by Cmurph

Disclaimers: As always, I know nothing about guns, medicine, or in this case, the GED, or tests required to become an ATF agent. I have it on good authority that more college is required than I've allowed, and the particulars involved in the testing are totally off - but I ask your forgiveness for taking poetic license in fanfic. The E-9 makes its appearance again - my apologies to any gun collectors out there who cringe at made-up munitions. Medical procedures - no clue. Just trying to make things interesting. And yes, I know you can't use cell phones in a hospital. I also made up TVP - and I don't know why.

Size: Approx. 270K

Never look down to test the ground before taking your next step; only he who keeps his eye fixed on the far horizon will find his right road.

- Dag Hammarskjöld


"It sure lit a fire under you, Buck. I didn't think an old guy like you could move that fast," Tanner said with a smile.

"Watch it Vin, you're still on probation around here," Buck warned him.

"Are you kidding Buck?" asked Nathan. "The way he shoots? Orrin would've traded you and an agent to be named later if Houston had put up a fight about transferring Vin here."

"What're you grinnin' about Junior?" Buck asked J.D.

"Gotta admit - the man has a point, Buck. Not a one of us could've hit Savros from 30 yards like that," J.D. said admiringly.

"Indeed," Ezra agreed. "I would not have put money on it myself."

"I seem to recall watchin' you set a land-speed record when that bomb went off too, kid," Buck said.

"Yeah, but I'm young and wiry," J.D. answered back. "Not too likely to pull a groin muscle in a sprint."

"I didn't pull no groin muscle..." Buck argued.

"That's not what Angie told me," Vin chided.

"Since when're you talkin' to Angie, Tanner?" Buck challenged.

"Children, children," Josiah said as he and Chris approached the group. "Can't we leave you alone for one minute without all this bickering?"

Chris laughed as they joined the rest of the team seated in a rough circle in the ATF offices. A successful bust always led to a bull session with everyone pulling their chairs together as they came down from the adrenaline high of a job well done. Vin Tanner had proven once again to be a valuable addition to Larabee's unit and it felt good to see him begin to relax after six months with the ATF.

"Rescue me from these young pups, Chris," Buck whined jokingly.

"Everything tied up?" Nathan asked as Josiah pulled up his own chair and Chris perched on the corner of the older agent's desk.

"Almost. I stopped to talk to Orrin but his door was closed. I'll fill him in later," Chris said.

"Uh-oh," Buck said uneasily.

"What?" Vin asked.

"Closed door. Never good," Buck answered, shaking his head.

"Aw, Buck, maybe he was just takin' a personal call," J.D. said.

"I concur with Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said. "A closed Travis door never bodes well for us."

Chris tried to smile gamely but he had to admit to being a little nervous himself. He knew J.D. was right. There were any number of reasons for the closed door. But ever since bringing Vin Tanner on board he had been desperate to prove to the Texan that things would be different for him in Denver. If there was trouble brewing in Travis' office he didn't want it spilling over into his unit making waves. He hated waves.

"Lookin' a little green, Chris," Buck said, eyeing his friend. "You know something we don't know?"

"I know sitting around here worrying about a closed door isn't going to get those 140s typed," he answered. "Or have you finished them already?"

J.D. pushed off of Josiah's desk riding his chair halfway across the room to his own. Vin turned to his monitor with a sigh and began to log on to his computer. Ezra made his way to the coffeepot for a cup of "sustenance," as he called it, before he began his paperwork.

Buck alone stayed seated where he was. He looked up at Chris again hoping for reassurance and finding instead the same shadow of doubt falling across Larabee's face. Damn, he thought to himself, he's scared too.

+ + + + + + +

After work, J.D. followed Vin up the stairs to his apartment in Purgatorio. A mixture of intense aromas filled the hallway - chili peppers, simmering pork, fried bread - intermingled with the smell of cigarette smoke and beer.

"Wow," J.D. said as he waited for Vin to unlock his door. "If it weren't for the smoke you could really get an appetite walking up those stairs with all that food cooking."

"You like Mexican?" Vin asked as he led J.D. inside.

"Sure. Who doesn't? I'd like to try it homemade once, though. I bet it tastes a lot better than Taco Bell."

Tanner laughed.

"That's the truth, J.D.," he answered. "I'll invite you along the next time Mrs. Rosario asks me over for dinner." Vin threw his keys on the kitchen counter and crossed to the refrigerator to get a couple beers out for J.D. and himself.

J.D. took the proffered beer and sat on the couch as Vin clicked on his TV. They turned to a Nuggets game and settled back to watch.

"Vin? I was wondering..." J.D. began, nervously picking at the pull tab on his beer.

Tanner looked at the young agent.

"You were wondering...?" he prodded.

"You being able to shoot like that. Is it all instinct? I mean, is it something you just know how to do?"

Vin cocked his head.

"What's the real question?" he asked with a shy smile.

J.D. sighed.

"Can you learn it? I mean, can you teach me?" he asked hesitantly. Vin looked carefully at the young man, sensing there was more coming, and waited patiently for J.D. to continue.

"I know I'm a weak link on the team," he said softly.

Vin's face clouded over as he shook his head angrily.

"Weak link? Hell, J.D. don't you ever say something like that to me."

"Come on, Vin, you know..." J.D. began.

"Yeah, I know. I know in six months I've seen you pull our butts out of the fire more than once with all you know about computers, electronics, all that surveillance shit," Vin interrupted. "You start talkin' about weak links and my name's going to be at the top of the list every time - and I don't need that reminder."

"Vin - you saved Ezra's life!" J.D. argued.

"And havin' a wire that don't short-out, findin' out the security system in a place we're bustin' into, gettin' the name of some suspect outta that damn box on your desk -you don't think that saves lives?"

"It's not the same," J.D. complained.

"It sure as hell ain't," Vin agreed, leaning toward J.D. "It takes brain power, and studyin', and readin' them magazines you're always subscribin' to, goin' to classes at night and buyin' them trade books every year they come out new - shit, J.D., all I do is pull a trigger. Don't take no brains for that. Never did."

"But it's...well...sitting at a desk is kind of, I mean, nobody thinks it's much of a...well, it's not like shooting some guy at 30 yards when no one believes it's possible," J.D. shrugged.

"It's not cool, huh?" Vin said with a smirk.

J.D. looked up guiltily and nodded.

Vin sighed, leaning back into the sofa.

"You think the martial arts stuff is pretty cool, too, huh?" he asked. J.D. nodded. "And the whole 'I don't give a damn' attitude I got. That's not bad either?" He could see the truth in the kid's eyes. "And then there's the Harley..." he added.

Vin grabbed the remote and clicked off the television. He took a deep breath and pulled out his wallet, flipping through the plastic sleeves in its center. He pulled out a dog-eared, battered photo of an old woman sitting on the porch of an even older house.

"Here," he said, handing J.D. the photo.

