BUMPY RIDE HOME by The Neon Gang

Comments: Some violence and cursing.

March 1998

His cell phone chirped and Supervising Agent Chris Larabee fished into his pocket and answered it. "Larabee."

"So, how did it go in San Francisco?"

"Good, sir," Larabee replied. "I think the locals can tie up the loose ends."

"I'm glad to hear that," Orin Travis said. "Kenneth Kroger certainly didn't look the type, did he?"

Chris grinned, remembering the slight accountant who appeared decidedly nervous and rabbit-like. But Kroger was also helping to funnel weapons to a small, but violent militia group with plans to overthrow the government at the millennium. "No, sir, he didn't."

"Well, the director's planning to put all of you up for a commendation," Travis said, sounding as proud of the agents as Larabee felt.

Chris snorted softly. "I'm just glad we got through this without anyone getting killed."

"Not bad for a team that's only been together for three months."

"Tell me about it."

"And Tanner, how did he do?"

"Just fine, sir. No complaints at all," he added, glancing over at the now-empty seat where the newest member of Team Seven had been sleeping soundly about ten minutes earlier. And looking far too young and vulnerable to be the highly trained, deadly sniper Larabee had seen in action just two days ago. "I hope we'll be able to take a little time off after we get back," Chris said a<s> casually as possible. He saw the others, except Vin - who had woken and then slipped up to sit with the pilot - watching him, their expressions hopeful.

"I don't see why not," Travis replied. "You and your men have certainly earned it."

Larabee flashed the others a thumbs-up. "Thank you, sir. Oh, and thanks for sending the plane for us," Chris added. "I feel a little like James Bond sitting here."

Travis chuckled. "My pleasure, Chris. What do you think of our newest acquisition?"

"This is the way to fly," Larabee replied.

"Yes, I guess we can call it the spoils of war," Travis said.

"I guess those gun runners wanted to travel in style," Larabee stated just before the plane pitched violently to the right. He grabbed for the armrest with his free hand to keep from being pitched out of his chair. "Jesus!" he yelped.

"Chris, what's wrong? What's happening?" Travis demanded, having heard the fear in the man's voice.

"I don't know," the blond said, craning his neck to try and catch the flight attendant's eye, but she was busy trying to secure the service cart.

The pilot's voice came on over the internal speakers, announcing, "I'm sorry, gentlemen, but we've lost an engine... flight controls are freezing up... buckle up, men, we're going down."

"We're- The pilot says we're gonna crash," Chris said into the cell phone.

"Crash? What the hell's going on up there! Chris?"

Larabee felt the plane pitch forward again. "Call for help!" he yelled just before the cell phone was shaken out of his grip. He grabbed the other armrest, holding on tightly as they plummeted toward the mountains below them. Then the plane leveled out for a few moments before the nose of the craft angled down again.

The impact came faster and harder than any of the ATF agents anticipated.

The plane slammed into the ground, bounced and hit a second time. They slid across the rough, snow-covered terrain with bone-jarring jerks and bumps, finally coming to a stop with a loud metallic tearing, popping sound.

Chris slowly uncurled from his hunched over position and glanced around. Things looked wrong, and it wasn't just the debris scattered over everything. It took him several moments before he realized what it was, what he was seeing. The plane was lying almost on its side; at least one of the wings must have been torn off, he realized.

Unhooking his seatbelt and pressing his foot down against one of the round windows, he tried to stand. He stopped, sucking in a sharp breath as a fiery stab of pain shot through his ankle and up to his knee. Using his other foot, he managed to push himself up and climb to his feet.

"Buck?" he called. "Josiah? Nathan? Ezra? JD?"

A groan caught Larabee's attention and he turned toward the sound, watching as Josiah pushed some of the debris off his chest, then slid carefully down to the wall so he could stand. "Give that pilot a medal," he said in a deep, rumbling voice.

"Check on the others," Chris directed, cradling his right wrist, which was throbbing painfully. "I'll see about the pilot... and Vin," he added, his stomach knotting with the man's name.

"You sure?" Josiah asked him, knowing very well what Chris might find in the cockpit.

"Yeah, I'm sure," Larabee said thickly, making his way to the cockpit door. He hadn't known Tanner long, just over a month now, he realized, but he already called the man a friend. It had helped that the then Federal Marshal had saved Larabee's life. But it was something more than that. He'd looked across that open roof top and met Tanner's eyes, and it was as if he'd known the man for years. Before he'd even realized what he was doing, he'd offered him a job, and Tanner had accepted without hesitation. No one had gotten to him like that since he'd met Sarah.

And now Tanner might already be dead.

He forced the chilling thought away, refusing to believe it. Tanner wasn't dead. By God he damn well better not be dead.

Once he reached the cockpit door he forced it open with his good hand and pulled himself up and into the small space.

He found Vin hanging, unconscious, in the co-pilot's chair, seatbelt and shoulder harness holding him in place. The pilot's chair and most of his control console were missing, blood smeared and splattered across what was left. Cold air rushed into the hole and, in the distance, he could hear the groan of timber being bent by the weight of the plane.

"Vin?" Chris called, more than a little worried by the sniper's pale face and apparent lack of breathing. He reached up, his hand shaking slightly, and checked the man's neck for a pulse, finding it strong and steady. A soft sigh of relief escaped his lips.

"Vin... Come on, Tanner, wake up," he urged, gently squeezing the sniper's shoulder.

The young man's eyes fluttered open. "Chris?" he slurred, then groaned.

"Yeah, it's me. Take it easy, okay? I'm gonna get you down."

"Feels like... 'n elephant... stomped m' chest."

"You probably bruised or cracked some ribs. Can you feel your legs? Move everything okay?"

Tanner did a quick check of his various body parts while he tried to ignore the odd angle he was hanging at. "Yeah, it's just m' chest."

"Okay, hang on. I'll get you out of here and Nathan can take a look," the blond told him, fumbling for the seat- and shoulder-belt releases.

A distant rumble vibrated through the torn skin of the plane.

"What's that sound?" Vin asked warily.

"Don't know," Larabee admitted. "Let's get you out of here, then we'll worry about it."

"The others?"

"Josiah was awake, he was going to go check on the rest."

Vin nodded, waiting while Larabee helped him unbuckle the restraints as best he could. "Here I come."

"All right, I've gotcha," Chris said, bracing his friend with his good hand as Tanner slid down to join him.

"Thanks," Vin said.

Together the two men made their way back to join the others at the rear of the plane, an area that had looked more like a living room than anything else.

They found Buck seated on what passed as the floor, JD's head on his thigh while he pressed a handkerchief against the younger man's scalp.

"How is he?" Chris asked, fear draining the blood from his face. Dunne was as pale as a ghost.

Buck glanced up at the question, looking scared and in pain himself. But he was relieved to see Vin was alive and flashed the man a brief grin before looking back to Chris and shaking his head, lips disappearing into a thin line of worry. "I don't know, Chris... He won't wake up."

Nathan moved over to them, favoring his right hip, and said, "He took a nasty blow to the abdomen and chest, Chris. It doesn't look too good."

"Damn," Larabee sighed. "Josiah and Ezra?"

"Josiah's getting Ezra now," Nathan said, then added softly, "The flight attendant's dead."

"Pilot, too," Larabee said.

Josiah stepped around some of the debris and carried Standish over to them, all four of them helping to get Ezra to the floor.

Reaching out, Nathan pushed the tangled hair off the Southerner's forehead and studied his pale features. He checked his pulse, finding it beating too fast and too weakly.

"Find me some towels," Nathan directed. "And some tape."

Chris and Vin nodded and headed off to see what they could locate.

"Duct tape all right?" Vin called a few moments later.

"It'll do. Hurry," Nathan said as another low grumble began to grow louder.

Chris returned with two hand towels, Vin with the tape.

"What're y' goin' t' do?" Tanner asked the medic.

"Immobilize his neck," Jackson explained, rolling the two towels into tubes and then placing them on either side of Ezra's head and neck. Then, tugging out his clean handkerchief, he placed it over Standish's forehead to protect his skin and used the tape to secure the towels in place. The rumble, meanwhile, slowly escalated to a roar inside the plane.

Vin's eyes widened and he stared at the plane's windows, but there was nothing visible except white snow pressing against the glass. "Avalanche," he said calmly. "Got t' be. Better hold on, boys, it's gonna hit."

"Ava-?" Buck started to say, but the tumult of snow reached them, pushing the plane over like a giant wave catching a small boat and forcing them farther down the side of the mountain.

Josiah and Nathan both held on to Ezra, trying to protect the Southerner's head and keep his neck as immobile as they could. Buck pulled JD up, holding him tight to his chest and doing the same. Chris and Vin scrambled, trying to stay on their feet and doing what they could to keep from colliding with the others while still protecting themselves at the same time.

The shaft of a tree limb thrust through one of the plane windows, just missing Tanner's midsection before it was snapped off in the descent. Larabee lunged to keep from going down as the body of the plane turned like a giant cog. Pain exploded in his ankle and his knee buckled, sending him to his hands and knees. He huddled there, hands over his head, riding it out.

How long or how far the icy wave carried them along, none of them was sure, but when the plane finally shuddered to a stop, metal moaning from the stress, they were almost back on an even keel.

Nathan was the first to react, checking Ezra first.

Vin stumbled to the windows on either side of the plane. "Think we're buried," he stated flatly, hugging his right arm tightly against his ribs.

"I think you're right," Chris said, pulling himself up and doing the same. He hopped slightly, trying to keep his weight off his injured ankle.

"Chris, Vin, help me and Josiah get Ezra onto the sofa," Nathan said.

Together the four men lifted the injured man, Nathan making sure that the Southerner's head and neck remained stable. Chris puffed as they moved, sharp, hot pain flaring through his leg with each step.

Once Ezra was lying on the leather sofa, Jackson continued, "Okay, now we logroll him."

Vin looked up at the medic, confused. "What?"

Nathan extended one of Ezra's arms above his head. "Take his other arm, and his hip... now, we're gonna roll him onto his side."

The three men nodded.

"On three. One... two... three."

They rolled Ezra smoothly.

Nathan looked at Josiah, saying, "You stay with him. Keep an eye on his airway. I don't think his neck's broken, but I can't be sure."

"I'll watch him," Josiah said, trying to straighten, but he sucked in a sharp breath, and hunched over, his face going grey.

"Why didn't ya tell me you were hurt?" Nathan said. "Here, let me have a look." The former medic already had a good idea what was wrong with the team's profiler.

Josiah eased himself down onto the sofa next to Standish's feet. He unbuttoned his shirt and Jackson pulled it up. The medic ran his hand lightly over the older man's ribcage, prompting Josiah to suck in another sharp breath.

"Cracked maybe, more likely broken. Damn it, Josiah, why didn't you say something? Carrying-"

"Water under the bridge, brother," the big man interrupted.

Jackson sighed. "All right, but I don't want you moving around any more, y' hear? You could puncture a lung if those ribs are broke."

Josiah maneuvered gingerly to find a comfortable position next to Ezra. "I'm not plannin' to go anywhere."

Chris looked at Buck, who was still seated on the floor, asking, "You okay?"

"Leg's broke," the ladies' man replied with a sheepish grin. "But I still make a pretty good pillow. Prefer if it was a pretty lady, but if the kid needs me..."

JD groaned and shifted uneasily, his face pinched with pain.

Buck looked up, meeting Nathan's eyes briefly before he looked down again, calling, "JD?"

Nathan limped over, then gestured for Chris and Vin to join him. "Might as well put JD up on this second couch. You two up to it?"

They nodded, each using their good hands to help Jackson transfer Dunne from the floor to the padded cushions of the second sofa.

"Buck, I'm gonna immobilize the leg, then get you up there, too," Jackson said. "It'll be a lot more comfortable than the floor."

"Whatever you think's best, Nate," the ladies' man agreed.

But Chris reached out, his hand closing on Nathan's arm. "What's wrong with the kid?"

"Internal injuries," the medic said softly, grabbing blankets and unfurling one over each of the three men. "You all just take it easy until I can get to you," he said with an indulgent smile. "Buck, I'll see to that leg in a minute."

"No rush, Nate. You take care of JD."

The remaining three agents moved off a little ways, and then Chris asked softly, "Are JD and Ezra going to be all right?"

"Don't know," Nathan said bluntly, reaching out to hold onto one of the chairs, taking some of the weight off of his aching hip. "I need to check Ezra for other injuries, too. He and JD... they both need to be in a hospital."

"That might be a while, Doc," Vin said, his own shoulder throbbing intolerably.

Nathan looked from Tanner to Larabee. "I don't think any of us have got 'a while.'"

"What can we do to help?" Chris asked him.

"See if you can find some more blankets. And some of those bottles of water the flight attendant was handing out earlier."

Chris and Vin nodded and moved off. Nathan returned to Ezra, deftly running his hands over the man's legs, arms, and ribs to make sure there were no broken bones. Then he opened the man's shirt and checked his chest and abdomen, trying to find any other potentially dangerous injuries.

"I think Ezra just hit his head," Jackson said when Chris returned carrying several more of the soft fleece blankets.

Vin stepped up behind Chris, three bottles of water cradled in the crook of his arm. "This is all I could find; the rest were crushed."

Nathan nodded, then bent to check Ezra's pulse and pupils. "Damn," he sighed softly.

"What is it, Nathan?" Josiah asked him.

"Pupils are slightly unequal," was the reply as Jackson unfurled a second blanket over Standish and tucked it in around him. "Anyone see a first aid kit?"

"Yeah, I'll get it," Larabee offered, moving off. He returned a few moments later and handed it over to Nathan, noticing for the first time that Tanner was favoring his right shoulder. "You hurt, Vin?"

"Dislocated m' shoulder," he replied dismissively. "You?"

"Ankle's twisted and," he glanced down at his hand, "wrist is broken."

With Nathan busy working on Buck's leg, Vin moved off again, heading to the galley and grabbing two knives. He brought them back and handed them to Josiah, who set to work with him to splint Larabee's broken wrist.

"We've got to get these two out of here," Sanchez said.

"I'm open to suggestions," Chris breathed, wincing as the big man bound his wrist. "I was on the cell with Travis. He knows we were going down."

"That's somethin'," Vin said, adding, "Pilot said he turned on the rescue beacon, so they should be able t' find us."

"Depends," Josiah said from where he sat. "If we're buried under that avalanche, they'll have a helluva time spotting us from the air. And then they'll have to dig us out... If they can even get to us on the ground. They might have to drop someone in from a chopper."

"So what do we do?" Buck asked them, his teeth clenched as Nathan worked to splint his leg. "If we are buried, we're gonna run out of air before... or freeze to death."

Nathan glanced from JD to Ezra. "I still don't think they have that kind of time."

"Best t' dig our way out," Vin said, "lay down a signal on the snow so they can find us quicker."

Chris nodded, a grim smile on his lips. "I agree with you, but how? They're not going anywhere," he said, nodding at the four men now resting on the two sofas. "Your shoulder's injured, I'm hobbled and so is Nathan."

"Not to mention your broken wrist," Nathan added. "I can do it."

"No," Larabee stated flatly.

"It's the only option we've got, Chris."

"You have the training, Nathan," Larabee said. "They might need you."

Jackson shook his head. "I've done all I can for them. They need a hospital, and the only way that's gonna happen is if we get outta here and make sure someone can find us."

"I'll do it," Vin said.


"Nathan, somethin' happens with them, Chris and me don't know what to do..." Tanner let the thought trail off. "I'm goin'."

Larabee wanted to argue, but there was really nothing he could say. He nodded. "Just be careful."

The sharpshooter grinned. "Hell, Larabee, 'm always careful. But y'all gotta fix this shoulder first."

Nathan nodded. "Let's get you out of that leather jacket," he said as he carefully helped Vin slip out of his jacket. "I need to... make sure it's out..." he added, feeling for a depression in the shoulder where the bone should be. He found the head of the humerus about two inches below its normal location. "Oh, yeah, it's definitely out."

"I already told ya that," Vin hissed through clenched teeth. "Before all the damn pokin' 'n' prodin'."

Meeting Chris' eyes, Jackson said, "Grab me a tablecloth off one of those carts they were using to serve us lunch."

Chris' eyes widened slightly, unsure what the medic had in mind, but he nodded and limped over to one of the carts which had fallen over and removed the white cloth, bringing it back to Jackson.

Nathan had Vin extend his good arm, then took the cloth and wound it into a rope and passed it around the sniper's chest. That done, he had Vin lay down near what looked like an immovable piece of metal and tied one end of the cloth to the bottom of the stout object.

Jackson reached across Tanner's chest, arranging the twisted sheet so it lay under the man's affected armpit. "Okay, Vin, I'm gonna take your arm and pull, nice and steady, at a forty-five degree angle from your body. Don't fight me."

"Fine, just do it," Vin said, swallowing hard. He gripped Nathan's wrist with his good hand and forced out a breath.

"Okay, here goes," the medic said.

Vin nodded, grinding his teeth together in preparation for the pain he knew was coming.

Nathan began to pull the cloth.

Vin moaned, his eyes squeezing shut.

The medic let up and hissed, "Chris."

Larabee joined him. "Need some help?"

"I can't pull hard enough. Think I sprained a wrist, too."

"Any time, guys," Vin growled at them, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead and upper lip as he panted harshly.

Chris grabbed Vin's forearm just above Nathan's hand, pulling the best he could. After several seconds with nothing happening Nathan told Larabee to let up.

"No!" Vin barked at them. "Don't stop. Y' gotta get it back in."

Chris and Nathan exchanged glances, but they returned the pressure to the joint. After several seconds both men felt the give begin as several small movements, Tanner's shoulder finally popping back into its socket a moment later. The sniper cried out, his head jerking and striking the floor.

"Vin?" Nathan questioned, concerned.

"'M okay," Tanner managed as the breath he'd been holding exploded free.

"Man, that had to hurt," Buck said sympathetically.

"That's one word fer it," Tanner drawled, still a little breathless.

The others smiled faintly.

