching medic.
His small frame was shuddering nonstop and the area where he lay was spattered
with bright red blood.
Nathan ran to him and moved round so that he was facing the man. He didn't
want to touch him until he had discovered exactly what was wrong with him.
He soon found out, and his blood ran cold at the sight before him.
"Jesus! Chris? Bring my bag! Hurry Chris," he yelled before turning
back to Ezra, who making the most dreadful noises that he'd ever heard. "Okay,
Ez. I'm here and I'm gonna help ya. I know yer scared but try and stay calm
for me," the medic said as he reached out a hand to his friend's lower neck,
just under his Adam's apple, to stem the massive flow of blood.
"There ya go, Nate," the blond said as he came to a sliding halt next to
the medic. He then dropped to his knees as he tried to regain his breath.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Get an ambulance, now. His throat's been cut."
"What?" Chris gasped in horror before reaching for his cell shakily. He looked
down at the bloody, quaking agent before making the all-important call.
Nathan heard the blond talking on the phone but concentrated his own efforts
on the injured man before him. He ripped open a sterile pad awkwardly with
his teeth and held it against the ragged wound that ran across the width
of Ezra's throat. That seemed to slightly stem the blood that had previously
been spurting into the air like a fountain. The noises that Ezra had been
making lessened a bit too as the wound was covered and Nathan frowned anxiously.
"How is he?" Chris asked as soon as he got off the phone to the emergency
"Bad. It's gone deep and hit the artery for sure. Judging by the sounds he
was making it may have gone through his trachea too."
"Shit! What was used to do it? Wire or knife?"
"Large knife, I should think, with a serrated edge."
"Jesus Christ," Chris said quietly.
Nathan usually kept fairly quiet when he was treating badly injured patients,
but he could see that Ezra needed constant reassurance, despite his
semi-conscious state. He knew the agent had a terrible fear of being suffocated
to death and he was in serious danger of doing so now as his throat swelled.
The medic decided this was one time when he needed to talk, so he said, "Okay,
Ez, lay still. Gotta check yer airway so try to relax while I do this. Yer
doin' just fine, buddy."
Ezra gasped continuously as he fought for breath through the covered hole
in his throat, as well as through the usual facial openings. He could feel
himself beginning to panic, which, in consequence, made him breathe even
"Alright, Ez, have you sorted soon. Slow yer breathing for me, will ya?"
Nathan said, as he examined his trembling friend's throat as best he could.
"Nate?" Chris prompted anxiously.
"Reckon he musta been hit too. His throat's swollen above the wound and he
can't breathe through his nose and mouth properly, although he's trying hard
to do so. I'm gonna have to open the hole in his neck a bit so I can put
a tube in," the medic explained.
"Is that safe?" Chris asked as he looked away from the wound. The hole in
Ezra's neck resembled a second mouth and the blond felt queasy at the sight
"Ain't recommended to do it in the field, but without it.....," Nathan replied,
allowing his voice to trail off rather than say the inevitable words out
loud. He then turned back to Ezra and checked the man's condition carefully.
"Just let me do this without interruption 'cause I ain't got time for
explanations, Chris. Put this second pad on the other side of his neck and
then hold both in place but leave me access to the hole, will ya? Still need
to stem the blood, but don't press hard on both sides of his neck at the
same time, okay?"
Now Nathan's hands were free, he got what he needed out of his bag and set
to work. The blond watched anxiously as Nathan carefully opened the wound
a bit wider in the badly injured man's neck. The medic straightened up after
inserting a tube into the resulting hole, and Chris heard Ezra's breathing
"There ya go, Ez. That should be better for ya. Now, can you just try and
slow yer breathing a bit more for me?" Nathan heard his order obeyed so he
quickly ran his hand through Ezra's hair and gave him a reassuring smile.
The medic then rummaged in his medical bag again and found some bandages.
He wrapped them round the pads that Chris was holding in place but made sure
he didn't cover the breathing tube in the process. He then put his hands
back over the pads to try and get the bleeding to stop completely, but despite
his efforts he could still see blood seeping through the bandages.
"Thanks, Chris. I'll take it from here," he said as he looked at the pale
blond and smiled.
The two men heard the sound of approaching sirens and looked up to see the
paramedics hurrying toward them. The medics rechecked Nathan's work before
attaching an oxygen supply to the tube in Ezra's throat. They then lifted
Ezra onto a gurney before putting him in the nearby vehicle. Nathan climbed
in with him and the ambulance drove off with lights flashing and siren blaring.
"Chris? Was that Ez?" Vin asked as he came running up behind the blond as
the vehicle pulled away.
"Yeah," the blond mumbled as he watched the ambulance until it was out of
"What's wrong with him, cowboy?" Vin asked quietly when he saw Chris trembling.
He reached out a worried hand and laid it on his friend's forearm.
Chris turned to face the sharpshooter now that the ambulance had disappeared.
His eyes met the ice-blue ones belonging to his best friend, and he said
quietly, "They slit his throat. He couldn't breathe and he was so scared,
Vin. He was bleeding real bad as you can see."
Vin looked down at the blood-covered ground and gasped in dismay at the sight
as he tightened his grip on the blond's arm. "Shit! Come on. The police are
dealing with the gang so let's go to the hospital. I'll tell the others what's
happened and we'll all go together."
+ + + + + + +
"How is he?" Chris asked as soon as the doctor entered the waiting room.
"As you can imagine he's lost an awful lot of blood. We've repaired the damage
to his throat as best we can but he'll be breathing through the hole in his
neck until the swelling goes down. It seems he may have received a blow to
his throat before it was cut. May have been struck by someone's elbow
deliberately to silence him," the doctor said with a shrug, unwittingly
confirming Nathan's previous observation. "Anyway, his windpipe was broken
and his vocal cords damaged so he's not going to be able to talk for a while,
if ever again. We'll just have to wait and see."
"Dammit. That wasn't what I wanted to hear," Chris said miserably. "Can I
"Not yet. He's still in recovery but I'll call you when he's been moved to
+ + + + + + +
"Mr. Larabee? You can see your friend now," the doctor called several hours
All six men stood and the doctor didn't have the heart to tell them that
he only wanted one person to visit at a time. He turned and walked along
the hallway with the men trailing in his wake like ducklings following their
mother. They were shown to Ezra's room and they stood round the bed so that
they could study the injured man.
JD cringed and paled as he saw the tube in Ezra's throat, which was connected
to an oxygen supply. His eyes widened at the sight of the dark, multi-colored
bruising that surrounded the wound and he put up a hand to his own neck and
took a sudden step backward.
"Okay, kid?" Buck asked when he saw his friend's reaction.
"Yeah, fine," JD mumbled, sounding anything but fine.
"Look at me, kid," Buck ordered.
After a while, the youngster turned toward him with hand still clamped to
"Take a seat in the corner, son," the tall man advised as he poured a glass
of water. "There ya go. Drink that and take a deep breath."
"Sorry. His neck...," JD said as he shivered after taking possession of the
"He can't help it, JD. Try and think about something else. Ez can do without
you gawking at him like he's got gangrene or somethin'."
"Okay, I'll try."
"Do more than try, kid," Buck said sternly as he stood with hands
"Sure, whatever, Buck," the youngster replied as he sat as far away as he
Buck knew the kid was never very good at hiding his emotions and he could
certainly understand how JD was feeling right now. It didn't always do to
let things show so plainly though. Good job Ez is asleep and couldn't
see JD's reaction, he thought to himself. The ladies' man turned back
to the bed and exchanged glances with Chris. "We all gonna stay or what?"
"We've got some prisoners to question and it don't look like Ez will wake
up for a while," Josiah pointed out.
"Can I stay, Chris?" Buck asked.
The blond nodded in agreement. "Sure. You and Nate stay but call us if Ez
Buck sat down, once the others had gone, and he traced patterns distractedly
with his finger on top of the nightstand beside him. Nathan sat on the other
side of the bed and began reading a newspaper and doing the crossword in
After a couple of hours had passed, Nathan looked up and asked, "Do ya fancy
a drink, Bucklin?"
"Yeah, thanks. Hot chocolate if you can get it, pard. Feel the need of some
sugar after what's gone on today."
Nathan returned and passed the drink over, along with a candy bar and a smile.
Buck took a sip and grinned. "That's better." He put the cup on the side
and saw Ezra's eyes flutter open at that precise moment. "Think he smelt
my chocolate, Nate. You know what a sweet-tooth he's got."
"Be a while until you can have a hot chocolate, Ez," Nathan said as he looked
at the machines monitoring his friend's condition.
Ezra opened his mouth to reply but a look of panic appeared on his face when
he realized he could neither breathe nor speak through that opening.
The ladies' man put out a quick, calming hand. "No, Ez. You've got
a tube through the outside of yer neck to help ya breathe, so you can't talk.
I know that will be real hardship for ya but at least it'll give us a chance
to get a word in edgewise," Buck said.
Ezra's eyes showed a glint of amusement but his mouth didn't move an inch
to show a smile. He automatically raised a hand to see if what Buck had told
him was true, although he knew the man wouldn't lie to him about something
Nathan saw the movement and managed to grab Ezra's hand before he could do
anything to the tubing. He hadn't meant to be, but he was quite rough and
felt Ezra flinch in his grasp, so he let go quickly and held his hands in
the air. "Sorry, Ez. The doctor would have my hide if you messed up his work.
Hope I didn't hurt ya and I'm sorry if I did."