J.D. looked at it carefully, then turned it over. Nettie Wells, Capitan, NM was written on the back. He looked up at Vin.

"There's my whole family, J.D.," Vin said.

"Your Mom?" J.D. said, reading the back.

"No, she's no relation," Vin explained. "My mom died when I was five. Never knew my dad. I spent three years in orphanages and foster homes until one of the social workers got fed up collectin' me from hospitals and street corners. She took me in," he said, nodding towards the picture. "I didn't make it too easy on her," he said with a guilty smile.

"I thought you grew up in Houston?" J.D. asked. "The picture says New Mexico."

"We ended up movin' there. I was in trouble with a couple gangs," Vin explained.

"A couple?" J.D. asked.

"Yeah, well," Vin said, refusing to elaborate. He laughed. "Nettie figured I couldn't get in any trouble in Capitan. The only thing it's known for is bein' the birth place of Smokey the Bear."

"What?" J.D. asked.

Vin waved the question away.

"I lived there until I joined the army."

J.D. watched as Vin took another long look at the picture before tucking it into his wallet.

"I did my hitch in special forces, got out, joined up with the law. Not much of a life," Vin finished.

"But still..." J.D. started.

"It's cool, huh J.D.?" Vin interrupted, his anger resurfacing violently. "It's cool that I know martial arts. You know how I learned it? By havin' other guys kick the shit outta me - guys in other gangs, guys on the streets. The attitude? I learned not to give a damn because I never had but one person in my life who ever gave a damn about me. And shooting? Yeah, J.D., it's cool knowin' the only thing in the world you know how to do well - the only reason people keep you around - is because you're good at killin'."

J.D. sat silenced by Vin's burst of outrage. It was the most he'd ever heard the new agent say about himself in the six months that he'd known him. He tried to imagine the life Tanner had led -he himself had been orphaned as a teenager, but he'd had family and friends to take care of him. J.D. saw the pain on Vin's face - the years of hard living -and he felt even more guilty. Despite everything Vin had said, because of it, J.D. found he still couldn't help feeling envious.

Vin sighed at the look on the young man's face.

"I could teach you a few things," he said resignedly. "It ain't all instinct. If you want, I'll go to the range with you sometime."

"I really would appreciate it, Vin," J.D. said quietly.

Vin nodded and took their empty cans into the kitchen.

"Vin?" J.D. asked after him. Vin turned back at the kitchen doorway. "It isn't true anymore - what you said."

"What?" Vin asked, confused.

"There's a lot more people now who give a damn about you. Six, at least. And not just because of your gun."

Tanner offered a slight smile and turned back to the kitchen.

"Oh, and Vin?" J.D. said smiling, as Vin turned back again. "What about the Harley?"

This time Tanner returned the smile with a devilish grin.

"Hell yeah, kid, the Harley's cool."

+ + + + + + +

Buck walked into the office early Tuesday morning to hear two voices in heated argument. Larabee and Travis. He sat down heavily at his desk.

"Six months, Orrin. It's been six months and they come up with this shit now?" he heard Larabee explode.

Damn. Vin.

"Why do you think it took me four days to come down here with this?" Orrin shot back. "I've been bucking it all the way to the top, Chris. Hell, it was my idea in the first place. You think I want it blown over some technicality?"

"This is great, Orrin, just great," Chris complained. Buck heard a drawer slam.

"Chris, I know how you feel..."

"You know how I feel? How I feel? How the hell is he gonna feel when I hit him with this?" Buck winced as another draw slammed - or was kicked.

"Look, I'll tell him. I brought him in, I'll tell him," Orrin said.

"I have half a mind to let you," Chris said ominously. "But he's my man. I'm the one who made the offer. I'll handle it."

"It doesn't have to mean the end of the world, Chris," Travis reasoned. "It's not a dismissal, it's a..."

"It might as well be," Chris interrupted. "That's what he's going to see it as. And I can't say as I blame him. Damn it, Orrin he's been clean with us. Not only clean, he's proven himself valuable every time we've gone out. What reason could they possibly have...What?" He asked suddenly.

Buck heard an ominous silence grow between the men.

"Orrin?" Chris asked again, deadly quiet. Buck froze.


Buck held his breath. The silence grew heavier.

"Orrin? I think you better get out of here now," Chris said with a tension Buck could feel through the walls.


"Orrin. You're gonna end up firing me if you don't."

Buck shot up from his desk as he heard Travis heading towards the door. He spun behind the divider that blocked off the coffeepot and mini-fridge as Orrin opened the door and walked out, his face scarlet as he headed towards the stairway. One heartbeat later Buck saw Vin step off the elevator. He stayed where he was as he heard Tanner call out a morning greeting to Chris and move towards his desk.

Larabee came out of his office - the look on his face stopping Vin dead in his tracks.

"Vin?" he said quietly.

Buck watched, his heart in his throat, as Vin walked numbly into Chris' office. The door closed. Wilmington slid back into his chair and dropped his head into his hands.

This time Buck heard nothing but soft rumblings coming out of Chris' office. He waited, tensed, for the shouting to begin again. Instead, a mere five minutes after he had entered, Vin Tanner walked out of the office. He moved steadily towards his desk as Chris followed him out.

"Vin - it doesn't have to mean the end. We'll help you through it - me, the guys."

Vin pulled out his badge and laid it on top of his desk.

"This is just what Prichett is counting on. Prove him wrong, Vin. I know you can do it," Chris urged, standing in the path between Vin and the elevator.

Tanner looked at Chris and shook his head. He glanced towards Buck.

"See ya around, Buck," he said with a short wave. He nodded towards Larabee.


He made no move to step around Larabee but stood face to face with him. Chris finally failed to hold the stare and looked away. He stepped aside to allow Vin to pass.

Buck rose slowly and stood beside his friend as they watched Vin step onto the elevator. He turned to punch the floor button, his head bowed, then stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jeans. He never looked up as the doors closed silently before him.

"What the hell happened, Chris?" Buck asked, his mouth dry, heart pounding.

Chris looked at him - through him - and turned, heading back to his office. The silence in the room was broken only after Larabee entered his office - and slammed the door behind him.

+ + + + + + +

One by one Larabee's team entered the office, and one by one the look on Buck's face made their hearts sink. They listened to his story stunned, their eyes searching out Vin's desk where the shield sat forlornly. Thinking back on it, Buck realized each man had reacted in textbook fashion in keeping with their varied personalities.

Josiah had been first and moved slowly to his desk where he still sat unmoving hearing the news repeated again and again as each new man entered, almost as though punishing himself with the news would result in a retribution for Vin.

Nathan had been incredulous, peppering Buck with questions for which he had no answers. He had gone finally to his desk to call Rain, seeking her solace.

J.D. had been J.D. Buck had had to almost physically restrain him from charging into Chris' office - charging down to Orrin's office - charging after Vin. He was going to do something. Even if he had no idea what it was.

And Ezra? Ezra had been the worst for Buck. As was his wont, Standish was the last in. Each retelling of the little he knew about the circumstances had eaten away at Buck, but waiting for Ezra to come in had been the hardest of all.

Just like Vin, Standish took the news with hardly a word - his expression unchanged, a mask. Only this time Buck read volumes in the gambler's eyes - he couldn't bluff his way out of this one.

Finally, an hour after he had slammed the door to his office, Chris emerged. He crossed slowly to Vin's desk, picked up the badge and slipped it into his coat pocket. Larabee pulled Vin's chair up and straddled it, crossing his arms atop the back.

The others pulled their chairs forward or slid onto desktops to move in close and Chris was reminded of the old western movies when the pioneers would circle the wagons in face of an attack.

"Pritchett's calling for a qualifying exam."

"Since when?

"You're kidding me..."

"What the..."

Chris raised his hands to quiet the men around him.

"Believe me, I went over this with Travis - all of it. He got Gaines to sign off on it."

"I don't believe this," Buck said. He rose and slammed his fist into a filing cabinet, "I don't believe this!" he shouted again.

"Buck..." Chris said.

"No - damn it, Chris we asked him. We went down to see Gaines like a couple of kids going to the principal's office just to be sure he wouldn't call for this."

"He wouldn't on his own," Nathan said, eyeing Buck.

"Well what's Prichett's problem?" J.D. asked.

Chris glanced at Buck, Josiah, Nathan - his older agents. They knew the story.

"Prichett had a kid who tried for ATF," Buck said, taking the burden from Chris. "He was useless. He had the grades enough, but he couldn't hit a barn with a shotgun at 20 feet. And his reaction time under fire was for shit."

J.D. looked away, embarrassed. He wasn't that bad - he had passed the requirements in range and response - but Buck had hit on the two weaknesses J.D. felt keenly in himself. He waited for Buck to continue. Wilmington glanced nervously at Chris.

"With his performance on the range, there's no way he would've made it as an ATF agent..."

"No, Buck," Chris said, interrupting him. "Tell 'em the truth."

Buck sighed, shaking his head at Larabee's stubbornness.

"He could've gotten the job if an ATF chief of operations had waived the qualifier in exchange for on-the-job training in range and response." Buck looked hard at Chris. "But no CO in his right mind would've allowed that man on a team with his record. No amount of practice would've made him into someone you'd trust with your life."

Chris nodded his thanks to Buck for the support, but the look of uncertainty in the decision remained in his eyes.

"So, what?" asked J.D. "Prichett figures if Vin doesn't pass the test his kid gets a second chance?"

This time Josiah cleared his throat as all eyes turned to him.

"John Prichett got notice of his rejection, took his father's .44 and shot himself," Sanchez said quietly. "He left a letter saying he couldn't live with his father's disappointment in him for failing."

"And Capt. Prichett subsequently fixed the blame for his son's death on Mr. Larabee," Ezra surmised.

Buck nodded.

"He must've seen Vin's record and questioned the education. He knows he'd never get Vin out on range and response, but academically..."

"Well, we can help him with that," J.D. interrupted. "It's just an exam, right? We've all passed it -we know what to expect. Vin passes, he's back in."

Chris shook his head sadly.

"It's not the simple, J.D.," he said.

"What?" J.D. asked, puzzled.

"I believe Mr. Larabee is insinuating that the difficulty lies not in Mr. Tanner's ability to complete the exam successfully, but in the proposition of the challenge itself."

"I don't understand," J.D. said.

"Vin came here because he felt things would be different for him. Here was a team that valued him for his abilities - that didn't judge him," Josiah answered. "He felt in us he had a team that would not force him to conform. That would allow him to be different without having to prove himself. To Vin, forcing him to take that test - to prove himself worthy - is an insult."

"Damn straight," Buck swore. "That's exactly what it is."

"And that's exactly what Prichett is counting on," said Chris. "In six months he's learned enough about Vin to know that any challenge to his qualifications would make him walk."

"Can't say as I blame him," Nathan sighed.

J.D. looked at Nathan, then at the others.

"So that's it?" J.D. asked, suddenly angry. "We just let Vin go because this business with Prichett isn't fair? Because it makes him mad? Do any of you really think Vin's going to have a chance of being accepted anywhere better than he would be here, with us? Sure, he's going to have guys bucking him. But with his past, with his present that's always going to be true. At least here there are six guys - seven with Travis - willing to back him up."

"But at what price, Mr. Dunne?" Ezra asked. "At the price of having to prove himself once again?" Ezra looked at the others. "I don't think any of you realize..."

"Which one of us doesn't feel he has something to prove every damn day," J.D. interrupted. Buck's eyebrows rose as he glanced at Chris. He'd never seen the kid this animated - and that was saying a lot for J.D.

"Look - we all know Vin's the best there is," J.D. reasoned. "Are we really willing to just let him go because it's going to be hard to convince him to stay? I don't know about you, but I'm not giving up that easily. I say we should take a chance at confronting him about this rather than just letting him walk away." J.D. looked squarely at Chris and the team leader realized it was the first time he could remember that the kid faced him down.

"And besides. He's too good a friend of mine to give up," J.D. said. "I'm not letting him walk without a fight."

Buck eyed Chris curiously.

"I gotta say, Chris, this time I'm with the kid," he said finally.

Chris looked from one man to another, until he came to Ezra.

"What do you think?" he asked Standish, who had been Vin's champion from the start.

"I have sincere doubts as to whether you will be able to convince Mr. Tanner to reconsider his position," Ezra said honestly. "I believe there are...extenuating circumstances..." He paused, then shook his head. "However, I, too will not be able to rest until we have exhausted every avenue of influence upon his decision."

"So in other words," Chris said to his team, "you all think someone should talk to Vin, but none of you has any idea of what that person should say."

"Come on, Chris," Buck said with a mischievous grin, "we can't do everything for you."

+ + + + + + +

Vin Tanner sat hunched over a bar, staring at a half-empty bottle of Tequila. He had had too much to drink - that he knew - but at this point it was just about all he knew for certain. Well, that and one other thing...

"Hey Vin," a voice said softly as a dark figure slid onto the stool next to him.

... that Chris would soon come calling, he thought as he downed the last shot. Vin turned the shot glass upside down and slid it next to the bottle. He sat up straight and looked at Chris.


Chris sighed.

"Yeah," he said resignedly as he nodded to the bartender and asked for a beer. He slid his coat onto the back of his stool. "That's what I told them you'd say."

"Who?" Vin asked.

"Who. Who the hell do you think?" Chris asked sarcastically, hating this already.

"So why'd you come?" Vin asked, shrugging off the question.

"Because J.D. is a little runt know-it-all who won't take no for an answer. Because he thinks you're the best thing since sliced bread. And because he's young enough to still believe in happy endings," Chris answered.

"Yeah," Vin laughed coldly. "Someone should'a beat that outta him a long time ago."