Chris helped Nathan untie the sheet, then offered his good hand to Tanner, who accepted the help, letting Larabee pull him up into a seated position. Once back on his feet, he followed Chris and Nathan back to the others, wiping the sweat off his face while Nathan checked Ezra's eyes and pulse again.

Nothing had changed, but Standish moaned softly.

"Easy, brother, easy," Josiah said, reaching out to gently rub the man's calf. "You took a nasty bump on the head. Rest easy, we're looking out for you."

"Hurts," he moaned quietly.

"Not surprised," Vin said. "Not supposed t' break a fall with yer head, Ez."

"I will endeavor... to remember that... in the future... Mr. Tanner," he slurred slowly.

"Now that sounds like our Ezra," Vin said lightly, but he was as worried as the others by the weakness in the man's voice.

"Ezra?" Nathan called.

The undercover man blinked and opened his eyes wide. "Yes?"

"You sleepy?"



The Southerner thought for a moment. "No, I don't think so."

"Any trouble breathing?"

There was another pause. "No..."

Nathan turned to Josiah, his voice low. "Try to keep him awake and talking some."

Sanchez nodded. "I'll try."

Edging past Larabee, Vin gathered up his jacket and, with Nathan's help, slipped it back on. "Anybody bring gloves?"

"Got a pair in my coat pocket," Buck said, his hand resting lightly on the top of JD's head. He soothed the younger man as best he could, but Dunne was still restless.

Tanner crossed to the tiny closet where the flight attendant had hung their coats. Forcing the twisted lock open with a well-placed kick, he found Wilmington's coat and pulled out a pair of leather gloves. They were too large for him, but they would keep his hands warm. "Thanks, Bucklin."

"Least I can do," the ladies' man replied.

Pulling the gloves on, Tanner headed for the door where they had boarded. He paused there, then paced slowly back to the rear door, his eyes closed. "We're slightly nose down," he said. "And listed t' port..."

"Vin, this ain't a boat," Wilmington said.

"Ship, and I know that..." Reaching out, he grabbed the handle of the hatch and pulled. It unlatched, but refused to swing out. "Damn it..."

"What?" Chris asked him.

"Too much snow pressin' up against the door; can't open it."


"Try the belly hatch. That usually opens inward," Josiah called to them.

"It'll be a longer dig that way," Chris argued.

"It's a way out, an' that's all I need right now," Vin said, then headed toward the front, stopping in the service area between the main body of the plane and the devastated cockpit. He bent down and pulled up the hatch leading to the plane's belly, a blast of cold air hitting his face. "Here goes nothin'."

"Vin, be careful," Chris told him again.

Tanner gave him a brief grin as he slipped into the luggage area, cursing softly as the movement jarred his shoulder. When he looked up, Larabee was standing closer, still watching him and looking worried. "Stop frettin', Larabee, I'll be back b'fore y' can miss me."

"Vin, wait," the blond said and hurried back to his seat, rifling through the debris. Finding his cell phone, he limped back to Tanner. "You have your cell on you?"

Vin tapped his pocket. "Yep."

"Try calling for help when you get out."

"Gotcha, but I doubt I'll get a signal past these peaks."

"Worth a try."

Tanner nodded and disappeared into the belly of the plane.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Travis turned and stabbed a button on his speaker phone. "Mrs. Baxter, get me the FAA on the line - right now!"

"Yes, sir."

The exchange occurred just as Mary stepped into her father-in-law's office. She frowned. "What's wrong?"

"The plane carrying Team Seven has apparently crashed."

"Crashed?" Mary echoed weakly, a sudden wave of fear making the comment breathless. Her eyes went wide and her face went pale.

"I'm sorry, but I need to get a search started," he told her, rounding his desk and dropping into his chair.

Mary nodded. "Of course. What can I do to help?"

He looked up at her, unsure what to say.

She pulled out her cell phone and began making calls.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin opened the hatch to the outside. A welcoming nearly snow-free space greeted him, having been scooped out by the plane as it had been pushed along. Dropping to the ground, he reached out, pressing against the snow. It was stiff, but there didn't seem to be too much debris mixed in. They were lucky.

He dug a small cave in the snow, then squatted down, folded his arms over his head - cursing as pain shot through his shoulder - and pressed up against the snow. His upper body slowly disappeared into the cold crystalline white.

He pulled out and stomped the dislodged snow into a base before shoving upward again. Then, pausing, he sucked on his lower lip and let a dribble of spit fall over it. It fell toward his shoes, confirming that he was headed in the right direction.

After several minutes of digging, pressing, and stomping, he broke through to the surface. Sunlight glared off the white surface, nearly blinding him. He slipped on the sunglasses he carried in his jacket pocket and glanced around.

Reaching into his other pocket, he pulled the cell phone free and punched out 9-1-1. With a disappointed sigh, he returned the phone to his jacket pocket and bent down, yelling, "Chris?"


"I'm out! It's eight, maybe ten feet."

"The cellular?"


"Damn it."

"Chris, listen, with the tunnel you'll get all the air y' need, but it's warmer in the plane. Stay there."

"What about you?" Larabee called back, the concern clear in his voice.

Tanner smiled at that, warmed on the inside by the fact that he'd found a band of brothers who truly cared about him. "Gonna lay out an SOS, then I'll be back t' thaw out."

"Go easy with that shoulder."

"Slow and easy's the way I like it."

Vin heard Larabee laugh. "Hell, kid, now you sound like Buck!"

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Travis paced in the conference room that had been set up for him and the other individuals involved in the search for Team Seven. He wished he could do more, but he knew he'd just be in the way if he tried.

"Denver International Airport had them on radar," one of the men said, his hand cupped over the phone receiver. "When they lost their signal they initiated a search."

"Colorado Search and Rescue is on their way to the area," someone else continued, hanging up one of the phones and immediately dialing another number. "I'm calling their operations base there now."

"The plane's homing beacon is broadcasting," a third agent relayed. "The FAA representative in Denver says that Search and Rescue should be able to use that to find them within a few hours."

"The local weather is clear at present, but there's a storm expected by late tomorrow morning, Denver time," yet another agent added. "If it is snowing there by mid-morning, they'll have to call off the search until it passes."

"I want to hear as soon as that plane is located," Travis said, coming to a halt. He glanced over at Mary, who was making notes, and knew he should ask her to leave. But he was glad that she was there, her support meaning a lot to him. And these men had become her friends as well.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Vin struggled through the snow, sinking almost to mid-thigh with each step he took. He paused after every few strides in order to catch his breath. Another thirty yards and he would reach the closest stand of pines. There he would gather boughs for his SOS.

He started forward again, trying to move as carefully as possible. The last thing he needed was to trigger another slide. There was simply no way to know what the terrain under the snow was like, and if they happened to be on a steep slope...

He cut the thought off. There was no use worrying about something he couldn't control. Better to concentrate on what needed to get done, what he needed to get done.

Hugging his injured arm tightly against his ribs, he pushed on, trying to ignore the dull throb pounding in his shoulder. It climbed up his neck and settled at the base of his skull where it set a vice-like grip on his head, making each laborious step a trial of endurance and resolve.

But he refused to stop. He knew he didn't have much time; his hands and feet were already growing numb. At least the plane wasn't completely buried. The tail and one broken wing jutted up out of the snow, reflecting the sunlight like bright beacons. A few scattered boughs on the white field of snow and they'd have an effective SOS.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Sir, the car has arrived," Mrs. Baxter announced.

Mary stood and helped Travis into his overcoat.

"Thank you, Mrs. Baxter," he replied, then looked at Mary, asking, "Are you ready?"

The blonde woman nodded, hoping the news they heard next was good.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

His jacket stuffed full with small pine boughs, Vin staggered through the large SOS outline, leaving the foliage as a clear, albeit dashed, message for help. When he finished, he checked his watch - 11:30 a.m. They'd been on the ground for a little over two hours.

With a deep breath, he headed back to the tunnel, stopping short when he heard the faint pulse of a helicopter in the distance.

"Way t' go boys," he said a little breathlessly, but he was grinning.

Raising a hand to shade his eyes, he scanned the skies for the chopper, but the sharp angles of the mountains made it impossible to determine the exact direction the craft was coming in from. As the sound grew louder, he swung around, trying to hone in on the right direction.

"What is it?"

Tanner glanced down into the tunnel and found Larabee staring up at him from the bottom. "Chopper," he said. "Guess they found-"

A sharp crack reverberated across the landscape and Vin spun, collapsing into the snow alongside the tunnel entrance, blood spraying across the white snow.

Larabee started to crawl out, but a hotly hissed, "Stay there, damn it," from the sniper kept him in the tunnel.

The helicopter rushed by overhead, then swung around and started back again.

"Get down, Lar'bee," Vin growled.

Chris ducked down into the dark shadows as the chopper reached the downed man, hovering above him for a closer look.

Behind the shield of his sunglasses, Tanner watched the man with the rifle lean out to check his work. Vin tensed, ready to roll into the tunnel if the man decided to take a second shot, but the shooter only nodded and shouted something to the pilot. The chopper swung off, disappearing over a pine-edged ridge.

Larabee's head poked back up. "They gone?"

"Yeah, looks like." Vin moaned as he struggled to sit up. He looked down at his side, knowing that it was only the distance of the shot that had saved his life. Pressing his good hand against the bleeding wound, he let Chris help him into the tunnel and back inside the plane.

Things had just gone from bad to worse.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris eased Vin into the luggage compartment, then into the main body of the plane, watching the man carefully.

"What was that noise?" Nathan asked from where he was working on JD.

"Sounded like a gunshot," Buck said, his brow wrinkled with worry.

"Was," Vin confirmed, managing two steps toward the others before his knees buckled and he dropped heavily to the floor of the plane. He took a deep breath, trying to stall the blackness, but it rushed in, overwhelming him, and he pitched forward, unconscious.

Larabee rushed forward, just managing to catch Vin before his face hit the floor. He hissed as the sniper's weight landed partly on his broken wrist, but held on until he could lay him on the floor.

"Vin? Come on, Vin, hang in there. Nathan, I need some help here."

Jackson made his way over to them as quickly as he could, his hip having stiffened up considerably. He cursed softly and limped painfully to the small refrigerator, opening it and removing one of the bottles of water Vin had located. He carried it back to Tanner. "You got a handkerchief?" he asked Chris.

Larabee tugged one from his rear pocket and handed it over, saying, "It's clean."

The medic opened the water bottle and poured some over the handkerchief, then used that to wipe Vin's face.

"Guess somebody... don't want us... gettin' out 'a here alive," was the mumbled reply from the injured sniper.

"You can say that again," Nathan breathed.

The blue eyes blinked open. "Nope," Tanner hissed, "don't think... I c'n."

"Don't talk," Chris scolded the younger man.

Vin let his eyes fall closed, trying to ignore the waves of fire that were starting to radiate out from his side to claw their way through his chest and abdomen. He moaned softly, trying to fight it back, but he knew he was bound to lose.

Larabee looked up, meeting Nathan's concerned gaze. "Can you help him?"

"Hand me the first aid kit," the medic said.

Chris grabbed the kit and passed it to him.

Jackson opened the plastic box and pulled out the scissors. Then, unzipping Vin's jacket and unbuttoning his flannel shirt, he cut the man's blood-soaked T-shirt up the middle, pulling back the edges to uncover the man's chest. The side wound was red and puckered.

"Vin?" Nathan called.

"Yeah, Nate," he replied, eyes still closed.

"I'm gonna lift you up. I need to see if there's an exit wound."

Vin nodded and Chris reached out, using his uninjured hand to help lift the man's shoulders. Nathan looked, then nodded to Chris and they lowered Vin back down.

"Well?" Tanner asked him. "Good news 'r bad, Doc?"

"No exit wound."

"Think it nicked m' hip... must 'a slowed the bullet down..." Vin said, trailing off. But his eyes opened again as soon as Jackson began to apply a first-aid field dressing.

"I'm not gonna make this too tight," Nathan told him. "Can't control internal bleedin' with pressure... too much it'll just do more damage."

Tanner ground his teeth and groaned as the glass-shard sharp fires erupted across his hip again.

"Easy, Vin, " Chris said, reaching out to take Tanner's hand in his and hoping it gave his friend something to concentrate on besides the pain.

"Hurts," Vin moaned, but then a brief smile lifted the corners of his mouth. "Think Travis'll give us... some time off... after this?"

"He damn well better," Larabee replied.

Nathan finished securing the dressing, then pulled the T-shirt back together, cutting off the blood-soaked sections, and buttoning and zipping up Vin's shirt and jacket to keep the man warm.

Scrubbing his hand over his face, Jackson flashed another glance to Larabee, then shook his head and shrugged. He had no idea how bad the injury really was.

"Buck?" JD called weakly.

"I'm right here, kid," the ladies' man replied. He brushed the hair off Dunne's forehead. "You just lie still, okay? What is it?"

Nathan stood and hobbled over to the youngest of the agents.

"How's Vin?" he asked in a whisper.

Wilmington glanced at the supine body. "Don't you worry, he'll make it."

"Hope so," he replied, voice fading.

"You can take it to the bank," Buck whispered. "We're all gonna be just fine."

JD gave him a sympathetic smile, but the tears welling in his eyes reflected his true feelings much more accurately than the bravado.

Nathan checked JD's pulse and the bruising on his chest and abdomen, then turned to look at Josiah and Ezra. "He sleeping again?"

Sanchez nodded. "About fifteen minutes now."

The medic nodded and frowned.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A sheriff's deputy met them as Travis and Mary stepped into the main terminal at DIA. "Assistant Director Travis?" the man questioned.

"Yes. Have they been found?"

"No, sir, not yet."

"Why the hell not!" Orin demanded.

The deputy dipped his head, refusing to meet the angry man's eyes. "We're having a hard time triangulating the homing beacon. The area where they went down is very rough terrain. The peaks are breaking up the transmission."

"What do you need?" Travis demanded. "Tell me and I'll have it here ASAP, whatever it is."

The young man shook his head. "It's not that, Director Travis. We've got the most sophisticated equipment for this kind of search and rescue in the world. We'll find them, but it's just taking a little longer than we'd hoped."

"Where are we going?" Mary asked the deputy.

"We've got a command and control center set up at one of the resorts. I'll take you as soon as you've spoken to the officials here."

"Thank you," Travis said, looking slightly sheepish.

"We'll find them, Director," the deputy assured him.

Orin nodded, silently praying the man was right.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Sitting on the floor, a blanket draped over his shoulders, Chris checked his watch - six hours since they had crashed. Had it only been six hours? At least the chopper hadn't returned, but it was getting cold, and once the sun set, any chance for rescue would have to be put on hold until the following morning.

He glanced over at Standish, who sat, watching him and the others. At least he was awake again - groggy, but awake. Buck and Josiah were both talking to him, keeping him from slipping away. And JD seemed to be doing better, too, although Nathan's continued frown whenever he checked the kid didn't ease the team leader's fears over the young man's chances. Vin was next to Larabee, leaning back against a twisted seat, his Glock within easy reach if their attackers decided to return.

Jackson moved from one man to another, doing whatever he could for them, which wasn't much. The medic had suggested that Chris put snow packs on his ankle and his wrist before he moved over to check on Vin again, and the treatment had worked. Larabee felt better, but Vin, well, Tanner was another matter.

He glanced at his friend, who was resting quietly at the moment, and sighed. Yes, Vin was another matter altogether.

Leaning over, he lifted the blanket and opened the man's jacket to check the dressing. The bloodstain had spread, but the dressing wasn't soaked - not yet, anyway.

The sniper's eyes never opened, but he grumbled, "Doin' fine."

"Just checking."

"'Preciate it, boss, but yer lettin' in a draft," Tanner drawled, his accent thicker now.

"Sorry," Chris said with a thin smile. He lowered the jacket and tucked the blanket back into place. "That better?"


"How long do you think it'll take them to find us?" JD asked softly.

"Hard to say, kid," Buck responded. "If the homing beacon's working, I'd say any time now."

"These peaks'll break up the transmissions," JD offered. "Might take 'em a little longer."

"It should be dark soon," Ezra said, his speech still slightly slurred, but not as badly as before. "If they don't find us before dark, we will have to wait until morning."

"But we'll freeze," JD said, his voice as worried as his expression.

Buck shook his head, an almost teasing grin on his face. "No, we won't, kid. Hell, if we have to, we'll all huddle together and share body heat."

Ezra snorted softly. "Sounds rather... risqué, if you ask me, Mr. Wilmington."

"Careful, Ezra, he might put you in the middle," Josiah warned, thankful for the momentary lift in the tension.

JD giggled. "Yeah, that would wrinkle that fancy suit of yours..."

Standish hrumphed and shook his head. "Barbarians... I've fallen in with a tribe of barbarians."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"We've got them, sir!"

Travis pushed himself off the comfortable couch and stalked over to join the young woman manning the radio. "Are they all right?" he demanded.

Mary crossed from where she was sitting near the large roaring fire. Stopping next to her father-in-law,, she rested her hand on his arm.

Both waited as the young woman's hopeful expression shifted to one of confusion and then anger. "Repeat?" she said. "They're what?"

"What is it?" Mary asked Orin in a whisper.

"I don't know," Travis replied, his eyes narrowing. "But I don't like the sound of it."

"Roger. I'll contact the police." The woman set the radio mike aside and picked up the phone and dialed. "Hi, this is Sara Richards with Colorado Search and Rescue. We're working the downed ATF jet and we've got a real problem up here. We've located the plane, but there's a chopper up there shooting at our people."

"What?" Travis exploded.

Sara ignored the outburst, saying to the police dispatcher, "No, no injuries, but we can't get close enough to extract the survivors... No, they said it looks like the plane's half-buried under an avalanche. The only way we're going to get to those people to is to drop off Search and Rescue, but not with some idiots up there taking potshots at us... Right... Okay, thanks."

As soon as she hung up the phone she turned to face the anxious pair hovering behind her chair. "I'm sorry, Mr. Travis, but until the authorities can get that hostile chopper out of the area, there's nothing we can do."

"What did the police say?" Orin asked the young woman.

"They're sending out two choppers to see if they can't move those guys out of there."

"And Chris and the others?" Mary asked her.

"I don't know, ma'am. The plane's about half- to two-thirds buried under snow, but there's an SOS lying in the snow, so someone must've survived to do that."

"What aren't you telling us, young lady?" Travis asked her, watching the woman's eyes.

She frowned, but then answered, "The ground unit that found the plane is up on a clear ridge, out of the avalanche danger, but they have a good view of the slope the plane's resting on. They spotted what they think might be blood on the snow."

"So one of them is hurt?" Mary asked. "In a crash like that, it would make sense, right? It might not be the hostile chopper..."

The Search and Rescue volunteer nodded. "My people didn't see any bodies, so it's a good bet that whoever was injured - however it happened - made it back into the plane."

"Can they survive out there overnight?" Orin asked her bluntly.

"Yes, sir, I think so. The snow covering the plane should give them some insulation, and if they're inside, and dry, they stand an excellent chance of making it through the night."

"And if one of them is hurt?" Mary asked quietly.

"I can't really answer that, ma'am," she replied. "That would depend what the injury was, and how bad."

Travis nodded somberly. "How long before you have to leave them out there?"

She checked the clock. "It's three now, the sun sets between four and five... If the police can get that chopper out of the way, we might be able to bring them in tonight."

"And if they can't?" Mary asked her.

"Then we'll try again first thing in the morning."

"How long can they last out there?"

"There's no way to say, sir, but we've got a storm system expected in here by mid-morning tomorrow. If we don't have them out by then... Let's just say their chances are going to fall off pretty steeply."

"I see," Travis said.

"I wish I had better news."

"I appreciate your honesty." He glanced at Mary, who was chewing her bottom lip. "They'll be fine," he assured her. "They know how to survive." Then he turned to Sara and added, "Get the local police back on the line. I want to talk to whoever's in charge."

"Yes, sir," she said.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Four p.m.," Buck announced more cheerfully than he felt. "Guess we'd better plan on spendin' the night, boys. Debi is going to be mighty disappointed. I promised to take her dancin' at Carnival tonight..."

"Debi?" Josiah questioned. "I thought it was Christy."

"Hell, Josiah, I think you might be right," Buck said and wagged his eyebrows.

A muffled blast stalled the conversation, the almost immediate shockwave prompting them all to grab onto whatever was close by.

"What was that?" JD asked as he saw Vin reach for his Glock.

"Sounded like some kind of explosive," Chris said.

"Most definitely," Wilmington confirmed.

"Our friends in the helicopter come back?" Nathan guessed.

"Comin' back t' finish what they started," Vin said quietly.

"And if they manage to strike us?" Ezra asked, his speech remaining less slurred than it had been.

"Pilot dumped the fuel," Vin told them.

"But a direct hit's still something I'd like to avoid," Buck said.

"Give me that," Chris said, taking the Glock from Tanner and limping over to the hatch leading into the hold.

"Watch yer back," Vin called. "They drop a charge too close, the snow's not gonna protect ya."

Larabee nodded, easing himself down.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Repeat?" Sara snapped, then turned from her radio set and called, "Mr. Travis, I think you better hear this."

Orin and Mary levered off the raised hearth and hurried over to join her. Sara switched to speaker.

"...chopper's back... they're dropping dynamite... looks like they're trying to hit the plane. The ETA for the sheriff's birds is three minutes... One, maybe two of the passengers, is firing at the chopper... that's keeping it back, but I don't know for how long... I hope the pilot managed to dump his fuel before he went down."

"Roger that," Sara replied.

"Can't they do anything to help those men?" Travis demanded.

The woman shook her head. "They're not armed, Mr. Travis. They're just a Search and Rescue unit."

"Sara, you there?"

She turned back to the radio. "I'm here, Jim."

"Sheriff's choppers are here... they're chasing the guy off. Looks like the cops are trying to follow this idiot back to wherever he's based."

"Jim, can you get to the victims?"

"Negative. Our ride is bird-doggin' that chopper. Looks like they're on their own for the night. We're heading for base-camp."

"Understood," Sara said.

"Damn," Travis sighed.

"Like you told me, they'll be all right," Mary said. "We should get something to eat."

The Assistant Director hesitated for a moment, but then he nodded. There was nothing they could do now, and he hadn't eaten since early this morning. "We'll be in the restaurant. Send someone to get me if anything happens," he instructed Sara.

She nodded. "I will, sir."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The others listened as Larabee opened fire on the circling chopper.

Vin pushed himself off the floor.

"Where do you think you're going?" Nathan demanded.

"T' help Chris."

"You're not going to be any help if you collapse," the medic argued, struggling up to his feet.

"I'm not gonna pass out," Tanner argued, blinking rapidly to stop the vertigo that threatened to force him back onto the floor. "Not yet, anyway."

"Vin!" Buck snapped.

"You start bleedin' inside and-"

"Let him go, brothers," Josiah told them. "He knows his limits."

"Knows how to push them, anyway," Ezra corrected, pressing his hand to his head and trying to force back the pain, but it still flared through his temples like liquid fire.

"You okay?" Nathan asked him.

He nodded, very carefully. "I believe it has passed - for the moment, in any case."

"Give me yer gun, Buck," Tanner said, holding out his hand.

Wilmington cursed softly, but he handed over the Baretta. "Vin-"

"Be back in a few," Tanner told them, and then he was gone.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Move over, Cowboy."

The voice didn't really surprise him, but it did make him angry. "Goddamn it, Tanner, get back inside the plane!"

But Vin ignored him, getting off a couple of shots at the chopper hovering overhead.

"Give me m' own weapon," the sniper growled, gaze locked on Larabee's.

Cursing under his breath, Chris handed over the Glock, getting Buck's Beretta in exchange.

"Thanks," was the half-amused reply as the sniper maneuvered into the snow for support. He jerked the more familiar weapon up and fired twice as the chopper passed by directly overhead.

Larabee fired as well, aiming for the open door and the man who continued to drop the explosives. "Down!" he yelled as another pair of dynamite sticks tumbled toward them.

Both men burrowed into the snow, their arms wrapped protectively over their heads. The explosion a few moments later sent chunks of snow raining down on them.

"That was too fuckin' close," Chris said as he stood, firing at the chopper again.

"Yer tellin' me?"

"The cavalry's here!" Larabee said, then whooped loudly. And the two men watched as a pair of sheriff's choppers chased the marauder off, both of the police birds sticking as close as possible to the fleeing chopper.

"That means they've found us," Larabee said, a smile curling his lips.

"Yeah, but they're not goin' t' get us out t'night."

"Why not?"

"Snow's too loose. They'll have t' lower folks in with them choppers that just left. Dependin' on how long the chase lasts, they won't have 'nough daylight left t' come back an' get us."

"Damn it," Larabee sighed, knowing the man was right. "So, looks like we're spending the night."

"Yep, better hope our friends don't decide t' try somethin' stupid."

"What do you mean?"

"Those guys are goin' t' know we're stuck out here 'til the mornin'. They only got 'til first light t' finish the job." Vin flashed Chris a tired smile. "But at least we know when they're comin'."

"Shit," Larabee sighed, the earlier euphoria he'd felt melting away. "It's gonna be a long night."


* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Mary blinked several times, realizing that she must have dozed off in the comfortable padded chair near the large fireplace. The warmth from the burning wood wrapped her in the smell of pine and a cheery, warm glow. Outside a light snowfall had filled the corners of the windows with lacy designs, and if it weren't for the situation, she knew she would have found the setting romantic. Sitting up straighter, she glanced around the large lounge, knowing that the resort did very good business throughout the ski season. Now she knew why. It was beautiful, and the scenery grand.

She spotted Orin standing at a smaller window near one corner of the room. She rose and walked quietly over to join him. The view he was studying threatened to take her breath away. Mountain peaks broke the horizon, jutting up in rugged beauty. Pines edged the sides, breaking up the white snow. The clouds, broken along the mountain tops, allowed light from the nearly full moon to shine down across the snow covering the ground.

"Beautiful, isn't it?" Travis asked quietly.

"Yes. Yes, it is."

"They're out there..." he continued, his voice going even softer, "...hurt, maybe dying, and there's absolutely nothing we can do to help them."

"They'll be fine," she assured him. "The search and rescue teams will go get them as soon as it's light."

Orin nodded. "Twelve hours from now."

"It is the best they can do. The best any of us can do."

Travis raised his hand and waved her comments off. "I know, Mary, I know."

"What's wrong, Orin?" she asked, resting her hand on his shoulder.

He didn't look at her as he asked softly, "Is it worth it? Is what we do really worth the lives of seven good men?"

"You know the answer to that better than I do," she said. "And you also know what Chris and the others would say."

"Yes, I know what they'd say... I'm not so sure I agree with them any more."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Chris' eyes opened, but he remained motionless. Something had woken him, but what?

He listened, but no sounds that were out of place reached his ears.

He carefully rolled his head to the side, checking on the others in the light of a slender dinner-table candle that burned close by, casting soft orange shadows through the interior of the plane. Buck and Josiah were talking quietly, their charges apparently sleeping, as was Nathan.

Larabee rolled his head the other way. Vin was lying on the floor, but he was awake, too.

Tanner hiked his eyebrows and touched his finger to his lips, then nodded toward the open hatch in the service area, the same hatch that led to the belly of the plane and to the tunnel that allowed in the air they were all breathing.

Chris strained, trying to listen for whatever it was that had Tanner's attention. Finally, he heard it: a soft crunching sound that was slowly growing louder.

Someone was heading toward them in the snow.

Tanner sat up, the sweat on his face shining in the pale candle light.

Buck and Josiah fell silent as they caught sight of the two men's serious expressions.

Together, Chris and Vin made it to their feet and shuffled over to either side of the hatch in the service space.

"Time t' see who's dropped by fer a visit," Vin said, his voice pitched low, but not at a whisper.

Chris nodded. Given the explosions earlier in the day, they had little choice. Whoever was out there might be setting more charges that could kill them. He looked to Buck and Josiah, saying, "Be ready."

They both nodded.

Tanner led the way, moving slowly, favoring his side. Chris suggested twice that Vin leave the task to him, but it got him nowhere.

"Damn stubborn Texan," Larabee growled softly to himself.

A raised hand stopped the blond and Chris froze, waiting to see what had caught Vin's attention. When the man didn't move, he inched closer, peering over the sniper's shoulder. From their position in the shadows of the snow tunnel, they could watch two men working over a silver suitcase that almost glowed in the pale moonlight spilling down on the landscape.

Exchanging glances, it was clear they both thought the container held another, larger bomb.

"Okay, that's got it," one of the men said from behind his ski mask. "Let's get the hell out of here."

"Right behind you; how long do we have?"

"Twenty minutes, then it's so long Team Seven, once and for all."

"Yeah, and hello five-hundred thousand dollars," the second man said and laughed.

The two men started off using the large snowshoes they wore to good advantage. Vin let them get ten yards out before he whistled sharply.

Instincts forced both men to turn, their weapons coming up in their hands. Tanner raised his Glock and fired off two quick shots.

Both of the men fell, but one managed to get a shot off as he died. It flew wide, striking the exposed section of the wing.

"Better check 'em," Tanner wheezed, slumping back against the snow.

Larabee flashed the man an angry glare. "Damn it, Tanner, why'd you kill them?"

"Because when the bomb didn't go off, they'd be back," was the simple, perfectly reasonable reply.

With a swallowed curse Larabee ground his teeth together, but he knew the sniper was right. He eased out onto the snow and crawled over to the two men.

Tanner moved out as well, crawling over to the suitcase.

With another swallowed curse when he heard Vin moving, Larabee detached the two pairs of snowshoes the dead men were wearing and crawled back to join the sniper. "Well, they're dead," he said. "Didn't recognize them, either."

Vin grunted, working over the bomb in the case. With a swift yank, he pulled a wire free, grateful that the almost full moon gave him enough light to work by. "Think that'll do it. Probably better have Buck take a look, though."

Chris nodded, grabbing the man's arm when Vin started to move. "Why?" he demanded.

Tanner's blue eyes narrowed. "'Cause it was them or us, an' as far as I'm concerned, we're more important."

"We could've taken them prisoner."

"And if they got friends?"

"Those 'friends' might still show up."

"Maybe," Tanner admitted, "but if they do we won't have two enemies in our camp. We ain't in any shape t' guard two guys who're tryin' t' kill us." Vin shivered. "Look, y' don't like it, fire me, but right now 'm getting' back inside b'fore I freeze t' death."

"Next time, you stay inside," Larabee said and hefting the suitcase, led the way.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Back inside the plane, Tanner eased himself down to the floor with a long, shuddering sigh.

"What happened?" Buck asked, frowning at the silver case in Larabee's hands.

"Two men-" Chris started.

"Dropped by t' finish the job," Vin completed for him.

"That a bomb?" Nathan asked, scowling at the case.

"Yep," Chris confirmed, handing it over to the ladies' man and then turning back in time to see Tanner grimace.

"It's disarmed," Wilmington said, then shot Tanner a grin. "Nice work, Junior."

"Had a good teacher," he replied, making the big man blush slightly.

"If you're done pattin' each other on the back, I want you to listen to me, Vin. You go back out there again, you might just end up dead," Nathan scolded the sniper. He covered the man's legs, then checked the dressing. It was soaked though. He watched as Vin swallowed, then panted, trying to fight the pain back down to a manageable level as he continued to work.

"Anything y' can do fer the pain?" he asked the medic, chilling Jackson's blood.

"Afraid not. Your fever's probably buildin'." He reached out and pressed his hand to Tanner's cheek, resisting the immediate instinct to pull it away. Vin's fever wasn't building, it was raging.

"'M fine, Nate," Vin muttered.

Jackson exchanged a worried look with Chris, then left the sniper long enough to get another bottle of water. Bringing it back, he wet a washcloth and used it to wipe the man's face, then left it lying on his forehead. It was all he could do for now.

"Thanks," Vin said softly, his eyes dropping closed.

"You rest now," Nathan replied, a low moan from JD drawing the medic's attention away from Tanner.

"Go on," Chris said softly, "I'll stay with him."

Jackson nodded and moved over to check on the youngest of the agents.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

An hour before dawn Larabee awoke with a start. Tanner was struggling weakly on the floor. "Vin?" he called softly, sitting up and rubbing his face.

"He's in a lot of pain," Nathan said softly.

Chris moved closer, finding his friend pale, damp, and clammy to the touch. Checking Tanner's pulse himself made Larabee's own pound. It was weak and almost too fast to count, and the labored, wheezing pant that passed for breathing sent chills racing down the blond's back.

Nathan stood and rummaged through the plane, limping back with two more blankets and adding them to the layers, hoping the additional warmth would help.

Tanner's eyes slowly fluttered open.

"Easy," Chris said, easing down to sit beside the sniper. "It's almost dawn, Vin. It won't be much longer."


"I'm right here, Vin. Easy, just take it easy."

"Elevate his feet," Nathan said, wetting a cloth and wiping the sniper's face.

Larabee lifted Tanner's feet and carefully swung him around slightly so he could rest the sniper's feet against the wall of the plane. "That okay?"

Nathan and Vin nodded, Tanner grinding his teeth against the escalating torment that was clawing through his midsection like a banshee determined to gut him where he lay.

Wetting the washcloth again, the medic placed it on the man's forehead. "Hang in there, Vin."

"Too damn mean t' die," the sniper wheezed. "'Sides, gotta stick 'round so Lar'bee c'n fire me."

Chris reached out and gave the man's good shoulder a reassuring squeeze, silently praying Vin was right about being stubborn. "You're only fired if you die, Tanner. You hear me?"

"I hear ya, Cowboy."

"You damn well better," Chris growled.

"Ain't goin'... nowhere," Vin panted.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Travis stood at the window, watching the first hints of dawn set the mountain tops aglow. The sound of someone coming up behind him forced him to turn. It was the deputy who had met them at the airport the day before and flew them up here.

"Director Travis," the officer greeted him.

"Any word?"

"The choppers are fueling up now, sir. They'll be up in ten. And we have a gunship on loan from the Army National Guard meeting on site, just in case we run into any trouble."

Orin nodded.

"The Guard will keep whoever's trying to kill your people away long enough for us to make sure Search and Rescue gets your people out."

"I hope you're right."

"Me, too, sir. We're all pulling for those men."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Josiah looked up. "Anyone else hear that?"

"I do," Buck confirmed.

"As do I," Ezra added, his voice no longer slurred at all.

Chris grabbed the guns and cautiously made his way outside. Three choppers dropped in over the mountaintops, swinging directly toward him.

He smiled thinly and let the breath he was holding out in a soft sigh. Help had finally arrived.

Ducking down into the tunnel, he yelled, "Help's here! Nathan, get 'em ready to go!"

He waited in the cold while four men winched down on cables. "Hi, Colorado Search and Rescue, ready to go home?" the first man greeted him.

"More than ready," Larabee said. "But we have several injured men."

"Show us," the man said, pulling off his goggles and following Chris into the snow tunnel.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Inside the plane, Larabee moved out of the way while two of the men started working on Vin. Two others checked JD and then Ezra over before turning to Buck and Josiah.

Then, one by one, they maneuvered the injured out - Nathan, Josiah, Buck, Ezra, and then JD.

Chris sat down on one of the now-empty sofas to take the weight off his still aching ankle and watched the men still working on Vin. They were swift and efficient, speaking softly to one another as they worked. As soon as they started an IV, one of the men rose and left. The other medic turned to Larabee. "We'll get you out next, sir, then get the basket back down here for him."

"He going to make it?"

"Can't make any promises," the man replied, then added, "Oh, your boss is here."


The man nodded. "He's been hovering over our dispatcher like a starving vulture, to hear her tell it. I think she'll be glad to get rid of him."

Chris grinned slightly. "I can imagine."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Roger, Jim, thanks," Sara said. Sliding the mike into its clip, she turned to face Travis. "They've got all seven of them out. The choppers are taking them to the hospital in Vail."

"Are they all right?" Mary asked her.

"Looks like they all have injuries, but only one is critical."