Ezra winced a bit but indicated that he was not harmed. The undercover agent
then transferred his gaze to Buck and the ladies' man wondered what was really
going on behind his friend's usually dancing, green eyes. The eyes, for once,
were dull and expressionless and the tall agent couldn't read Ezra's thoughts
at all. Buck smiled and rested a comforting hand on the man's arm as Ezra
fell asleep once more.
+ + + + + + +
Two weeks later Buck turned up to collect the undercover agent on the day
of his release. He arrived just as the doctor was talking to the injured
man and giving him his last instructions.
"It's gonna take time 'til ya get yer voice back properly. Don't force it
or you could do irreversible damage. Yer throat is mending real well, though,
so don't fret."
Buck walked to stand beside his friend. "What can he eat?" he asked the doctor.
"Just soft foods until he's really feeling better. He still finding it pretty
painful to swallow but he's improving well."
"Thanks, doc. Come on, Ez. Let's get out of here, pard. Seen enough of this
place to last a lifetime, ain't ya?" Buck said as he transferred Ezra to
a wheelchair and wheeled him out of the hospital, hoping that he wouldn't
have to return again in the near future.
All the other men were at the ranch to greet him. Each man made a point of
shaking Ezra's hand, and the undercover agent smiled at their show of support.
During the following hours, he was treated like a King and waited on hand
and foot. They went out of their way to make him feel welcome and he began
to feel a bit more relaxed in their company. It was almost like old times
again and he realized that he'd never expected to feel that way again. Perhaps
he could stay in the team, after all.
+ + + + + + +
At breakfast a few days later, Chris automatically went to make some porridge
for the injured man.
"Mr. Larabee? Could I have a bagel instead, please?" Ezra croaked quietly.
"Ez? You spoke. Hey, that's great," Chris said enthusiastically as he strode
forward and embraced the man.
"I said a bagel, not a bear-hug," Ezra protested from where he was
being squashed against the blond's chest.
Chris threw his head back and laughed out loud. "Oh God, I hate to say it
but I've missed yer jokes."
"Like a pain in the head. Yes, I know," Ezra grinned ironically.
"Oh jeez, I asked for that, didn't I?"
"Who ya talking to, Chris?" Buck asked as he wandered into the kitchen and
looked round curiously.
The ladies' man turned to the smaller man and smiled broadly. "There goes
our peace and quiet then. He'll be talking twice as much to make up for lost
Ezra just smiled and rubbed his neck as he swallowed painfully.
"You okay? Does it hurt?" Chris asked anxiously.
Ezra nodded and winced.
Buck patted his back. "Don't overdo it, pard. You ain't spoken for ages so
it's gonna take time to get back to normal."
Ezra nodded again and smiled as Chris passed over a thickly buttered bagel.
He ate it slowly and licked his fingers clean when he'd finished.
"Yes, thank you. It was nice to have something other than liquid."
"I bet. I can't live without a nice juicy steak every week," Buck said
tantalizingly as he licked his lips at the thought.
"Bucklin!" Ezra complained. "That's torturous talking about food like that
in front of me."
"Sorry, pard. Perhaps we could give you a treat with one of yer favorites
foods when you can handle it."
Ezra's eyes lit up and he smiled. "That would be nice 'cause I've almost
forgotten what it's like to chew. My teeth have been wondering what purpose
they served other than giving me my sparkling smile. Thank you, Bucklin."
+ + + + + + +
Chris wandered through to the living room the next day and sat beside the
undercover agent. He looked across at the man and asked, "You up to telling
me what happened at the bust?"
Ezra nodded and sighed as he automatically lifted a hand to touch his throat.
"I should have realized something was wrong when I was just allowed to walk
straight into Martin's lair. I stupidly just thought how lucky I was. Anyway,
you heard the conversation we had and he obviously knew I was an agent. Whether
he knew that fact before, or after, the previous bust is anyone's guess although
I'm inclined to think before. His plan to ruin my career nearly accomplished
its aim, didn't it? Anyway, back to the most recent bust. After he'd made
his barbed comment, one of his men hit me across my throat with a piece of
wood and I then felt someone grab my hair from behind. They pulled my head
backwards and I saw a huge knife come into view over my shoulder. It was
lowered to my neck and there was nothing I could do to stop him because I
could hardly breathe and was on the verge of passing out. I was brought back
to full consciousness though when I felt the blade bite into my skin and
I saw the resulting spurt of blood. I was suddenly able to breathe for a
while again but I was sucking in blood too. It was the most horrible sensation
and I felt like I was drowning." Ezra shrugged. "I don't remember much after
that but I do recall hearing Mr. Jackson's voice. It was comforting to know
he was there but I really thought I was going to die."
Chris nodded in understanding although he hadn't counted on such graphic
detail about how Ezra had obtained his injuries. "God, Ez. I'm just glad
we got to you when we did. I couldn't believe it when Nate said yer throat
had been cut. I was convinced we'd lost you."
