Hurricane by LT

Part 10

Chris slowed down as he approached the roadblock. It was six o'clock in the morning and they had just entered Mississippi from Louisiana. All four of them were on edge, not knowing what they would find or if they would find any of their three friends. Larabee was definitely not in the mood to be harassed by a snot nosed state trooper.

Braking to a halt, Chris rolled down his window. "We're Federal agents, ATF. Is there a problem with us getting through?" The glare he gave the young law enforcement officer would have melted most men's resolve. It didn't seem to affect the trooper at all.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but no one gets through. If you would kindly turn around," the blonde trooper, whose nametag identified him as Sullivan, was courteous but firm.

"No, I don't think so, Officer Sullivan. I have three agents down on the coast and we are going in to locate them and aid in any way we can the people and officials in the affected area." There was no way that Chris or the other three with him would be deterred. Chris was prepared to drive right on through the barricade if the young trooper didn't see the error of his ways.

Biting his lip, the trooper made a quick decision. "Would you wait here, Sir, while I get my sergeant?" He walked a few feet away from the vehicle and radioed his superior. Within minutes, an overweight, balding man with stripes on his uniform pulled up in his squad car. He tried for an air of authority, but it fell short when he encountered the four men of Team Seven.

"I' m Sergeant Caldwell. I understand you're giving my trooper a hard time. I'd like you to step out of your vehicle, if you wouldn't mind." James Caldwell was a twenty- year veteran. He had seen all types and he instinctively knew he wasn't going to win this battle.

Chris turned and looked at his men. Without a word, all four doors opened and the ATF agents made their presence felt. Josiah came up to stand beside Trooper Sullivan. JD and Nathan took up position to either side of Chris. The glares they gave the Mississippi State troopers would melt the staunchest iceberg.

Chris took two steps forward, coming to a halt just out of Sergeant Caldwell's personal space. "We didn't give him a hard time and I don't believe that's what he told you. We are federal agents," he hissed as he showed his credentials to Caldwell. "We are going to the coast to find our missing agents. Once we do that, we will assist FEMA or the local officials any way we can. Now, are you going to let us through or not?"

The sergeant swallowed his gum and took a step backwards. "Hope you have some gasoline with ya'll 'cause there ain't none between here and there. Guess we can use all the help we can get, Sir, just stay out of the Army's way and be careful. We got enough people dead, we don't need any more casualties."

Chris backed off a step. "I understand, Sergeant. You can't have a hoard of people coming down and getting in the way. I promise you, we won't. Thank you." He held out his hand and Sergeant Caldwell shook it.

"Tate, take these guys down the road to our gas station and get them filled up. We got one station with a big generator that can still pump. Hope your men are out of harm's way."

The young trooper motioned Josiah, who had gotten back in the car behind the steering wheel, to follow his squad. Nathan and JD climbed in the back as Chris gave a nod to the veteran. Caldwell nodded back and then moved to take Sullivan's place at the roadblock.

"This is gonna be a long week, guys!" Chris muttered as he climbed into the Suburban.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra raised his head as the sun began its rosy ascent in the eastern sky. The wind was a mere breeze and the water had receded back into the sea, leaving a fishy sludge that covered everything on the ground. The storm was over, the guilt and mourning were just beginning.

The undercover agent released his death grip on the shattered trunk and pulled stiff, aching arms and hands back to hang limp beside his battered body. He had straddled a stalwart limb while hugging the desecrated tree trunk for over five hours, awaiting the cessation of the hurricane. He had been bombarded with every manner of debris, from leaves to drywall, throughout the night. He endured if only to find the body of Buck Wilmington and provide a proper resting place for the big-hearted man who had died too soon. His mind was as battered as his body and he found his thoughts jumbled, unable to comprehend that he was alive and intact, and he moved like one of the undead as he made his way out of the safe haven of the tree he had survived the storm in.

The world as he had known it before the storm, with tall pines and plush grass and a sturdy old home, had been utterly destroyed. Sixty- foot pines now lay on the ground as if a giant had begun a game of pick-me-up sticks. Wooden planks that had once made up a good man's home had been tossed into the now thinned out forest behind the concrete slab. Curtains, blankets, towels had all been scattered to the winds. And two good men were somewhere amidst the carnage!

The Southerner collapsed at the foot of the tree, his legs giving out as he slid unceremoniously to the mucky ground. He knew he had to go in search of both men but he truly didn't want to face that glaring reality just yet. The devastation that surrounded him was enough to wilt the strongest of resolves and he discovered tears rolling unbidden down his dirt and salt encrusted cheeks. 'What a waste!' he thought as he pondered on the life all around him that had been lost due to the powerful forces of Nature. He looked up at the blue sky and puffy white clouds and for just a brief second, he forgot the damage that lay all around him. Taking in a deep breath of the fish and salt infested air, he levered himself up off the ground and made his way towards the largest pile of debris.

Carefully, he began pulling boards, clothing, pots and pans, from the pile. It was a strange conglomeration of natural and man made items that he searched through. He was so tired, but he wasn't about to give up until he at least found Buck. He might not be able to do anything for his friend other than supply a body for burial but it seemed important that he do at least that. As he moved a cushion from the sofa that Buck had been lying on, he spotted a bare foot. It was already greyish from lack of life sustaining blood. He knew that the rest of the man wouldn't appear any better. Hesitantly, he removed the kitchen sink from the part of the pile where he assumed the body was. As he pulled a piece of plywood away, he found what he had been seeking.

"This shouldn't be. I am so very sorry, Carl." He leaned over and pulled the body of Carl Dedeaux from the pile of broken objects. It appeared the man had been dead for some time. 'Probably died right away with the first wave. I doubt he suffered much. Not like Buck.'he thought as he carried the body of the old man across the muddy lawn. Solemnly, he placed Carl in the shade of a tree that still remained upright. Ezra reached up and closed the man's eyes. Standing, he took a moment of silence to thank the man for his generosity.

Turning, he heard a noise and for a split second he hoped it was Buck. Locating the source of the noise, he watched with some relief as Carl's best buddy, Boots, made his way down from the tree he had been hiding in. The cat crossed over to the body of his caretaker and rubbed up against the still form. Ezra leaned over and picked up the bedraggled feline.

"He won't be calling for you anymore, Boots. I guess you'll have to stick with me now." He soothed the cat by petting him slowly from head to tail. Boots purred his thanks.

For two hours, Ezra continued searching through the debris. He was determined not to give up but his strength was waning. He had just kicked a frying pan out of his way and stopped to wipe away the sweat from his face when he looked up. His heart raced as he moved in a trance towards the very back of Carl' s property.

There, hanging crucified to a immense pile of broken wood and tree sections was the body of Buck Wilmington. His right arm was still tied to the tree half, which had come to rest twenty foot up the pile. His left arm was stretched out to the side, held in place by a nail sticking out of a shattered board. A sheet from the house covered the lower half of his motionless body and a couple of shingles hid his face. His shirt was hanging in tatters from his body and blood covered most of his chest and stomach.

"Oh God, oh my God, what did I do?" The Southerner sobbed, falling slowly to his knees.

Part 11

The mighty storm headed north, leaving the Gulf coast behind to endure and mourn. The hurricane had taken over two thousand lives and had destroyed all that it could. The survivors, the ones who had stayed and the ones who had evacuated, were left to figure out how to carry on.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra slowly made his way up the treacherous pile of wreckage. He felt as if he was moving in slow motion as he climbed over a toilet, his hand grabbing a stuffed chair from the living room. It could have been the one he was sitting in when the waves began. He tried to keep his eyes on the task at hand but his gaze kept rising to the object of his quest. Buck hadn't moved but he continued to bleed and the Southerner took that as a good sign.

'A good sign, yeah right'Ezra thought to himself. His friend wouldn't be in this predicament if he hadn't come up with the brilliant idea of tying his friend to a thousand pound weight. Buck might be all right now if he had been able to swim away from the rubble that he was now part of. "Buck, if you can hear me, you hang in there. I' ll get you down from there and get you to a hospital. I promise I will, so don't you let me down." He reached up and grabbed a piece of Carl's roof, pulling himself up a few foot more.

Finally, he was beside his friend. The undercover specialist raised trembling fingers and touched the warm flesh of his comrade. Hope sprung in his heart as he pressed on the carotid artery and found a weak pulse. With renewed strength, he set to work. First, he ascertained that the battered body was inclined on the rubble, so that Buck rested loosely against a slab of drywall. Ezra noted to himself that neither arm held his friend's weight. He had found and held onto a butcher's knife earlier while searching through the debris, which he now used to cut away his tie that held Buck's arm hostage. The arm slipped limply down the rubble, coming to rest by Buck's side. Ezra could tell by the swelling that the arm was broken in at least one place, probably two or more.

Crawling a little closer, he pulled away the shingles that covered the big man's face. Ezra felt sick to his stomach as he got his first view of the damage done to the handsome face. Blood was beginning to congeal near the six - inch laceration that began by Buck's left eye and ran down to the corner of his mouth. The skin flapped open revealing a horrific sight of tissue, muscle and bone. The area around the severe cut was turning black and deep purple. The eyelid was swollen making it impossible to open the eye even if Buck had wanted to. Another laceration crossed his forehead. It didn't seem as deep and had stopped bleeding. There was also a jagged gash just above the left ear, crossing halfway across his cheek.

Knowing there was nothing he could do at the moment in the way of first aid, Ezra continued down the body. The blood that he had seen flowing down Buck's chest, assuring him the scoundrel was still alive, came from a deep laceration near the collarbone. It too gaped open, revealing the mud and plant material inside. By the way it was still bleeding, Standish feared that a blood vessel had been nicked. Bruising covered Buck's rib cage and Ezra could hear a slight wheezing sound as his friend struggled to pull in oxygen.

Finally, Ezra pulled the sheet off of Buck's abdomen and legs. He still had the waistband of his pants around his waist and his jockey shorts that were now a dark grey from the sludge. Buck's right leg was swollen and discolored, almost certainly shattered in the middle of the shin. Ezra speculated that it had been crushed by the toilet he had crawled over. He reached over Buck's body and released the left sleeve from the nail and the arm sank down to the rogue's side as the right had just minutes before.

Suddenly, Buck's body began to slide down the pile of debris. Ezra lunged to keep his friend from falling quickly to the ground, possibly injuring himself further. He got Buck's momentum stopped, but his mind went blank when he tried to figure out a safe way to get Buck down to the grass. After several frustrating minutes, he came upon a plan. Ripping the sheet into strips, he fashioned a rope and carefully tied it under Buck's arms. He lowered Buck a few feet, easing himself down next.

At long last, Buck's feet touched the ground and the unconscious man fell bonelessly the rest of the way. He moaned as his right arm caught up underneath him. Ezra scurried the rest of the way down and immediately took Buck into his arms, trying to cushion the man from the soggy, sludge covered ground.

"Buck, I'm truly sorry but it was the only way I could get you down. Can you hear me? Please, if you can, open your eyes," he pleaded with the big man. He needed to hear Buck's voice, to know that he wasn't hurt as bad as Ezra feared. The ladies man didn't respond, his body remained limp in Standish's arms. Ezra rocked his friend in his arms and wished to God that there was someone else in the area to aid him.

+ + + + + + +

Garret Daniels had learned to fly when he was fourteen years old. His father had been a pilot in World War II and he loved the fact that his son enjoyed the feeling of flight as much as he did. Garret had learned to fly in a small Cessna but when he went into the Marines, they taught him to fly helicopters. He loved the response of helicopters and now, that was all he flew.

Garret ran a small helicopter flight school near Pensacola, Florida. Several times in the past three years, he had been forced to evacuate his flying machines north because of hurricanes. This time, however, he had kept them all at home. Now that the storm was over, Garret was glad he had made that decision.

Tyler Simmons, a nationally recognized photographer, had sought out Garret that morning, hiring him quickly to fly him over the holocaust caused by the hurricane. The pilot was ecstatic to get a chance to work with the photojournalist , but as they flew low over Biloxi, he almost wished he hadn't taken the job. He was literally sick to his stomach.

Turning to the man beside him, he sighed and said, "I ain't never seen anything like this, even over in ' Nam. Damn, I'd swear a bomb went off over the whole area."

Clicking the shutter once again, Simmons had to agree. He had taken photos all over the world, had in fact covered the Tsunami that annihilated so many countries just months before. Somehow, when it happened in his home country, it was almost unbelievable. "Let's keep going, see if we can do any good by letting the country know just how bad it is down here. Just keep heading west."

They flew low over the remnants of destroyed towns, all wiped out by Mother Nature.

+ + + + + + +

The forty-foot boat came to rest on the rubble of a neighbor's house. It was leaning slightly but still provided some shelter from the wind and rain. Settling Marie in the area under the bow, the two men hunkered down.

Not believing he had fallen asleep, Vin awoke to a glorious dawn. Standing cautiously, he got his first good look at the total devastation that lay all around him. He swallowed back the whimper that threatened to escape him. However, he couldn't hold back the tear that slid silently down his cheek. He stood in complete awe of the power of Nature and how it could dash a man's hopes and dreams in mere hours.

Gathering his resolve, he reached down and woke Ben. He waited behind the older man while Ben looked for himself at the emptiness where his house no longer stood. The head of the Southeastern section of the ATF cried like a baby when it all started to sink in. His life and that of his wife would be changed forever. Wiping his face with his hands, he moved to awaken his wife of thirty-seven years. Both men held Marie as she stoically surveyed the neighborhood she had loved as much as her home. Not one of the twelve houses on her block had survived.

"Well," she said, "at least everyone in our family is still alive." Reaching across to grab Vin by the arm, she smiled. "That includes you, Vin."

He gave her a half smile, moving to find a safe way out of the boat. The two men made their way to the ground first, helping the heavy-set woman when they found purchase. They traversed the rubble as best they could and finally reached the main boulevard. There they found people stirring, some in shock, some injured, all trying to figure out what they were going to do next.

"If we can find a policeman, we can get him to radio dispatch and get a phone call out. At least you can let your boss know that you're okay." Ben held Marie's elbow and helped her over a stepladder that lay in their way.

"Look around you, Ben. Nobody's gettin' a phone call out of here for a long time." He thought back to yesterday when in a fit of anger he had thrown his cell phone across the lobby. "Wish I had my cell phone."

Marie smiled patiently. "Vin, Ben, we're alone here. We got to help each other and the first thing we need to do is find some water and food." Waving her hand at the dozens of people staggering around them, she added, " Look at all these people, they're all going to need supplies. So, I say we head towards the supermarket and hope that it' s still standing."

Both men had to agree with the woman's logic.

Part 12

As they got their first look at the damage caused by the hurricane, the four men of Team Seven all fought back tears. Arriving in Gulfport, Nathan drove slowly, navigating the Suburban around the large obstacles that blocked the highway. They had been forced to stop at three other roadblocks, but someway or another, they had talked their way through. The policemen who tried to stop them just didn't have the energy to deal with the Larabee glare.

Stopping behind a downed pine, Nathan sighed and turned the key in the ignition. This was the end of the line. Ahead of them lay an overturned cellular tower, its steel beams twisted and fragmented. "Guess we walk from here."

Chris got out and looked around him. Every building that he could see had some sort of damage. How in the world were they going to locate their three lost friends? Despair began to settle on his shoulders. "Let's see what we can do to help the survivors, