Texas Hold 'Em
Outside, JD started back in response to his friend's distress. Vin stopped him. "Chris is in there. We've got to make sure no one sneaks up on them." JD hesitated, but then nodded and let Tanner lead him back into the frigid rain and the mesquite.
"Buck, you took some hits on your vest," Chris tried to sound calm, "you've probably got busted ribs. You hear me? It hurts, but you're gonna make it. You hear me?"
Buck grimaced, bit back another cry of pain. He thought he nodded to Chris but he wasn't sure. He closed his eyes to concentrate on fighting the pain and the fear. Despite what Larabee said, he could feel something was dreadfully wrong.
Ezra and Evie had been watching the other two men. "Mr. Standish . . . Ezra . . ." Evie raised up from where she had been resting against his shoulder. She had felt the heat radiating from his skin. She put the back of her hand against his brow in such a concerned, motherly way that Ezra wanted to push her away. It messed with his self control. But his limbs were too heavy. "Mr. Larabee, he has a fever."
Chris closed his eyes, just for the length of a deep breath. It had been a long time since he'd felt this helpless. Not since . . . he immediately cut off that line of thought. He couldn't keep Josiah and Nathan out of his mind. And Ezra and Buck? For all his denial, he didn't know how badly they were hurt. He didn't know how many terrorists Anson had who were loyal enough to hunt down and try to murder federal agents. He could send someone for help, but it'd have to be Vin and he needed Vin's knowledge of survival and the landscape to set up their positions to a tactical advantage. He wanted to be angry with Ezra for tripping with West in the first place. He wanted to rail at JD for not getting more information to them. He caught himself blaming Evie Travis for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. But that would be venting anger; displaced hostility. He couldn't even be angry at himself, he didn't know what he could have done differently. He just wanted to be angry, get violent. He wanted the damn rain to stop. He wanted the sun to come up. He wanted Ezra and Buck healthy. He wanted . . . he wanted something, somewhere he had some control over. And so he moved.
There was an old, beat up pan in the corner, holding the makeshift, useless first aid kit. He tossed the contents and put it outside the door. "Mrs. Travis, that will fill up with water soon enough. Try to get them to drink, work on the fever as best you can."
"Where are you going, Mr. Larabee?"
"To end this."
Larabee walked through the low door into the cold autumn night. He wasn't surprised when Vin materialized beside him. "Talk to me."
"I figure that," he nodded to a faint orange glow on the horizon, "that's Waco, the city lights reflecting off the clouds. That's north. That's where we were," he nodded to a flickering glow where the Ram still burned. "That's Josiah's Suburban." He was looking at another, dimmer, flickering glow and there was a haunted tone to his voice as his eyes lingered on this last fire.
"Vin?" Larabee grabbed Tanner's upper arm. "Talk to me," he repeated.
Vin shook his head, refusing to open up to his supervisor and friend. How could he lay his own doubts on the other man when it was obvious that he was weighted down by worries of his own. How could Vin tell him about the guilt that was welling up inside him every time he wondered if Josiah and Nathan were still alive. Had he made a choice? Had he chosen Larabee, Ezra and the others over Nathan and Josiah? He tried to tell himself that he had stayed where he knew he could do some good. But it was tearing at his very soul that he had been forced to make the choice. He shook his head again, not enough to dislodge the wet hair curling around his neck and forehead, but the drops of rain dripping from the tips of his hair were displaced.
Larabee could tell that he wasn't going to get anything from the Texan at this moment that the man might perceive as a sign of weakness. And when he came to that decision, he growled angrily, "Why the hell ain't the fire department been called? Where the holy hell is our backup?"
"Pretty abandoned out here. Good chance no one's seen the fires, no one's out in all this. Back up? Ain't got an answer. But you'll play hell getting your hands on Briscoe before I do." Vin's voice was low. And he seemed to have found his balance; fought through, at least temporarily, whatever it was that was haunting him.
And if Tanner was okay for now, Larabee would force himself to be, too, and got back on topic. "I'll get to him first. You can help me hide the body. Where's JD?"
"Backed him up to an oak tree over there." Tanner pointed in the direction he meant. "Told him to shoot anything that didn't call out before they approached the deer blind. He's holdin' in there. Barely. He's seen a lot this job." Before either of them could get lost in thought, worry what else the boy might have to deal with if Buck and Ezra were hurt as badly as they suspected, Vin continued. "Now what?"
"Now we hunt 'em down." JD hadn't stayed put when he saw Chris and Vin in conference. He sounded bloodthirsty. Like he was desperate to prove which side he was on.
"No," Larabee said in a low voice that wouldn't carry.
"But . . ." The young agent was shocked.
"I don't give a damn about any of those people. All I care about is keeping us and the three in that deer blind safe until help gets here."
"They'll get away with what they did?" JD's voice was accusing.
"Getting away for one night isn't gettin' away, Kid," Vin offered.
"What are you willing to sacrifice for revenge?" Chris's voice was even more accusing than JD's had been.
JD didn't have an answer for that. In his own mind he had once again gotten all of his priorities wrong.
Evie Travis offered the rain water to Buck, who was conscious for the moment, but he turned his head away to avoid the drink. She started to push but in the end, put the pan in her lap in a defeated manner and with a heavy sigh. There was so much that needed to be done and she didn't have the knowledge or experience to help one damn bit.
When Buck turned his head away, he was facing Ezra and he couldn't help but smile. "We ain't never gonna be clean again, Vato," he observed softly.
Ezra, who was propped up a little higher against the wall, looked down at the other man. Their backs were covered in a solid coat of mud from being dragged under the barbed wire fence. The front wasn't much better, having landed face down in the muck when the shooting started. Poor Mrs. Travis was in the same condition. Her clothes were torn and disheveled. The silver strands in her otherwise dark hair, that looked sophisticated when styled in a precise bouffant, had strayed loose and hung down the sides of her face. Her hair was almost dry now that they'd spent some time under cover. Ezra observed to himself that she looked more like a pioneer woman than a citified lady who was out of her element. She surely came from strong, frontier stock.
Ezra turned his attention back to Wilmington, and was trying to think of an appropriate response when he noticed the other man was out again. And suddenly, he didn't have the strength to say anything. He almost stopped breathing himself while he watched, trying to see his friend's chest rise and fall.
"He's still with us," Evie said softly, as if she were a mind reader. She put the water to his lips and insisted that he drink.
"Better than the finest bottled water," Standish said gratefully.
"When I was a little girl, my grandmother would catch rain water for us to wash our hair in. Said it was the best water."
Ezra nodded, "I remember catching spring rains. I didn't think, in my childhood, it tasted this good. Perhaps adversity makes us appreciate the simple things in life."
"I want to thank you for all you've done for me," Evie said as tears watered in her eyes.
"I know you're going to say it's your job, but I don't believe that many people, even agents, could have gone through what you went through and . . ."
"Mrs. Travis," he looked up and speared her with an intense look, "this was not merely my job." He stopped, he didn't usually give up this much of himself, his emotions, but the poor woman had been through so much. "You were my strength. You have no training, no ego fueled with machismo to motivate you to deal with the cards you have been dealt these last few days. But you have sustained with grace and courage. You personified for me why I do what I do. You put a face to the people who deserve to be protected from the likes of Anson Jones and Pierce West."
This little-seen side of Ezra Standish took her breath away. She couldn't help it, the tears fell. She couldn't find words nearly as profound or sincere as his had been. Instead, she leaned forward, pillowed his head against her breast, gave him a maternal kiss on the forehead and nestled in to wait for whatever would happen next. "You'd make any mother proud," she whispered.
And Ezra finally lost his battle to stay awake, feeling a comfort he didn't quite understand.
They'd been able to sit in complete silence for almost an hour. They were about 10 feet from each other so that they didn't make a single target. JD was in the middle, flanked by Chris and Vin.
They had each taken a turn checking inside on their friends, but not recently. Chris didn't want to know what he might find. Buck's abdomen was rigid and hard. The bullets that had hit him -- it looked like three -- had more velocity than a regular sidearm. But they hadn't penetrated the Kevlar. Blunt Force Trauma. Blunt Force Trauma. Blunt Force Trauma. It echoed in his mind. He knew the back face deformation of the vest, when it impacted with the human body could cause damage all its own. But in the past he'd seen it as deep bruising, maybe cracked ribs. This was different. Once again Larabee felt the weight of helplessness wash over him in waves. Buck seemed to breathe easier when he was unconscious, still gasping, but air was still moving in and out, so they didn't try to wake him up.
Ezra. Unfortunately, neither unconsciousness nor sleep found him for long, so he suffered in stoic silence, shifting his body continuously trying to get comfortable. It was impossible. Every time they checked his leg wound, it was still seeping. Not a lot, but he was losing blood. His pallor and sweaty brow hinted that he couldn't go on like that much longer. Evie Travis whispered to him, inveigled him to drink the fresh rain water and seemed to be a comfort to the solitary man.
Chris realized several things at the same time. The rain had stopped, the clouds broke and allowed the full moon to light the pasture and field like negative photographic images in shades of black and gray. Without the cloud cover, the temperatures were dropping rapidly. Having donated his jacket and shirt sleeves to the wounded, Larabee was shivering in the near freezing temperatures. And while the three in the small confines of the deer blind were sharing body heat and the lantern, Vin and JD must be as cold as he was. That's the next thing he realized. He hadn't answered JD and the young man's voice had been so full of guilt.
Chris looked down the fence row at Vin and realized it wasn't only the full moon, but a subtle predawn light that let him make out the man's features. Vin tilted his head, listened, then nodded. They could talk a little. No one was near.
"JD?" Chris offered him his chance to speak.
"I liked being 'John'. I liked being cocky and mean and not having to care what people thought of me, because what I thought was more important than what they thought. And if I was mad, I didn't care who I pissed off when I said any mean, hateful thing that came into my head. I liked not having to obey the law. . ."
"JD --" Chris tried to interrupt.
"And I liked saying things just to attack and watch the shock or hurt or disappointment on somebody's face. And I started thinking I knew it all. I really did. It wasn't an act. I, I mean, JD Dunne, he -- I didn't like me, but 'John' did. And I was 'John'. I think I am 'John'."
"JD," Chris raised his voice as loud as he dared, but it worked and stopped the run on confession. What had that boy gone through when none of the others had been able to protect him? What had he done that he thought was necessary to prove himself and get in with the domestic terrorists. He'd have to get Buck to talk to the boy if . . . Larabee bit off that thought. He didn't want to question whether Buck and Ezra would make it out of this. But either way, Larabee wanted to be the one who talked JD down when this was all over. Right now there wasn't enough time, but he could give it a start.