"Well, you didn't."
"Yeah, and you don't know how pleased I was. How pleased we all were."
The blond paused as he studied the man silently. "How do you feel about still
working with us?" Chris asked as he thought back to the reason for the bust
in the first place.
Ezra's mind drifted back to the time he spent in the hospital. All the men
had taken turns in staying with him and they had all apologized to him about
their behavior. He sighed and shrugged. "I think you've all shown how much
you care for me over the past few weeks but it is still hard to forget what
was said at the start of this affair. It will take a while to feel truly
comfortable within the group but I do want to stay."
"Great, 'cause I don't want to lose you," Chris said as he smiled and patted
Ezra's shoulder. "I think all of us have learnt a lesson from this; including
+ + + + + + +
A couple of days later, Ezra stood in front of the mirror and stared at the
scar across his neck. He put a finger up to it and traced the line from one
side to the other and sighed in despair.
"Ez?" Chris said as he walked up behind and looked over the man's shoulder
at his reflection. He put a hand on his agent's back and Ezra's tearful eyes
met his in the mirror.
"It's hideous, Chris," Ezra said gruffly as his eyes moved back to study
"No, it ain't."
"You don't have to live with it. I won't be able to show my neck in
public ever again."
"Nonsense," Chris said as he gave the man's back a quick comforting rub.
"It most certainly is not."
"Come on, Ez. Least you got yer life. You very nearly lost it, ya know?"
Ezra nodded and sighed loudly again as he walked away. Chris shook his head
as he watched his friend disappear, not knowing what to do for the man.
+ + + + + + +
"Ez? Gotten something for ya," Vin said as he passed over a brightly wrapped
parcel to the sad man, who was sitting quietly on the couch.
"It's not my birthday," Ezra said in confusion.
Vin shrugged and sat beside the man. "I know it ain't, but I thought it might
cheer you up."
"How thoughtful. What is it?" the smaller man asked curiously as he squeezed
the parcel interestedly.
"Well, open it and see, Ez. No surprise if I tell ya, is it?" the sharpshooter
said with a broad grin as he patted the man's knee. Vin really hoped that
Ezra would approve of his gift. The younger man had spent ages scouring the
stores in Denver for something suitable.
The undercover agent carefully unwrapped it, feeling like kid at Christmas,
and took out a highly colored cravat. He looked at Vin and smiled as he headed
straight toward the mirror to try it on. Vin followed along behind with a
smile and watched as Ezra put the silken cloth round his neck and secured
it. The dark-haired man studied his reflection for a minute and then adjusted
the material up his neck as Vin reached in to help.
"There ya go. Very debonair, Ez. Suits ya," the sharpshooter commented as
he kept an arm round Ezra's shoulder and squeezed him lightly.
Ezra felt tears prick his eyes as he stared at his reflection. His scar was
totally hidden beneath the bright fabric. "Oh, Vin, thank you. It's truly
Buck came in and saw the two men staring into the mirror. "Hey, guys. Bit
narcissistic even for you, ain't it, Ez?"
"Shut up, Bucklin," Vin snapped as Ezra turned his back on Buck and bowed
his head. Vin got hold of Ezra's shoulders and turned him back gently to
face the mirror as he rubbed his back comfortingly.
Buck frowned and walked up behind the two men to see what they were up to.
He then saw what Ezra had on and mentally kicked himself. He remembered Ezra
had been avoiding looking in mirrors for the last few days and he was embarrassed
to cause his friend discomfort.
"Sorry, Ez. That was uncalled for. My mouth opened before my brain was working,"
"Is that what you call it, Bucklin?" Ezra said quietly. "I never realized
those two parts of your anatomy had actually been connected in the first
Vin snorted with laughter both at the comment and the look that it
created on the ladies' man's face. "That shut him up, Ez." . "Oh, jeez, I'm
cracking up here," the tall man said as he patted Ezra's back in apology
yet again and smiled as the undercover agent's shining, laughing eyes met
his in the mirror. "Where'd ya get the scarf, then?" Buck asked.
"Cravat, Mr. Wilmington. It's a cravat, and Vin gave it to me."
"Real nice, Ez. Goes with all yer other fancy clothes."
"All I care about is that my disfigurement is out of sight. Although out
of sight isn't necessarily out of mind in this case." Ezra looked at Vin
and smiled again. "I appreciate your kind gesture and it has certainly boosted
my slightly deflated self-esteem."
Vin smiled as he realized just how much his present had meant to the smaller
man. "Glad I could help, Ez. Let's go and show it to the others. Bet they'll
be dead jealous."
"I somehow doubt that, Mr. Tanner. You heathens hardly have the same dress-sense
as me." Ezra laughed as he allowed Vin to lead him toward the living room.
The undercover agent, for the first time in ages, felt at ease with life
and he felt part of the team once more.