Chris glanced at the bottle on the bar.

"I see we've drunk past angry-as-hell and are well into the feeling-sorry-for-ourselves stage."

"What would you know about it?" Vin shot back angrily. "What the hell would you know about any of this?"

"Try burying your wife and son, Vin," he shot back. "It takes 'feeling sorry for yourself' to a whole new level."

Vin eyed him guiltily, then shook his head as he got up from the barstool.

"I'm sorry, Chris. You're right. I'm not the first guy to get the lousy end of the deal in life." Vin shrugged into his jacket. "Thanks for giving me a shot. It was a great ride while it lasted."

"And J.D.? Ezra?" Chris challenged. "They seem to think you're worth fighting for. They're not as willing to throw away a friendship as you seem to be."

Vin turned scarlet and threw the barstool over. He leaned in inches from Chris' face. Larabee could smell the liquor on his hot breath.

"This ain't about friendship and you know it. You've been gut-shot in life. You know how long it takes to trust again. To risk feeling anything but numb. So don't give me this guilt- trip. It ain't about friendship, it ain't about the damn test. It's about the fistful of pride I've got left. And that's all I've got left."

The bartender had walked over and was watching them uneasily. Chris flashed a hand at him to let him know there would be no more trouble. He slowly righted Vin's barstool and slipped on his own jacket. Larabee flipped a five onto the bar, then met Vin's gaze.

"You stick it out, let us help you, you'll end up back on the team with six guys who'd go to the mat for you, a job you're good at, and a record no one can ever question again." He nodded towards the door to the bar. "But you're right. You walk out that door with your fistful of pride and that's all you've got."

Chris saw a moment's hesitation in Vin's eyes - the kid was thinking. Maybe he'd gotten through. He took a chance and pushed.

"Give us a try, Vin. Don't do something stupid you'll regret."

For a brief second Chris had had a feeling of hope -and then it was gone. He saw the protective barrier fall across Vin's face as surely as if a curtain had been pulled down between them, and knew he'd lost.

"Reckon that's my problem," Vin said coldly as he brushed by Chris and out the door.

"Damn!" Chris swore, slamming his fist on the bar. He raced after Tanner, grabbing his arm as they emerged from the bar into a rain-slicked night.

"Cut it out, Vin," he said angrily. "We both know you're not stupid."

Vin jerked his arm free of Chris' grasp.

"I know it stinks," Chris said, both hands out in front of him, trying to calm Vin down. "I'm not saying it doesn't. I promised you this wouldn't happen and I got the rug pulled out from under me right along with you. But it's just a damn test, Vin! We both know you can pass it and silence Prichett for good."

Vin turned back to Chris.

"So there's no college diploma on your wall," Chris continued. "You passed the GED in the service. You write reports for me every week. You've picked up on our system, our procedures with no problem." He tried once more to put a hand on Vin's shoulder.

"You got every right to be pissed," Chris acknowledged. "But if you're gonna be mad, be mad at me for not silencing that SOB the first time around because I was feeling guilty. Don't let your anger screw you out of something good."

Slowly Vin ran a hand shakily through his rain-soaked hair. He took a deep breath and looked at Chris.

"I ain't mad at you, Chris," Vin said, defeated. "If anyone screwed up it's me." He laughed and shook his head.

"Drew Andrews passed the GED, Chris," Vin said in a hollow voice. "He took the test through the Army, put my name on it," he swallowed hard "- and took a sniper's bullet three weeks later."

"Shit, Vin, I'm sorry, I..." Chris said, shocked.

"Those reports? Ask Ezra about 'em," Vin said. "I don't imagine he was giving very good odds on me comin' back."

Extenuating circumstances, Chris thought. He looked at Vin carefully, calmly.

"What the hell are you saying, Vin?"

Tanner looked at him, took a breath, then let it out slowly. He shook his head.

"Thanks for the ride, Chris," he said.

Vin walked to his bike. Chris watched numbly as Tanner pulled on his helmet and started the engine. The rain fell steadily, soaking him through, as he watched Vin ride off into the night.

+ + + + + + +


"Good lord," Ezra grumbled. He fumbled for his watch and blinked at the illuminated dial. 2 a.m. Larabee he thought as he grabbed his robe and stumbled to the door. He peered through the peephole and threw the lock.

"I gather you spoke with Mr. Tanner," Ezra said.

"What the hell is going on, Ez?" Chris asked.

Ezra backed up and ushered Chris inside.

"Coffee?" he asked as he turned on the kitchen light. He didn't wait for a response, but began brewing a pot.

"So help me Ezra, I'm not in the mood for your smug elitism right now," Chris said.

Ezra nodded. He pulled a chair out for Chris and took a seat himself. He waited until the team leader sat.

"I take it Mr. Tanner made some mention of the 140s?" Ezra asked.

"Were you writing them for him?" Chris asked pointedly.

Ezra sighed.

"I assisted in their preparation," Ezra answered.

"Shit, Ezra, I told you I'm not..."

"I have answered you truthfully," Ezra interrupted. "I did not write them. I merely assisted Mr. Tanner with grammar, editing and occasional keyboarding."

"So what's left?" Chris asked.

"I did not compose them," Ezra answered.

"And he needed all this help - why?"

Ezra rose to pour himself a cup of coffee.

"Damn it, Ezra - are you telling me he can't read?" Chris demanded.

"I've told you all that I am at liberty to divulge," Ezra answered. "Anything else about Mr. Tanner I know was received in confidence. Anything additional I suspect is hearsay."

Chris shoved himself away from the table, jarring Ezra's arm and sloshing his coffee onto his robe.

"You're willing to let Vin go rather than tell me something I could do to make him stay?" Chris said, accusingly.

Ezra calmly brushed at the coffee stain on his robe. He rose and placed his coffee cup in the sink. He turned back to Chris.

"Would you have me betray his trust as well?" Ezra asked icily.

"Damn you, Ezra," Chris seethed. "I didn't know this was coming..."

"You knew the record was incomplete," Ezra shot back, allowing his anger its freedom. "You knew the potential was there. But in your arrogance you believed your authority wouldn't be questioned. That the 'good-old-boy' network would prevail - a wink, a nod, and Tanner's in because Chris Larabee says so." Standish was seething now, and the barrage continued.

"People like Mr. Tanner, people like me count on the Chris Larabee's of this world to cover our less-than-stellar reputations because they've been given the edge - the leg up we've been denied. Mr. Tanner trusted you."

Ezra backed off finally and rubbed his eyes. He looked at Chris with tired accusation.

"My assistance, however questionable, merely permitted Mr. Tanner to maintain the status quo. Your negligence has cost him his job. You had six months to do something to make sure he'd stay. Don't come pointing fingers at me now."

+ + + + + + +

"This can't be good."

Chris awoke, startled at the voice coming from above him. Buck looked down at the rumpled team leader who lay in his T-shirt and yesterday's pants on the couch in his office.

Larabee said nothing as he brushed a hand through his hair and sat up stiffly on the edge of the couch.

"You want me to tell them?" Buck wanted to know.

"Tell them what?" Chris asked sullenly as he put on the shirt he had left hanging over the back of his desk chair.

"That Vin's gone for good," Buck answered.

Chris froze for a minute, one arm in a sleeve. He glanced at Buck, then continued putting on his shirt and buttoning the front.

"Standish in?" Chris asked.

"What's he got to do with it?"

"More than I thought, I guess," Chris said, standing. He patted Buck on the shoulder and headed out of the office.

Three heads swiveled as Larabee exited his office. Chris glanced over at Ezra who remained with his back to the leader, a coffee in one hand, the Denver Post in the other.

"Vin's decided not to stay," Chris said simply with resignation.

"Shit," Buck murmured behind him.

"What'd you say to him?" J.D. challenged. "Did you tell him we'd help? That he shouldn't let his pride get in the way? That we..."

"I told him everything I could, J.D.," Chris interrupted him. "Everything but what he needed to hear - that he wouldn't have to take the test to stay."

"But what about..." J.D. began.

"It's over, J.D. I'm sorry. I know you were hoping for a better ending, but it's not mine to give. Vin made his decision and we're going to have to live with it. There's nothing more to be said." Chris looked over his men, his gaze ending with the back of Ezra's head.

"Unless, of course, you have something to add, Ezra?"

Standish stiffened. He set his coffee down and slowly turned to face Larabee.

"How dare you," he said ominously.

"What?" asked J.D. "What does Ezra know?"

Ezra gazed at Chris with utter contempt, his eyes blazing. Silence filled the room. Standish kept his eyes riveted on the leader as he spoke.

"Mr. Larabee would have me add insult to injury by exposing a confidence Mr. Tanner shared with me," said Ezra. "So that now, in addition to stripping him of his pride, we might hold him naked to ridicule as well."

"Standish..." Chris warned.

"Haven't you done enough to him?"

"Consider yourself on a little unpaid vacation for the rest of the day, Standish," Chris said evenly.

"My pleasure," Ezra replied.

"Hey, hey," Buck said to them both. "Let's just take it easy. We're all upset about this. We just need..."

But he was speaking to Ezra's back as the agent strode toward the elevator.

"Ezra," Josiah said, rising to follow him.

"Take a seat, Josiah," Chris ordered. He eyed each man. "All of you. Take a seat. We've got work to do." He headed back to his office. Buck followed.

"That goes for you too, Wilmington," he ordered over his shoulder, closing his door in Buck's face.

+ + + + + + +

J.D. mounted the last flight of stairs to Vin's apartment. He'd seen no sign of the Harley on the street and figured Vin was out, but thought he'd try the door at least, maybe wait in the hallway for a while. He needed to speak to Vin - to try one more time. It seemed to him Chris had given up way too easily.

Dunne reached the apartment and raised his hand to knock on the door, then noticed it was ajar. With one hand on his revolver, he called into the room.


J.D. jumped when the door was pulled open, then relaxed when he recognized the face on the other side.

"I had the same idea," said Buck. "Looks like we're both too late, though."

He opened the door. J.D. thought it odd that even with all the second- hand furniture still in place, the apartment looked empty. Vin had had few possessions - certainly not enough for the average visitor to miss. J.D. realized suddenly it had been the presence of Vin himself that had filled the room.

"His stuff is gone?" J.D. asked.

"The important stuff. I was only here a couple times, but the lock's off the closet - his gun is gone. Along with his clothes and his duffel bag. The few things left here don't amount to much."

J.D. sat heavily on the old couch. Buck joined him with a sigh.

"What was all that business with Ezra?" J.D. asked, his head cocked to the side.

"Damned if I know," Buck answered. "I tried calling him - no answer - and I figured the door in my face wasn't exactly an invitation to discuss it with Chris."

"I guess that's really it, then," J.D. sighed. He looked back at Buck with a new thought. "Where do you figure he'd go?"

+ + + + + + +

He could drive there in his sleep. Fact is, during the hard nights that followed some of the bad days in Houston, he had. He'd envisioned himself coasting along the tree-lined highway that led to the mountain - seen himself guiding the Harley gently through the mountain passes. He'd walked up the weathered porch steps to knock gently on the old screen door and entered into the perfume of fresh bread, old wood and mountain heather. There were times he awoke with tears in his eyes.

Now he was driving the path for real and realizing it had been a long time coming. Too long. She must have thought he'd forgotten about her - and that was farther from the truth than she'd ever believe. Old Tom Wolfe never met her, never had supper at her table, never sat of an evening on that old porch swing or he'd never have said you can't go home again. 'Course, he knew old Tom meant things don't stay the same. But as long as she was alive, in her home they didn't dare change.

He'd been driving all night and most of the day, save for a couple hours he took for a catnap at a rest stop just beyond the Colorado boarder. He could feel the tightness in his chest ease and took a deep breath as he saw the sign welcoming him to New Mexico, knew he could sleep then, if only for a few hours.

By the time his boots actually scraped the wooden steps he felt as if it had been only yesterday since he'd seen her last. And when he heard her voice, saw her face, felt her embrace, it was as if he'd never left.

+ + + + + + +

Tom Prichett had found his son John lying dead in his old bedroom in his parent's house, sprawled across the twin bed, the pale green comforter soaked crimson with his blood. Had Tom been thinking clearly that day, he'd have realized a part of his own sanity had remained in that room with the lifeless body of his son. He hadn't been the same man after that - few men could be - but his obsession with Chris Larabee's team, and Larabee himself, went beyond even that impaired reason.

When he had seen the sheet on Tanner, noticed the glaring holes in the resume, heard of the enthusiastic support from Travis, and of the agent's almost gleeful acceptance by the ATF team members, his grip on sanity slipped even further.

Reason would hold that once the challenge he had authored was upheld by administration, once Tanner left and the victory was his, he would regain some of that lost ground. But it was the fact that Tanner did leave that galled him; that the ATF team didn't come crying to Gaines, that Larabee didn't storm into administration in righteous indignation that his word had been challenged, that Tanner hadn't tried - and failed - to pass the exam. Prichett had been denied his final retribution - Vin Tanner's ultimate humiliation. And that was when his feeble grasp on sanity slipped and he fell away completely into the abyss.

He had waited outside Tanner's apartment. Followed him across the Colorado boarder, continued on past the final turnoff Tanner had taken in the mountains of Capitan, and then, in the dead of night, he had backtracked. He had gotten close enough to smell the wood smoke from the chimney, see the Harley parked on the porch, then coasted silently back down the path to a turnout where he could conceal the car.

Prichett popped the trunk and removed a backpack, hoisting it on his shoulders. He checked the batteries in his flashlight, then whistled softly as he removed the rifle and shot pouch. Raising the rifle to his shoulder, he looked through the site, resting the crosshairs on the front door of the porch. A calm smile spread across his face as the words of the tune he whistled ran through his mind like a child's nursery rhyme - a hunting we will go...a hunting we will go...high-ho the derry-o... a hunting we will go.

+ + + + + + +

When Chris Larabee came into work Friday morning, Orrin Travis was sitting in his office.

"Twice in one week," Chris said, not bothering to hide the anger he still harbored against Travis and Gaines. "What little ray of sunshine are you spreading today?"

"Where's Tanner?" Orrin asked, ignoring the sarcasm.

"Let me see," Chris said, rubbing his chin. "Oh, now I remember, he quit. No wait, that's not quite right..."

"Cut the crap, Larabee," Orrin said hotly.

"You first," Chris challenged him. "Takes some guts to come in here asking where Vin is two days after you tell me he's..."

"I know, I know, but I was hoping he'd told you his plans," Orrin explained.

"Well, gee, Orrin, I guess he was just a little too upset to share them with me. Me having promised him there wouldn't be any of this shit..."

"Chris, his life may be in danger," Orrin said finally.

Chris stopped silent and looked at Travis with new interest.


"Superintendent Gaines gave me this this morning," Travis said, handing over a piece of paper.

Chris glanced at it -noticed Tom Prichett's signature at the bottom.

"He resigned?" he asked incredulously, then, "Why? He won. And why do we think Vin's in trouble?"

"Seems Prichett's wife called Gaines this morning. Said he didn't come home last night. Gaines told her he wasn't at work all day yesterday and had turned in his resignation. She told him Prichett had told her he was going to be on a stakeout. He left work Wednesday afternoon after handing Gaines his resignation. That means he's been missing almost two days."

Chris glanced down at the resignation form again, then back at Orrin waiting for him to continue.

"She got concerned when she went into his home office. She was worried about him - has been since John's suicide - so she checked the drawer where he kept his old service revolver. It was there, but so was this."

Orrin handed a photo to Chris. It was a surveillance photo - obviously taken with a bad telephoto lens. The image was blurred and grainy, but unmistakable. Vin Tanner sat on the stoop outside his apartment talking with some of the neighborhood boys. A red circle was drawn around his head and two neat crosshairs intersected on his forehead.

Chris' mouth went dry. He looked up as Travis spoke again.

"Now. Where's Vin?"

+ + + + + + +

"You look better this morning," said the old woman as she set a cup of coffee in front of Vin Tanner.

"Feel better," Vin acknowledged. "Better than I have in quite a while."

"Should have come down sooner then, maybe," Nettie Wells chided.

Vin smiled sheepishly.

"I didn't want to plague you with my trouble," he said with a shrug. "I done enough of that growin' up."

"I heard from Kip you got yourself shot last year. Funny how you didn't mention that when I talked to you on the phone."

"I didn't come here to get grilled old woman," he argued playfully.

"What kind of manners they teachin' you in Denver?" she scolded.

His face clouded over at the mention of the city and she realized quickly the origin of the trouble that had driven him to her. Her teasing stopped.

"What happened?" she asked simply.

Vin shrugged again.

"Someone pulled the alarm on my academic record," he said. He didn't need to say more. Nettie Wells of all people understood the full implication of those words.

"What'd that team leader -Chris is it? - what'd he have to say?"

Vin looked away, the guilt evident in his face. He was ashamed of the way he had left and knew she'd see it in his eyes.

She caught it anyway by the slump in his shoulders, the quick look away from her.

"Let that pride of yours get in the way again, huh?" she asked, hitting the nail on the head like always.

She goaded his temper by pegging the situation so squarely with so little information.

"You know as well as I do I wouldn't pass no written test with them," he said, irritated.

"Hung you out to dry, did they? That team of yours?" she asked, not giving him an inch - unimpressed with his show of defiance. "Told you to quit whinin' and take their test. Didn't offer you a hand? Give you any..."

"You don't understand," he interrupted.

"Oh, Vin," she said, the hurt evident on her face.

This time, the look cut him to the quick. Didn't understand? Of course she did. She'd been there from the start.

"I'm sorry, it's just..."

The sentence was never finished. A rifle shot shattered the stillness of the morning and the cream pitcher exploded on the table.

"Down!" he shouted unnecessarily. She had been with him in Houston - known the streets and the gangs - and was already on the floor crawling behind the oak china cupboard.

Vin slid on his belly across the hard wood floors and into his room. He reached into the closet and grabbed his E-9 and shells, then slithered back into the kitchen looking wildly above him at the shattered window.

The air was still again. Tanner strained to hear movement in the silence. An eerie whistling began, the tune familiar from long-ago childhood - a hunting we will go, high-ho the derry-o...

"What in God's earth is that?" Nettie asked, unnerved by the melody.

"I don't..."

He heard the rifle fire again, but this time the target wasn't in the house. He groaned as the realization struck him - the dull pop and hiss of the tires exploding on his Harley.

"Damn," he swore. Then looked at Nettie. "Whoever it is wants me," he told her.

"Well, hell yes," she said, her dander up again in an effort to hide her fear. "Who'd want to plug an old goose like me?"

He smiled tightly at her false bravado, his mind working hard at figuring his next course of action.

"Okay," he decided finally. "I'm gonna head out the back, draw him away from here..."

"Oh no you're not!" she said quickly. "You're stayin' right here with me. I'm not..."

"You're not the target. If I go, whoever it is will follow me," Vin reasoned.

"And I should just sit here and wait to see who comes back alive?" she asked angrily.

"Damn it, Nettie, for once do as I say, will you?"

She looked into his eyes and saw what so many others had seen - on the streets, in the army, at his job. The hunter. The sniper. The killer.

"I'll call the sheriff. Get whatever help I can," Nettie promised.

"You wait to go near that phone until I draw him away, got it?" he ordered.

She nodded, accepting her new role -and his, as her protector now.

He softened as he saw the fear in her eyes.

"I'll try to head him toward the cliffs - away from the other cabins. You get hold of the sheriff, send him in that direction. Little Bluff. Remember?"

She nodded.

"You be careful, son," she whispered, fearful not for her life, but his.

He winked at her.

"This is where I shine, Nettie."

+ + + + + + +

"Heads up," Chris ordered as he emerged from his office with Travis in tow.

The team swiveled chairs to look up expectantly at their leader who had been silent for two days. Two long days that seemed to find Larabee paralyzed - unable to make decisions, to get past Vin's resignation.

"We got trouble. Orrin's got evidence John Prichett took a dive off the deep end and may be heading after Vin," Chris explained briefly.

"What evidence?" Buck asked.

Chris passed around the photo Travis had given him in his office. He watched the looks of shock and disbelief pass over their faces one by one.

"Any of you have an idea -any idea - of where Vin might've been heading? Did he mention Houston to anyone?" Chris asked.

"I'll call Kip," Buck offered. "If he did head back to Houston, he'd go there, I'd think."

"But he admitted himself he never considered it home," Josiah reasoned.

"True, but he also said Kip was one of the few people in the world he trusted. Could be that'd be enough for him right now," Nathan answered.

"He ever mention any family to anyone?" Chris wanted to know.

Buck and Josiah shook their heads no. Chris turned to look at J.D. who seemed deep in thought.

"What about it J.D.?" he asked.

"He showed me a picture just this week," J.D. said, thinking out loud. "Some lady - a social worker -that took him in when he was a kid."

"In Houston?" Buck asked.

"Yeah - No, I mean, she found him in Houston but then they moved," J.D. remembered slowly. "Said she was the only person who ever cared about him growing up."

"Got a name?" Josiah asked, his fingers poised on the keyboard ready to type in an address query.

J.D. thought hard, then shook his head.

"No, damn it, I can't remember. He said it, but I didn't pay real close attention, you know? It wasn't very often Vin opened up like that and I was kind of surprised."

"So where is she now?" Chris asked.

"Damn," J.D. swore again. "It was some place I never even heard of. It was - wait, it was in New Mexico, that I remember."

"Josiah, see if you can..." Chris began.

"Wait, wait, there was something else," J.D. said, excited now. "He said it was some out-of-the-way place where he couldn't get into trouble. Said it was only known for..." he thought again, then brightened with recognition, "Smokey the Bear!" he finished, exultant.

"What?" Buck asked, incredulously.

"He said all it was known for was being the birth place of Smokey the Bear."

"He wasn't real, J.D., that's just some ad against forest fires," Buck said dismissively.

"No, no, I think he was real. He was some old circus bear or something," Nate said.

Buck gave Nathan a smirk, shaking his head.

"Hey, that's what Vin said, take it or leave it," J.D. answered.

"Look, is any of this getting us closer to Vin?" Chris asked, irritated.

Josiah clicked away at his keyboard.

"Capitan," he said, suddenly.

"That's it!" J.D. exclaimed.

"How the hell did you find that?" Buck asked, leaning over Sanchez' shoulder.

"A tiny badly-singed cub was rescued from the Capitan Gap Fire in 1950," read Josiah from the screen. "It was clinging to the side of a burnt pine tree. His burns were tended to overnight, then he was flown to the veterinary hospital in Santa Fe. That same year he was flown to the national zoo in Washington DC as the official live Smokey Bear."

"See!" J.D. said triumphantly. "I told you he was real."

Buck looked at J.D., then at Nathan.

"Circus bear," he snorted, salvaging some of his pride.

Chris noticed for the first time that Standish had been on the phone. The agent hung up and looked at the rest of the team.

"We've got a SWAT copter coming on the roof in an hour, gentlemen," he said calmly. "Mr. Sanchez? Would you be able to extract the phone directory for Capitan? Perhaps Mr. Dunne would recognize a name if he saw it."

Chris looked up at him.

"You running the show now, Standish?" he asked.

"I'm moving things along, Mr. Larabee. I fear time is of the essence. I would be more than happy to relinquish command to its rightful owner, provided you are ready to act," Ezra answered.

"Josiah, J.D., get me a name. Nathan, get your med kit. Buck, find out what kind of country we're going into and get us the equipment we'll need," Chris said, his eyes riveted on Standish as he barked the orders.

"Us?" Buck asked, watching the silent battle playing out between the two agents.

"You, me, Nate," Chris answered, then nodded towards Standish, "and the commander, here."

It took less time for J.D. to recognize the name of Nettie Wells in the small Capitan phone directory than it took for Chris to explain to him why he wasn't going along. J.D. was indignant.

"But if it wasn't for me..."

"If it wasn't for you we wouldn't know where to look," Chris finished. "But the chopper is only going to sit four."

"Why's Buck going then?" the kid argued.

"Because Capitan is in the mountains and Buck knows mountains," Chris explained.

"I suppose that's why Ezra's going?" J.D. asked sarcastically.

Chris glanced at Standish.

"Ezra's going because...," Chris hesitated, "because I owe him," he finished.

"What does that mean?" J.D. asked, unwilling to give up the fight.

Chris was done arguing.

"It means I'm done explaining. You and Josiah are holding down the fort." He looked at his two agents, realizing that sitting and waiting was arguably more difficult than anything he and the other three would be facing in the hours ahead. "We'll bring him back," he promised.

+ + + + + + +

The helicopter lifted off the roof of ATF headquarters at the same time as Vin led his mysterious pursuer deeper into the Capitan mountains - and Nettie Wells realized her phone lines had been cut.

+ + + + + + +

Vin sped noiselessly through the trees, his eyes searching about him for a glimpse of the gunman. He held his loaded rifle in one hand, his bullet pouch in the other. Tanner had been all over these woods as a boy - but that was a long time ago, and he searched his memory anxiously now as he tried to determine the shortest path to the cliffs.

He remembered Little Bluff fondly - it lay just to the west of Nettie's place. The woods extended for miles in all other directions interspersed with a spattering of small homesteads. If he didn't want to risk any hostage situations, the cliffs were his best choice. But he had no climbing gear, and once he was out in the open he would --

-- he dove for cover as he heard the rifle crack, cursed as he felt a searing pain across his side. He lay still in the brush, fighting the pain, trying not to move.

The silence was suddenly broken again by the eerie whistling. This time, Vin was able to determine its origin. He saw a dark shadow of a man standing with his rifle drawn about 30 yards away. The man was searching for Vin - trying to see if he had hit his target. Slowly, painfully, Vin drew his gun to him and rolled on his belly, then looked through the scope.

Damn, he thought as he studied the features of the man now magnified, who the hell is that? He brought the gun up slowly and aimed carefully. Vin didn't know who the man was, or why he was shooting. While he wasn't ready to kill, Vin wanted to make damn sure he brought the man down and disabled him. He aimed high in the chest and squeezed the trigger.

Vin watched with satisfaction as the man staggered and fell. He let out a slow breath and drew himself up into a sitting position. He set his gun down and carefully pulled out his shirt, lightly fingering the deep graze that left a bloody trail across his side. He had nothing to bind it with. He bunched up the bottom of his shirt and held it against the wound until the bleeding slowed. Then he reloaded his gun and slipped on the safety, using it as a crutch to help himself to his feet.

Tanner slung the bullet pouch over his shoulder and headed off towards the man he had shot. At first he figured the man was blending in with the dark forest floor. He was surprised there was no noise. He knew he hadn't made the shot to kill - why wasn't the man moaning? He walked a few more yards and realized quickly why. Vin had made the shot, seen the man fall, but there was no body.

A tree exploded suddenly just to the left of his head. He winced as shards of bark stung his cheek. Quickly Vin spun around in the direction of the rifle shot, diving for cover. Silence again. And again, it was broken by the unearthly tune - high-ho the derry-o a hunting we will go...

+ + + + + + +

The chopper set down at the foot of the Capitan mountains. Three Jeeps were waiting along with a sheriff and his deputies. The three men shielded their eyes from the blowing dust kicked up by the helicopter as it deposited the ATF agents and took off again.

"Evan Dean," the sheriff said, extending his hand to Chris. He nodded towards his men. "Bob Carson, Jim Daley."

Chris nodded and introduced himself and his men, then gestured toward the Jeeps.

"These for us?" he asked, impatient to be on his way.

"Yes, Sir," Dean nodded. "The boys and I drove out here. We'll take a jeep back, leave you with the other two. That sound good?"

"Perfect. Thanks for the fast work on such short notice," Chris answered.

The sheriff handed him the keys, a question evident in his eyes.

"I don't have a problem helpin' out the ATF," Dean said. "Not like some of them territorial folks who get themselves in a knot when a higher authority drops in."

"But..." Chris said, waiting for the question.

"But just what're you huntin' in my backyard? And maybe there's a reason we're not invited?" the sheriff asked.

Chris understood. Dean had gotten a call out of the blue to have transportation ready to head to the mountains for a team of ATF agents being dropped off in a helicopter. He was here as promised. He'd delivered and been civil about it. All the man was asking for now was the professional courtesy of an explanation between leaders of men. Larabee felt he owed it despite the objections he was sure Travis would raise when he got back.

"We believe one of our men is up there visiting Nettie Wells," he explained, then grimaced. "We've also got a rogue agent who's not thinking straight. Got his sites set on my man."

"One ATF is out gunnin' for another?" Carson asked.

"I can see why that little bit of information was missin' from the request," Dean said, throwing a look of admonishment at his deputy. "Family business can get sticky."

Ezra and Nate were already seated in one of the Jeeps. Buck waited alongside the other for Chris. Dean could see they were all anxious to get going.

"Nettie Wells is about 30 miles up that road, then on a switch to the left marked with her name. Take you a little over half an hour to reach her - be dark by then," Dean explained.

"Thanks," Chris said simply, shaking the sheriff's hand again. He turned to join his men.

"Larabee?" Dean called after him. Chris turned back. "You boys got cell phones along?" Chris nodded.

"You get too far up a crick and need an extra paddle..." Dean said, holding out several business cards. He saw the guarded look in Chris' eyes. "I'm real lousy at paperwork. 'Times I just plain toss the stuff in the fireplace rather than deal with it when I get behind."

Chris took the cards from Dean, a sly smile crossing his lips. The sheriff tipped the brim of his hat with his fingers and climbed into the Jeep.

"What're these for?" Buck asked, taking a card from Chris as he climbed into the driver's seat.

"Backup," Chris said, turning the key in the ignition. "From a guy who's been there."

+ + + + + + +

By late afternoon Vin had made his way to the cliffs he remembered. The bleeding had stopped, but his side still burned. In his mind, he replayed the shot he had taken as he ran. He couldn't have missed. The hit was dead-on. The man had fallen. How...and then it dawned on him with horrifying force - flak jacket. And if the guy was wearing a flak jacket he was a cop. What cop would come gunning for him all the way to New Mexico? What had he done?

A rifle barked and Vin ducked as the bullet went high. Damn! The guy was back and had his number. Vin was a good tracker - and he knew these woods. But not knowing who was after him and why was distracting him. He should hide, turn the tables on his pursuer so he could start doing the hunting himself, but his confusion and deadly curiosity kept him from thinking straight.

Quickly Vin slid down a cliff of loose rock and soil, slipping into a tight crevice about 15 feet below the main trail. Less than ten minutes later he heard footfalls above him. Plastering himself tightly against the rock wall, he held his breath to listen. The odd whistling started again. Then Vin heard the rifle cock.

+ + + + + + +


"Make a move and I'll blow your head clean off."

Chris froze, one foot in the Jeep, one out. He raised his hands in the air, then rested them slowly on the top of the half-opened door.

The old woman pointing a shotgun at him wasn't kidding. The door to the cabin stood open, the light from her fire illuminating her against the darkness of her front porch. The gun rested snugly inside her shoulder, her eye dead-center on the site. When she saw him rest his hands in sight, she relaxed, taking the shotgun down from her shoulder and peering at him carefully.

"You Larabee?" she asked.

"Yes," he answered. He nodded towards the others. "We're looking for Vin."

This time the gun dropped down to her side.

"Well what the hell took you so long?" Nettie asked, striding towards them. "M'line's been cut and the tires on my Ford been slashed."

"How long ago did he leave?" Chris asked anxiously.

"Early this mornin'," she answered.

"Damn," Buck swore. "We wait 'til mornin' we're a day behind and we gotta wait 'til mornin' or we might miss somethin'."

"You're Buck," Nettie said nodding at him.

Buck smiled.

"Yes ma'am, sorry, Buck Wilmington," he said, removing his hat.

"And Ezra and Nathan," she said extending a hand to the other agents.

"Maybe we should take you along, Ma'am," Buck said. "You'd make a damn good agent."

"Don't take any keen powers of detection to figure out who the other Texas boy is, the dandy, and, forgive me Mr. Jackson, but..."

"No problem, Miss Wells," Nathan said, taking her hand. "I know all us medics look alike."

She allowed herself a short laugh before turning back to Chris.

"Your man's right, Mr. Larabee," she said seriously. "Like as not you'd run yourself off the road tryin' to drive in this darkness, not knowin' the mountain."

"We've already lost enough time today," Chris argued.

"You're the only rescue he's got comin'," Nettie reasoned. "You get yourselves in trouble who's gonna help him then?"

+ + + + + + +

Vin had held his breath, waiting to hear the rifle fire, to feel the familiar burning sensation as the bullet entered his body, the pain and weightlessness before he slipped into the void. An hour went by. His legs ached from sitting squat, flattened against the rocks. But he had sat longer than this in tighter spots in nameless jungles and atop office buildings and water towers. He found himself dozing as the sun set, startled awake by the soft voice that floated down from above.

"Well. I figure they're looking for us by now," it said. "You being Larabee's best boy and all. And he'll bring some of them with him, that's sure enough. That medic, at least." A low chuckle. "Good thinking, that."

Vin sat still, his palms sweating against the gun he held.

"I could tell you what this is all about, but I think not knowing makes things a lot more interesting. I will tell you one thing, though. I'm waiting on Larabee. I know he'll come looking for you and when he finds us, I'm going to put a bullet in you, so he can watch you die, and then I'll put a bullet in him. Course, you're thinking, you'll be a hero and sacrifice yourself to save his life. And I'm telling you that if you run now, I'll kill you and use your body to lure him in. No matter, really. Larabee dies either way." The voice spoke softly, almost wistfully, and Vin heard the easy abandonment of insanity in it.

"Then, I'll swallow one myself. So you see, I've got nothing to lose. I can sit here as long as you, Tanner. We'll both just sit here and wait for Larabee."