"There's an anger inside all of us. The less we show it, the more it builds. If we fight it, when it finally gets a chance to get out it hurts. It hurts you and you don't even know it. And it hurts people around you. It's like a living thing. That hurt look you talked about? From the people you care about the most? That's what hate feeds on. Sometimes we learn to tame it, sometimes we don't."
"I don't want to be 'John' any more." JD said in a small voice.
Chris didn't respond. This wasn't the time to say 'John' is and always has been a part of you. He may be a big part of what makes you strong -- fighting him within yourself. There might never be a time to say that.
Vin was watching Chris intently as more and more light came in from the east. Chris turned away. Tanner was seeing more than Larabee was willing to show even the Texan.
"Ol' Ezra, doin' his undercover thing?" Vin offered up. "I think that's what he likes, getting to play at doing all those illegal things, but knowing he gets to walk away in the end. I think getting to play act the parts is what keeps our favorite snake from going to the dark side." He said it with such affection that it lightened the mood, for which Larabee was grateful.
Chris actually felt it before he heard it. A pulsing in the air. Then there it was. A Bell JetRanger helicopter.
Vin was smiling. How long had he known it was coming?
Then JD saw it. In his enthusiasm, he ran out into the muddy field, plowed deep and awaiting cotton planting.
The mud weighed down his shoes and then it started exploding in his footsteps. JD froze, trying to figure out what was happening.
"JD, get down!" Vin shouted as something bit into the young agent's upper arm and the world exploded.
Anson Jones and five others made a last, desperate attack on the people who could identify them. Their hope was to kill the men and one woman on the ground and then disappear into the woods. It was a desperate ploy, but they were desperate. Jones had told them that if they killed the eyewitnesses they could sneak back to their daily lives with no one the wiser.
Vin and Chris returned fire, protecting their helpless friends in the deer blind.
Wild eyed, JD fumbled with his gun. His left arm wasn't working right, but he held his right arm rigid in front of him and fired round after round as he raced toward the muzzle fire, dimmed, but still visible in the morning light.
"JD!" He heard Chris's voice. It was an order to stop.
"JD!" Vin called, concerned for his safety.
And still JD ran forward.
Then a tan colored Jeep sprang across the pasture from a gate. Even in the mud it moved easily. It reminded Chris of the Jeeps on the old series Rat Patrol. The driver was crazy. The two men in the white shirts, white hats and khaki jeans that were firing at the retreating terrorists were damn good shots.
The helicopter hovered inches off the ground, throwing up debris so Anson and his men couldn't see to shoot. Of course it didn't matter to Anson Jones now. He was lying splayed out on his back, his eyes unseeing and his blood mingling with the rivulets of rainwater in the mud. The sniper in the helicopter solemnly lowered his rifle after making the shot. He found no satisfaction in taking a life, but there was a lot of satisfaction in saving that brash little ATF kid Jones was about to take out.
The remnants of the cartel had scattered like quail. The Jeep, which was really an old VW frame covered in sheet metal, and two three-wheelers, gave chase like a bird dog.
With all of this surrounding him, JD kept running, kept firing until first his target's gun and then his own gun ran out of ammo. The man ran. JD chased him down and tackled him. It was Trey Winters. "ATF!" JD crowed, "you're under arrest!" And he sat on Trey as he tried to catch his breath enough to drag him back to the others.
Strong hands latched onto JD's arms and were lifting him from his prisoner. JD fought like a wildcat.
"Hey, Kid, hey, we're the good guys."
The words registered and JD stopped struggling. He found his eyes at chest level with a white shirt. Right there, at eye level, was a Ranger badge. A Texas Ranger badge.
"Ranger Travis Morningstar, son. It's a pleasure."
"I . . . I . . ." JD looked around. Men wearing DPS and ATF raid jackets were marching Trey and others back toward the open pasture. Then he turned back to the Texas Ranger who smiled down at him.
"Let's get that arm tended to."
JD looked down at his arm and realized it was bleeding pretty good. "It doesn't hurt." He sounded confused, matter of fact.
"Not yet," the Ranger observed with good-natured humor and steered him back to his friends.
Vin had taken a couple of steps to back up Dunne. Then he saw the Jeep swing that direction, JD tackle his man and the Jeep deposit three men to help the kid.
From the gate, Josiah drove another three-wheeler to a stop in front of the other members of his team. Nathan, riding on the back, leapt off and hugged both Chris and Vin in unrestrained relief. Chris held on just as tightly. It was euphoric to see these two safe. Josiah gave them both a bear hug before Nathan pushed them back to give them a quick visual exam.
"Ezra and Buck," Chris said solemnly with a nod toward the deer blind. "Tell 'em it's you before you open the door." Last thing they needed was Ezra or Mrs. Travis putting a hole in Jackson because they thought they were still under attack.
JD was being escorted back to the clearing by one of the Texas Rangers. With the smile of pride on his face, you wouldn't know he'd been shot.
Another man, dressed like Morningstar strode up to Larabee. The man's hand was already extended and Chris shook it. "I'm Ranger Danny Richards. I can't tell you how glad I am to find ya'll more or less in one piece. And I can't tell ya how sorry I am ya got hung out on your own."
"Wasn't your fault," Larabee said and knew it was true.
"But it'll be my place to make it right," Richards replied as he next shook hands with Tanner.
Nathan trotted directly back to them. "They need doctors now, Chris."
Chris started to snap that he was stating the obvious, but stopped himself. It was only then that he noticed a fourth three-wheeler held EMS and equipment because one was saying, "Starflight can't land here," referring to the helicopter ambulance.
"The ride back -- just to the main road -- it'll be awful rough." The second EMS didn't add that he wasn't sure the injured men would survive the trip.
"Sandy?" Ranger Richards said as he keyed his radio.
"Go ahead," The voice had the unmistakable background noise that said the speaker was in the JetRanger overhead.
"EMS says they can't land here," the Ranger said to the pilot.
"Who has to land?" was the reply.
"How many can you take?"
"How many are hurt?"
"Least two," Larabee offered up.
"Three's better," Morningstar added as he kept a grip on a now swaying, shocky, JD Dunne.
"They should all . . ." Nathan started.
"Three," Larabee stated with finality. He wanted to keep an eye on how many of the terrorists were rounded up.
"Pack 'em up and get 'em ready to move," Sandy said with confidence.
"Sandy's National Guard. Flew Blackhawks in Bosnia and Desert Storm."
And so it was that Sandy held his chopper steady inches off the ground as Ezra Standish, Buck Wilmington and a resistant JD Dunne were loaded.
Chris, Vin, Nathan and Josiah watched the helicopter disappear. They heard Richards coordinating with the medical teams that were on standby. The EMS team that had come in with the rescue team had turned their attention to Evie Travis and getting her ready to transport out. Josiah moved that way to give the woman a friendly shoulder of support then returned to stand with his team.
Larabee finally turned to Josiah and Nathan. "Scared the hell out of us, when your car exploded."
"JD'd carried on so about his shoulder mounted missiles, we didn't take any chances when we saw that motorcycle headed our way. We hauled ass out the doors. We didn't know where you were so we settled for going back and arranging for the cavalry to show up at first light." Josiah tried to keep it light, but couldn't pull it off as he added, "that was the longest wait, the longest night of my life."
"I didn't believe him," Nathan confessed, "about the missiles, I mean. It just sounded so out there."
"Yep," Vin agreed. "The boy did good."
"Fellas," Morningstar finally interrupted. "What say we get you out of this cold, cleaned up, warmed up, seen to at the hospital and in to check on your friends. Then maybe we'll get ya liquored up enough to warm the insides as well as the outsides."
Chris realized that sometime during the last hour someone had draped an insulated blanket over his shoulders but he was still shivering and so were the others. So he let himself be steered toward the sheet metal VW the officers affectionately called "The Thing."
The first things Ezra Standish became aware of were angry but muffled words. He opened his eyes and immediately recognized the classic decor of an emergency room. He wondered how long he'd been here.
He shifted his head a fraction and there was Vin Tanner, sitting on a tall exam stool, grinning like a Cheshire Cat and waiting for him to get his bearings.
"The others?" Ezra croaked.
"Ever'one's doin' fair to middlin'," Tanner replied.
A slightly vague answer, but his demeanor didn't indicate he was trying to withhold any bad news. In fact, he seemed amused by something.
Standish focused on trying to make out the angry words outside the curtain. The Texan noticed and supplied some information. "Hospital policy says I can't be in here. Larabee policy? Well, they ain't seein' eye to eye, yet."
"Doctor's standing up to him?" Ezra's voice wasn't above a whisper, but his curiosity was up.
"Seems the resident on duty and one of the male nurses rodeo together. They're threatening to bulldog ol' Larabee, hogtie him, and stick him in a broom closet." Vin was thoroughly entertained by the fact.
Ezra couldn't help it. His eyes went wide at this news. "And Mr. Larabee?"
"Threatened to shoot 'em."
"Not very creative."
"Well, he's worried about you and Buck." Vin gave as an excuse for the lack of imagination.
Ezra started to nod, but it caused bile to build in the back of his throat so he thought better of it.
"You mind bein' on your own for a bit?" Vin continued. "I can tell 'em you're awake, maybe get the Doc to come in here, unruffle some feathers?"
Ezra gave a weak but sincere smile and closed his eyes in agreement, not willing to move his head again.
As Vin slipped through the screen, Ezra lay still, fighting the nausea, and wondered for a moment if it wouldn't be easier just to throw up and get it over with. But he knew his damaged rib cage would protest. So he swallowed the oh, too much saliva his mouth was producing and tried to think of anything else.
Ezra wasn't sure how much time had passed before the curtain opened again. He was jolted to see Orin Travis come in.
"How are you feeling?" the older man asked.
Ezra nodded that he was okay, regretted the move and then couldn't get any words out as he willed down another bout of queasiness.
The judge continued before Ezra could try to speak again. "I asked Mr. Larabee for a few minutes with you in exchange for throwing some judicial weight around with the doctors."
"Is Mrs. Travis alright?" Ezra found that if he whispered he could get the words out.
"She will be, thanks to you."
"I . . ." Ezra fought his raspy voice, "I deeply apologize for her involvement."
"Stop it, boy."
Standish hushed immediately, ready to let the judge vent his frustration and fear on his wife's behalf.
"Evie said you would be blaming yourself for this. Couldn't get her to take anything to sleep until I set you straight."
Ezra blinked slowly and tried to process the words. Maybe he hadn't been prepared for anything the judge had to say. Was he offering absolution?
"I told her," Travis continued, "that there was no way you would hold yourself responsible and that I would check on you tomorrow. I wanted to stay near her. You understand."
Ezra nodded. He seemed to be doing a lot of that lately. But he didn't know what to say. Of course he most emphatically understood.
"And here she was, right again." It was clearly Evie Travis's husband speaking now, not a federal magistrate. "I should kick myself for not listening to her. This, none of this, is your fault, son."
Standish felt a surprising weight lifted and swallowed. "Thank you."
There was an awkward silence until the judge continued with what was on his mind. "She's my heart, you know. She's my life." He looked away, not willing to let anyone see his eyes at that moment. "Thank you for getting her back to me."
Ezra wanted to say he hadn't done anything, that the others had saved the day. But Travis knew that and the words would only be trite and anti-climatic. Instead, he offered sincerely, "She is an extraordinary pillar of strength. I owe her a thank you, as well."
"She'll be by tomorrow. Later today, I guess. I insisted she get some rest."
"As it should be."
"I owe you, son. I won't forget it."
The self-conscious silence of men not used to such intimate conversations had just begun to stretch to an uncomfortable duration when the resident made an entrance. "Sorry, judge, but I need to get to my patient."
"Of course. Take care of yourself, Standish. We'll see you once the dust settles."
"I look forward to it."
Chris Larabee looked down at the paper in his hand and thought back to that day, almost six months ago. He remembered the joyful reunion between Orin Travis and his wife as they embraced outside of the hospital emergency room doors. The old judge's voice had failed him, but he had mouthed the words 'thank you' over and over. And then he made the necessary phone calls so that the entire team stayed in Waco doing "follow up" reports and debriefings until Ezra and Buck were fit to travel. They had to fight an infection in the gunshot wound Ezra sustained that night and the beating he had taken had lowered his overall health and resistance so that it took longer than he would have liked. Buck, for his part, had severe pulmonary contusions and lacerations as well as internal bleeding, but had finally recovered.
JD's wound? Well it had seemed he barely noticed it. For one, he was relieved that Buck and Ezra were recovering. But also, he was regaled with the history of the Texas Rangers, a personalized tour of the Ranger Museum and "war stories" from the current Rangers. He even got to do his weapons requalification with them. Chris almost expected him to try to put in a transfer until he found out what it took to get one of those badges.
The night they left, the Texas law enforcement community had introduced the team to a "Pachanga." They ate fajitas and all the fixings, iced tea, Coors, Lone Star and margaritas. Tanner won the hot sauce eating challenge. And to this day Buck Wilmington still walked around humming Willie and Toby's "Whiskey For My Men And Beer For My Horses."
JD, trying to keep up with the Rangers doing tequila shots, solemnly and proprietarily swore that he would never watch Walker, Texas Ranger again since no real Ranger would wear a beard or a black hat. The DPS narcotics officers had cut him off of the tequila after that.
Buck had been watching the kid as he took a break from the activities. He was still on meds, so eagle-eye Larabee had a bead on him to be sure Buck didn't share in the beer or tequila. But this vanilla Dr. Pepper wasn't half bad. He was watching Vin take a turn along the sawdust floor. The way he shuffled his feet along made it look like he was in a high speed glide. He would spin the auburn haired beauty on his left while engaging in some jive-like jitterbug moves with the lanky blond on his right. Then he would reverse the moves. It was pure poetry and left Buck musing that the Texas Two-Step should be a category on Dancing With The Stars.
Vin did his little boot scoot past where Buck was sitting, pulled both beauties in close, winked at Buck, and spun the young ladies around the floor again. You always had to watch those quiet ones, Wilmington thought with a smile.
JD staggered over and dropped onto the bench beside his mentor. "I was scared," the younger agent admitted abruptly with the honesty of an inexperienced drunk.
Wilmington knew he was talking about the night of the shootout, and probably some things that had happened earlier in the case.
Buck had been in the hospital during most of the clean up and hadn't read any of the reports, but he suspected that the papers, like the debriefings to supervisors, were nothing more than relating a sequence of events and evidentiary facts. They would have left out the details that caused the turmoil of emotions he saw play across the face of the young man beside him. They would all be required to talk with a trauma counselor, but Buck doubted anyone the government hired would have the expertise to get past the macho, 'ah, hell, it's all in a day's work' facade each man felt was necessary to put forth. He was willing to bet that even Josiah would play that part to a large extent. He knew he, himself, wasn't going to open up to a shrink of any kind especially one that said, 'I'm with the government, I want to help you, trust me, anything you say will be kept in the strictest confidence.' Yeah, right.
No, later, Buck would get JD to work through things. But not now. Even if the young man thought he wanted to talk now, he would resent Buck taking advantage of his alcohol-diminished inhibitions. Time enough for that later. So for now, he went with the carefully neutral response, "Well, at least it's not something you have to expect everyday."
JD stared at the dance floor, but Buck could tell he wasn't watching the dancers, he was reliving something from the last few days. "You did a damn good job, Kid," Wilmington offered.
He watched the face in front of him cloud over and knew he'd been right in the first place. Those beer and tequila soaked emotions weren't ready for any kind words.
Buck watched the young man struggle through to some semblance of self-control and rode each emotion with him.
There were a lot of groups in ATF and a lot of good men and women. And they worked well together. But what Denver's Team 7 had was something special. If you were part of it, it made your heart swell. If you weren't, there was a tinge of jealousy. Buck had gotten caught up in his own emotions, so he was a bit surprised when JD turned on him. "Well, you and me?" There was more than a hint of anger in his voice. "You and me? We're gonna have a long talk. I watched you get shot. Three bullets. Why is it okay for you to take stupid, stupid risks and not me? You and me? You and me are gonna sit down and have a nice, long, talk, Mister." JD stood up as his voice rose. He sounded all the world like a father whose son was late for curfew. Then he swayed drunkenly. "We'll talk," he said again with the repetition of a drunk.
Apparently the talk was to come at some later date, because without another word the youngest member of Team 7 staggered in the direction of Ranger Morningstar.
Was JD making a hasty retreat while his emotions were somewhat intact, reacting to his ill-concealed hero worship of all things Ranger or the fact that the tall Texan had just tapped a new keg? Probably a little bit of all three.
Buck chuckled. He understood all too well all the things JD had wanted to say and couldn't. He'd been there himself more than once. He glanced unconsciously at Larabee sitting close by.
And while Chris had spent the time chatting with members of the local law enforcement community and had given no indication that he'd been eavesdropping, and, in fact, at no time even looked in Wilmington's direction, he nevertheless held his Longneck up toward his old friend.
Buck toasted with the paper cup of vanilla Dr. Pepper, maneuvered his still aching muscles off the bench and headed toward the dance floor to move in on Tanner's territory.
Chris watched Buck move off and then downed a shot of tequila as a sort of deconstructed boilermaker along with the beer. He had a designated driver tonight that had a siren on his car so they didn't have to worry too much about getting pulled over anyway. So he was going to get plastered. He was going to pass out tonight and to hell with the hangover tomorrow.
He was going to sleep without the nightmares of Josiah and Nathan never getting out of the Suburban. He didn't want to remember how he had sat at Buck Wilmington's hospital bedside and unconsciously matched his breathing with that of the unconscious man -- until he had to take a deep breath because the shallow breathing of his friend wouldn't support a human body. He wasn't going to project what would happen if JD lost any member of this team and let his anger free. He wanted to forget, at least for a night, the three days they had sweated that Standish would lose his leg to infection.
And he wanted to forget the conversation he had finally had with Vin Tanner and the guilt the young man carried for choosing between his friends. He wouldn't listen when Larabee reminded him that it had been his order that kept the younger man close. It didn't comfort him. Finally Larabee had confided in Josiah as to the guilt that crippled their friend. He never knew exactly what the gentle profiler had said, but it seemed to have eased Vin's guilt. But it would be a long time before Chris forgot the way the emotions had eaten at the Texan.
Larabee shook himself hard and grabbed the Tequila bottle. He was defeating his purpose of getting drunk if he kept lumping all of those memories and thoughts one on top of the other. He turned back and, as he'd been doing for the last few days, made sure he could account for all of his men.
They'd all been adopted as honorary Texans because of the 'kick ass way they took care of business'. Tanner had made some comment about anyone being able to get a Red River Passport nowadays, but seemed proud.
JD was still with Ranger Morningstar. But somehow the way the older man and his friends included the young agent, it made him look more like he was part of the conversation and less like a beagle puppy following a coon hound around the pasture.
Vin and his ladies were still making their way around the dance floor. Buck was two-stepping backwards in front of them with a smile on his face. His stamina wasn't going to hold out long. But it was obvious that was part of his plan and expected to get one or both of the women to help him to a bench when his strength gave out. It was equally obvious by the smirk on Vin's face that he knew what was going on and wasn't going to let it happen. The game was afoot.
The law enforcement community had taken over a big, airy, open-sided pavilion for the Pachanga. Chris spotted Nathan and Josiah across the way. They were moving cautiously and watching their footwork -- at least to the untrained eye. But their boss noticed that they were giving a lot of attention to the DEA agent, the feisty little assistant US attorney and the Magistrate's clerk who were teaching them the steps of a line dance that would inevitably be played before the night was over.
At the edge of the light, a group of people were huddled together. They looked more like worker bees at the entrance of their hive maneuvering in a secret dance only they understood. Ezra Standish was standing, with the help of a cane, in the middle of this group. Occasionally he would waver or hop to rebalance himself. At those times, whoever was next to him would almost reflexively put a hand on his shoulder or back for support until he got himself adjusted. Usually Standish would unconsciously flinch at the familiarity. But on this night he didn't. Part of it was because he knew his team mates were there to watch his back. Part of it was that he knew he didn't have to watch his back in this environment. And part of it was the fact that this group was around a makeshift craps table on the floor and absorbed in the friendly, but highly illegal game of dice. Ezra was in his element.
Chris took another sip of beer. The picnic table he was sitting at was plastered with an eclectic display of bumper stickers -- everything from the yellow and black one down the way that said, "Let The Wookie Win" to the one in front of him that declared, "If God Isn't A Longhorn, Why Is The Sunset Burnt Orange?". Chris scrapped the frayed end of the bumper sticker with his thumb nail and smiled.
And then it started. The fiddle player rosined up his bow and played the first strain of "Cotton-Eyed Joe." He couldn't let that dance pass by. Larabee finagled himself between Vin's brunette and the little assistant US attorney. Some of the team, like Vin, Buck and himself knew the dance steps and repeated them as they shouted, "Bullshit" every time the lead singer requested the chorus.
Josiah had been bluffing. He was working the floor like a pro.
JD and Nathan were at the edge of the floor focused on their steps. But they had good -- and pretty -- teachers.
Ezra's group didn't stop playing, but their shuffling around seemed to take on a bit more rhythm.
Chris remembered "Cotton-Eyed Joe". He remembered "The Shoddish" came next. Or did he just assume that because they always played those songs one after the other? He didn't remember making back to the hotel room. He heard something about someone having to follow a trail of clothing the next day to finally find Buck Wilmington, naked, asleep in a hotel closet that wasn't his own. Chris Larabee refused to hear the details. He remembered that much. There would be no guilt by association on his part. Nope.
So many times over the past few years, when Chris Larabee drank, he was angry, he was an angry drunk, and he woke up with an angry hangover. In Waco, that night, he had been a mellow drunk. And even though his hangover was worse than in his younger years, it was a mellow, manageable hangover. Yep, he thought to himself, as sure as every sunset over Austin and the University of Texas contained a tinge of burnt orange, mellow was better.
The only request that hadn't been granted was when Larabee demanded a face to face with Detective Reuben Briscoe. They politely said it had been taken care of and that they didn't want to be arrested as accomplices to murder -- which they would be if they put Briscoe and any member of Team 7 in the same county.
But now they were all healed, back in Denver, and two cars short in their fleet. Which had Chris back to dealing with the bureaucratic bullshit.
Sitting in his office behind the faux wood desk, recycled when the local military base was closed, he looked at the paper again. It was official. The memo in his hand told him that the federal grand jury had no billed him and his men in all of the shooting incidents in Waco, Texas during the Pierce West Organization investigation. No billed. No charges would be filed. He had been almost sure that it would turn out that way, but there was always that niggling doubt; wondering how human nature would interpret actions, reactions and what is politically acceptable on any given day
He knew the federal grand jury technically came from the same pool of property owners as the state and local grand juries. So what happened when they walked through those doors that they got just that much more pompous and seemed to ask questions, no matter how inane, just to be making their presence known?
He remembered the 50 something woman after he had testified. She had obviously been a hippie in the 60's and had gotten stuck there. "Couldn't you have shot the gun out of his hand?" she had asked, when Larabee detailed how he had shot Pierce West. "Couldn't you at least have tried to wound him?"
"Lady," Group Supervisor Larabee started, in a tone that had the presiding Assistant United States Attorney cringing. "When I draw my gun, it is to protect my men, an innocent person or myself. Usually all three. If it had been you in the back seat about to get your brains blown out, would you want me trying to make some kind of Roy Rogers, Lone Ranger trick shot?"
The lady had tried to look indignant, but the visual in her head had pretty much deflated her.
'Damn television,' Larabee thought to himself. If it was up to him, everybody who sat on a jury, a grand jury or asked a stupid question would be put through a live house, with live ammo and moving targets. Give 'em all the damn training in the world, and then, when their adrenalin is pumping their pulse off the scale and they get caught up in the reality of the moment, see how they react.
But then he had to smile in spite of himself, thinking about when he had testified regarding the same charges in the state grand jury. There had only been one question from a good ole boy who wanted to know if they could indict the defense lawyers who were defending the 'low life scum of the earth that weaseled into our town'. And Billie Jo Trainer's testimony? Chris would have liked to have been a fly on the wall. Apparently there was a movie of the week in the works based on her heroic willingness to give up her boyfriend. Come to think of it, wasn't tonight the night she was going to appear on Larry King?
Oh, Chris had tried to call Ezra on the carpet for getting in the car with the bad guys in the first place. And Ezra had readily agreed that it had been a mistake. That was Larabee's first clue that he was in trouble. And then Ezra had casually mentioned that while, yes, he had tripped with the bad guys, he had done it with surveillance. When Chris took off that fateful night, he not only traveled following the terrorists, he did so with no other surveillance than Josiah and Nathan in one car. Larabee had felt the vein in his temple start pulsing. Before it could escalate, a thankful Travis and Billie Jo Trainer's new literary agent had convinced the supervisors of the ATF that it would be bad publicity to punish Team Seven with days off. If they had all dodged that bullet, that included Standish. In fact, Judge Travis had insisted that Standish be included in the amnesty. When Ezra heard the news he had grinned and said the judge was truly a man of his word. Larabee still wasn't sure what he'd meant.
Chris's thoughts were interrupted when there was a tap on his door and Vin entered without waiting for permission. "Chris," his tone was full of laughter even as he kept a straight face. It made the hairs on the back of Larabee's neck stand at attention.
Chris squinted one eye at his friend, an expression that said, 'let me have it'.
In response, Tanner stated flatly, "You let Ezra and Buck debrief Trey Winters by themselves."
"I did." He couldn't imagine where that could go wrong. Besides, once the action had been over, the locals couldn't dump the paperwork and debriefings on his team fast enough.
With a tip of his head, Tanner indicated that his boss should follow him. And he did.
Tanner was enjoying himself immensely as he refused to give even a clue as to what was awaiting them. But he had led them to the elevator and the only hint Larabee had even been able to glean was that his agent had pushed the button to go to the garage level where they parked their OGVs.
The doors opened and it was like stepping into a new car dealership. Larabee himself and Sanchez had been doomed to driving Malibus - dark blue Chevrolet Malibus - since they returned from Texas. At this moment, where Chris's Chevy had been earlier that day, sat a brand new 2006 black Dodge Ram, loaded to the hilt down to the sprayed-in bed liner.
Where Josiah's Suburban had once come to roost during a work day, and, more recently, the other G-car had mocked any pretense of undercover or clandestine surveillance, sat a deep maroon H2. But not just any H2. The small print on the right rear of the back door proclaimed it to be a gasoline/electric hybrid.
Chris took two slow steps closer. Vin's Jeep had been replaced by a black Jeep Commander identical to the one so recently driven by Pierce West. JD was drooling over a silver BMW in his slot. Buck looked more than satisfied with the Champagne colored convertible Chevrolet SSR he was lounging against. Nathan looked up guiltily as he levered himself out of a blue -- the comfortable color of faded blue jeans -- Nissan Xterra, complete with first aid kit option. And Ezra? He was leaning against a Forest Green Jaguar that so complemented his eyes, even a manly man couldn't help but notice.
"Start talking," Larabee ordered Standish and Wilmington. Neither looked particularly concerned about the upcoming interrogation.
"We, Mr. Wilmington and myself, because of our injuries sustained in the incident in Texas, were allowed to debrief Mr. Trey Winters . . ."
"Stop." Larabee's voice cut through the dialogue. He slanted his eyes toward the other culprit. "Wilmington," he drew the name out threateningly. "Let's hear your side of this."
"Trey debriefed. We listened. Truth is, nobody else wanted to do it, 'cuz it was playing clean up."
"However, there has always been the issue of $500,000.00 earmarked for use by the domestic terrorist organization which we infiltrated," Ezra pushed forward. He thought he needed to explain all of this.
Larabee turned a stone cold stare at the smaller man and then turned back to the man he had known longer than all the others, the one he could read. The one that couldn't lie to him. "$500,000.00?"
"Which was seizeable since it was used to facilitate a criminal operation."
"Where's the money?" Larabee's eyes drifted back to the black Ram. It looked good.
"Now, Old Dog, if we showed up with the money, they'd just forfeit it back to the government's general fund. What good is that?"
"And you bought cars?"
"No! Chris, that'd be illegal."
Larabee looked between Buck and Ezra. Vin was smiling, enjoying the show. JD looked like he felt he might be in trouble -- guilt by association. Josiah was smiling like a proud Papa and Nathan was watching with a poker face that would do Ezra proud.
"One of you, whoever can tell me what's going on in the simplest terms, better start talking."
"We explained to Mr. Winters how, legally, acceptance of responsibility and doing everything in his ability to destroy the conspiracy, were catch phrases in his sentencing process," Ezra began.
"And to really show us he'd seen the light, if there really was any money, he needed to help us find it," Buck added.
"And he did," JD blurted out. Get on with it. He was too nervous to watch the other two toy with Larabee.
"Where. Is. The . . .?" Chris repeated.
"Money don't help us none, we got to give it up. But fine vehicles. . ."
"Don't say it."
"Mr. Winters took the money, of which he had custody and control, that he had complete access to and authority to use and, of his own volition, purchased these vehicles. To our good fortune, since the cars are in excellent condition and paid in full, we can forfeit them and within less than 60 days, put them into official government service and be driving them." Chris stared hard at Ezra as he took in what his agent had just said. The damn southerner never flinched, just calmly met his boss's glare with a smile.
Larabee thought of all the ways this wouldn't fly -- the second time someone tried it. But for now, there wasn't a rule in the book that made this illegal or unethical. Every one of his men knew exactly that.
"Of all the manipulative, sneaky subterfuge I have ever witnessed or heard -- it was a joint investigation with the other agencies. What about them?"
"They got the old Commander and the other cars the gang used. If they hadn't been so quick to push off the mundane clean up of the investigation on us, they would have had this same chance."
"Someone's gonna pay for this," Larabee growled ominously.
The thought flittered through Buck's mind that it had happened at last. They'd gotten to Larabee. Headquarters had gotten hold of the GS and given him THE TRANSPLANT. They'd replaced his blood with chicken shit and he was afraid to keep the vehicles. But then he saw something that couldn't be hidden in the hazel eyes. Buck smiled.
"We are going to take these seized vehicles to the storage facility where they will be left until the forfeiture process is complete. And we will," he added emphatically, "take these vehicles immediately and test them at the defensive driving track to make sure they are in condition to be put into service."
Ezra and Vin let loose with harmonizing Rebel yells. They and the others scrambled into their vehicles. Chris trotted to the fine new Ram, got in, found the keys waiting for him and read the odometer. Twenty seven miles. It would be a long time before he had to worry about his fleet again. First Josiah and then the others sped down the ramp with the skills of semi-professional racers. They may not get to drive the cars until they came out and into service in 60 days, but today they'd have enough fun with them to hold them over.
Life was good.
Please remember that you are welcome to write your own part of this story with missing scenes. Some ideas that we thought about but didn't write include:
- Ezra and Evie in the house before JD arrives
- Chris and Vin talking about Vin's guilt
- Josiah's conversation with Vin
- Josiah and Nathan after the explosion but before they meet up with the rest of the team
- Buck and JD's "talk"
- Buck and Ezra debriefing Trey
- Evie visiting Ezra in the hospital
- Buck and Chris after Buck wakes up in the hospital
- JD and Ezra talking about the role JD had to play and what he had to do to Ezra to maintain his cover
- Billie Jo's appearance on Larry King
Pick one of these or explore something else that happened. We'd love to link any addenda alongside the main story once it's archived.
Best regards, Carolyn