"Who?" Travis demanded.

"I don't know, sir," Sara said, her tone sympathetic. "Look, why don't I drive you over to the hospital."

"Thank you, that would be very nice," Mary said, reaching out to rest her hand lightly on Orin's arm.

He covered her hand with his own, and nodded. "Yes, thank you. All of you."

"Come on," Sara said, slipping on her jacket. "It's not too far."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Travis followed the nurse into the ER treatment room where two nurses and a doctor were working on Chris and Josiah. Both men looked up as he entered.

Travis moved closer, asking worriedly, "Are you two all right?"

"They will be," the doctor said. "Mr. Sanchez has three fractured ribs, and some impressive bruises, but he's in no danger. Mr. Larabee has a fractured wrist and a sprained ankle. We'll be casting the wrist next."

"What about the others?" Orin asked, frowning.

"Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne are in surgery, Mr. Standish and Mr. Wilmington are in x-ray," the physician explained.

"Nathan Jackson?" Travis questioned.

"Getting some much-needed sleep," the doctor said. "Mr. Jackson has a few deep bruises, and a severe hip strain, but he's fine. Mr. Standish took a pretty nasty blow to the head, but it looks like a mild concussion. Still, we want to be careful with any head injury," he added.

"Of course, of course. And Tanner and Dunne?"

Chris and Josiah glanced away, making the pit of Travis' stomach burn. "Doctor?"

"Mr. Tanner has been shot," the physician explained. "We sent him straight up to surgery. Mr. Dunne has internal injuries. I'm afraid I don't have any more news for you than that. Now, why don't you find a seat in the waiting room? As soon as I'm finished with them, Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Larabee can join you there."

Travis nodded. He looked up, meeting Chris' troubled gaze. "I'll meet you out there."

Larabee nodded.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The foursome sat in silence in the small waiting room. In one corner a small television set was on, CNN providing background noise. After nearly two hours Buck, his leg now in a cast, and Ezra joined them as well.

"You two all right?" Larabee asked them as both men sat down.

Ezra nodded. "Just a ghastly headache, which, they assure me, will not kill me. I, however, do not yet concur with that assessment."

"Thank God for that, brother," Josiah said.

"Amen, Mr. Sanchez, amen," the Southerner replied.

"You?" Chris asked, looking to his oldest friend.

"Like Nate thought, I busted my leg. But it's not too bad." He grinned and wagged his eyebrows. "Gonna have to find someone to help me decorate this cast, though."

Chris snorted softly and shook his head.

"How's JD and Vin?" Buck asked the others.

"We don't know," Larabee said with a frustrated sigh.

"They'll be fine," Josiah said softly. "You heard Vin, he's too stubborn to die."

Travis chuckled softly. "Now that I can believe," he said softly.

"And JD was looking better on the flight to the hospital," Josiah added.

Nathan walked in to join them carrying a tray filled with cups, condiments, and a full pot of coffee. "One of the volunteers fixed it for us," he said, setting it on the coffee table in front of the couch where Larabee, Josiah and Travis sat.

"How are you doing?" Josiah asked the medic.

"Me? I'm fine, just a little sore. Hip's gonna need a little PT, but I'll be fine."

A young woman stepped into the waiting room carrying a second tray, this one filled with pastries and small bowls of mixed fruit. "If there's anything else I can get you, please, just ask at the nurses' station."

"Thank you, Miss," Standish said.

Nathan and Chris passed out the coffee, most of them also helping themselves to some of the food as well as they continued to wait for word on their last two friends.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

A slightly overweight Latino man stepped into the waiting room dressed in green scrubs and a white labcoat. "Are you all here for Mr. Dunne?"

"Yeah, Doc," Buck said first, starting to rise, but Chris' hand on his arm kept him in his seat. "How is he?"

"Better than expected, to be honest. He had some serious internal bruising, but we didn't have to remove his spleen. I think, with some rest, he'll be as good as new."

The collective sigh of relief in the room was loud.

"Thank God," the ladies' man said, scrubbing his hand over his face as his eyes began to fill.

"What about Vin?" Chris asked the man. "Vin Tanner?"

"I'm sorry, I worked on Mr. Dunne. I'll check with the nurses, see if someone can't go back and check for you," he said, then turned and left.

Buck grinned. "The kid's gonna be okay... Damn, that's good news."

"It is, brother," Josiah said. "It surely is."

Then the ladies' man looked at Chris and said softly, "Don't worry, he'll be okay, too, you'll see."

Larabee nodded and settled back to continue his vigil, his coffee and food forgotten.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"Excuse me, but are all of you gentlemen here for Mr. Tanner?"

They each looked up from whatever they were reading, Nathan and Ezra jerking out of sleep. A handsome, middle-aged woman stepped into the room to join them.

"Yes, we are," Larabee said, standing and extending his hand to the woman.

She shook it, saying, "Dr. Anna Witherspoon. I was Mr. Tanner's surgeon."

"How is he?" Chris asked her, taking a step closer to the woman.

She tucked a stray strand of her silver-streaked brown hair behind her ear and glanced around at the worried expressions. "He's in recovery. We're listing him as serious, but I'm confident we'll be able to upgrade him to fair by tomorrow morning."

"So, he's gonna be okay?" Buck asked her.

"Yes, I think so," Dr. Witherspoon said. "The bullet passed through muscle, struck his pelvic bone and nicked an intestine. We've repaired the damage and cleaned him up. The rest is up to him, but he's obviously a fighter, so I think he'll pull though."

"That he is, doctor," Josiah said.

"Thank you, Doctor. Thank you," Chris said, taking her hand again.

"When can we see him?" Nathan asked her.

"Tomorrow morning," the physician said. "He'll be out the rest of today, and I'm afraid our CCU unit is small."

"Tomorrow will be fine, Doctor. Thank you," Travis said.

"Why don't all of you get something to eat, and get some rest. He won't be going anywhere. Call and let us know where you're staying. If there's any change in his condition, we'll give you a call. Visiting hours start at nine."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

The group spent the rest of the day in an elegant hotel suite, resting, and then picking at their room service meals, trying to find ways to pass the time until they could excuse themselves and go to bed. Before too long, Chris and Travis sat alone in the common area of the suite, made up to look like a rustic cabin.

They each sipped on two-fingers of fine whiskey and watched the gas flames dancing in the flagstone fireplace. "How did the statements to the police go?" Orin asked him.

"Fine," Chris said. "There was a little bump concerning the two men Vin shot, but given the earlier attack, and the bomb, I don't think the local DA will be pressing any charges against him."

"I should hope not," Travis said, his brows pinching with annoyance. "If they try, we'll, well, it'll be handled."

Larabee chuckled.

"What?" Travis demanded a little gruffly, but it was clear that it was more bluster than anything.

"Glad to know you're worried about him, too."

The older man dipped his head and grinned. "Agent Tanner does grow on you, doesn't he."

"Like grass on dirt," Larabee agreed with a wry grin.

"Were those shootings necessary?"

"Vin thought so," Chris replied.

"And what do you think, Chris?"

Larabee thought for a moment, then he nodded. "Yeah, they were."

"Then Agent Tanner will have the complete backing of the agency, if the local police decide to press charges. And stop worrying, he'll make it," Travis added softly.

"I hope you're right, sir." Chris leaned forward, setting his empty glass down on the hearthstones and staring into the flames. "That man's got a damn bull's eye on his chest."

"Travis chuckled softly. "I can see why you might think that, given his adventures since joining Team Seven."

"I trust him... more than I've ever trusted anyone. I trust Vin with my life, the team's... yours. But I don't really even know him. Sometimes it scares the hell out of me."

Travis' eyebrows hiked slightly.

Chris smiled briefly and shook his head. "The whiskey... and fatigue. Just ignore me."

"No," Travis said, "a friendship like that, well, it's a precious thing, worth protecting, and worrying over."

"Thank you, sir," Chris said, grateful that the older man seemed to understand his feelings concerning Tanner. Still, he doubted anyone would ever really understand... Hell, he didn't even really understand it yet. But he knew Tanner was special and he'd be damned if he let him go without a fight - regardless of any differences they might have.

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Breakfast the next morning was another quiet, hurried affair in a private room in the resort's best restaurant. As soon as they were done, Chris arranged for a taxi van to take them all to the hospital.

They arrived to find a message waiting for them, asking them to see Dr. Witherspoon.

"You go, Chris," Josiah said. "All seven of us probably wouldn't fit into her office anyway."

Larabee nodded.

An orderly gave him directions and Chris paused outside the doctor's door just long enough to rap once, then turned the handle and walked in without waiting for her to reply.

Dr. Witherspoon looked up from a chart she was making notes on and smiled. "Ah, Mr. Larabee, isn't it? You're here sooner than I expected."

"My friends and I would like to see Vin," Chris said, his tone making it clear he wouldn't accept "No" for an answer.

"Yes, I know. Please, come in and have a seat."

Chris scowled, but he knew he didn't really have a choice but to go along and hear her out.

The doctor waited until he was settled, then said, "I looked in on Mr. Tanner this morning morning. The wound's draining, the infection's under control, and we're replacing the blood he lost."

"Then he's doing good, right?" Chris asked, his expression brightening.

Witherspoon nodded. "Physically, yes, I'd say he seems to be doing wonderfully, better than expected even."

"But?" Larabee asked her, his already frayed patience evaporating.

The doctor met the blond's gaze for a moment and then said, "But he hasn't woken up."

"So...?" he asked her. "You said he probably wouldn't be awake until this morning, right?"

The doctor leaned back in her chair. "Normally I wouldn't worry too much, but in this case I'm not so sure. Mr. Tanner is in excellent physical condition and, given the scars I saw in surgery, he's been shot before, so this wasn't the kind of shock to him it might otherwise have been. And, as I said, he's doing much better this morning than I'd been hoping for. So, there's no reason I can come up with to explain why he hasn't woken up. Did he hit his head in the crash?"

Chris shook his head. "I don't think so. He didn't mention it, if he did."

Witherspoon frowned.

"You said he hasn't woken up. Are you really saying you can't wake him up?" Larabee asked her, suddenly getting worried. "He's not in a coma, is he?"

"No, he's not in a coma, and he responds to stimuli, but he's not awake."

"And you don't know why."


Chris sighed. "What do you suggest?"

"I'd like you to talk to Dr. Cliff, Dan Cliff. He's our neurologist. I asked him to take a look at Mr. Tanner earlier this morning."

Chris huffed out another breath and nodded.

Witherspoon picked up her phone and punched out a four-number extension. "Dan? Hi, listen, Mr. Tanner's friends are here; can you come over? Great, thanks." She hung up. "He'll be here in a couple of minutes. And if you don't mind, I'm going to go grab a cup of coffee before I have to make my rounds."

Chris stood as she did. "Thank you, Doctor."

"Dan's one of the best. We're lucky to have him. Do what he suggests," she said, shaking his hand and passing Cliff as she turned and stepped outside.

The young man smiled a little self-consciously as he maneuvered around Dr. Witherspoon's desk and took a seat in her chair. "I'm guessing that Anna told you what the situation is?"

Chris nodded.

"Well, I can't add much more. We're running some tests now, but for the moment, we're just not sure why Mr. Tanner won't wake up."

"What can I do?"

"What I'd like to ask is that you, and all of Mr. Tanner's other friends, take turns sitting with him. You can do it in pairs, if that's easier. I'm hoping that if he hears that you're there, it will get his attention, help him wake up."

"We'll do anything that needs to be done, Doctor, anything necessary," Larabee said. "When do we start?"

"How about right now?" the physician asked, and Chris nodded. "Great, follow me."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

Having something to do at least made the day pass quickly. Chris and Nathan took the first watch with Vin, sitting and talking with him and each other for a little over two hours. Buck and Josiah took over for another two hours, then Ezra had his own shift alone.

With still no change, Nathan and Josiah returned, then Buck and Ezra, and finally Chris, who planned to sit with Vin until the end of the hospital's visiting hours at 9 p.m.

With Vin showing no improvement, Larabee slipped out of the room long enough to get a cup of coffee only to finding himself facing four expectant expressions when he stepped into the cafeteria. "Nothing," he reported, shaking his head.

"Damn," Buck said, slapping his good leg.

Chris finished one cup in the cafeteria with the others, then took a refill with him back to Vin's room, sliding into his chair with a tired sigh.

The sniper looked like he was sleeping, and Chris leaned forward, sipping on the coffee, waiting in silence for several minutes before he began talking.

"Damned if I know how, but you got to me, Tanner. You slipped in under the radar..." He snorted softly and shook his head. "I've been trying for a long time now to-" He stopped. What? Stop feeling? Stop caring? About himself, about his job?

But all that changed the day Tanner had saved his life, changed when he'd met those damn blue eyes, so full of fire and... life. Tanner was full of life, and that in spite of the fact that the sniper's life had been anything but easy.

Vin had been hurt, Chris knew that with absolute certainty. He could see that in those blue depths just as easily as he saw the indomitable spirit. Vin had been hurt, but he hadn't given up on life, or on people.

Unlike Chris himself. He had allowed the pain he'd felt to consume him, leaving him a hollow shell. Until he met Tanner and that hollowness was filled by the younger man's infectious zeal.

"Damn, Vin, come on, open your eyes and let's get the hell out of here," Larabee said.

He leaned back in his chair, sighing loudly. "You know how much I envy you, Vin? How much I respect you for not letting life destroy that spirit?"

Tanner moaned softly.

Chris set his coffee cup down on the nightstand and moved to the bedside. "Vin?" he called softly.

Another soft groan.

"Vin, come on, pard, wake up. It's time to wake up. We need you, Vin... Hell, I need you. Come on, damn it..."

He could see Tanner's eyes beginning to move under his closed lids.

"That's it, Vin, come on... come on, you can do it... wake up, Vin. It's time to wake up."

"'M awake," Tanner slurred, his eyes still closed. Then, he sniffed. "That coffee fer me?"

Larabee smiled, feeling his eyes beginning to sting. Damn sniper. "Hell no, it's not for you. That's my coffee. You want some, wake up and get your own."

"Goddamn selfish bastard," the sharpshooter grumbled. "Mean sonuvabitch... makin' a sick man get his own fuckin' coffee."

Chris chuckled. "You promise to stay awake, I'd be happy to go get you some coffee. I'll even get you some of the good stuff the nurses keep for themselves."

"Ah hell, just ask 'em t' pour it int' the IV," Tanner replied. "I need a caffeine fix bad here, Lar'bee."

Chris chuckled. "Come on, Vin," he said, "open your eyes."

Slowly, Tanner blinked his eyes open, then forced them wide in an owlish look that made Larabee grin.

"That's right," Chris said softly, "welcome back."

"Back?" Vin questioned. "Where'd the hell I go?"

"We don't know," Larabee replied honestly, "but it doesn't matter, you're home again."

"Home?" Vin asked, a slightly goofy smile settling on the man's lips. "Mmm, that sounds good... real damn good."

* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *

"The doc says another couple 'a days and I'm outta here," Vin explained to the gathering of six men standing at the foot of his bed. It made him slightly uncomfortable, all of them standing there, staring at him like he might up and disappear on them at any moment, but pleased him at the same time, gave him a warm feeling deep in his chest.

"Glad to hear that, Mr. Tanner," Travis said, reaching out to pat the man's blanket-covered leg. "There's all that paperwork to get caught up on, not to mention planning for our next move for Benton Whitesides." And with that he excused himself and headed out to meet Mary and give her an ending for her feature on their way home.

Tanner rolled his eyes as soon as Travis was gone. "Work, work, work... That all you ATF guys ever think about?"

"Well, we've all gotta do what we've gotta do, Junior," Buck teased. "Least you'll be getting a few extra days off. Me, I have to go back with this bum leg."

Vin shook his head. "You're gonna be a chick magnet with that cast," he told the ladies' man.

Buck grinned. "Yeah, that's what I'm countin' on!"

Vin shook his head again. "Y'all find out what happened?"

"Looks like Kroger had someone plant a small bomb on the plane before we took off," Chris told him.

"But he won't be doing anything like that again," Ezra assured him. "Mr. Kroger is in custody in San Francisco, as are the other two men who attacked us from the chopper."

"Glad to hear it," Tanner said, nodding.

"We need to let Vin get some rest," Nathan said, glancing at the others.

"We'll check back later," Josiah assured him.

"Yeah, we'll go keep the kid company for a while," Buck told him.

Vin nodded, watching them go until only Chris was left. I take it the local cops aren't gonna arrest me for shootin' them two bombers as soon as I'm discharged."

"No," Larabee said. "They... understood the situation."

Vin nodded, knowing what that meant. "How's JD?"

"He's doing fine, probably be back to work before you are."

Vin snorted softly, watching Larabee, who had remained rooted at the foot of his bed. "What's up, Chris?"

The blond walked around the bed and sat down in the chair. "I just wanted to say that I was wrong out there."

Vin looked confused. "Wrong? 'Bout what?"

"About the shootings."

The sniper shrugged. "Understand where you were comin' from, Chris... just ain't the same place I was comin' from. Couldn't take the chance those two could get the drop on us, hurt one of ya."

"Yeah, I know," he said, realizing that they hadn't just adopted Tanner into their "family." Vin had adopted them as well. And it was clear to Chris that the sniper would do whatever he felt was necessary to keep them safe. Just like he had the day they'd met. "Just remember this, okay? You're not expendable."

"Appreciate that, Cowboy."

"Goddamn it, Tanner, how many times do I tell you, I'm not a damn cowboy."

Tanner grinned. "Picky, damn-"

"Don't get me started, Tanner!" Chris stood. "Get well, Vin. We miss you."

Tanner put on his best innocent expression. "Ah, gee, thanks... Cowboy, y' made m' day."

"Goddamn cocky sonuvabitch," the blond replied under his breath, but he was smiling. They had survived, again, and he had the terrible feeling it was just the first of many such close encounters to come.


Author's Note: This story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #7, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado is the primary author of this story, she had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang - Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Erica Michaels, Nina Talbot, Kasey Tucker, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-24-2006. Art by Shiloh (shigal13@excite.com)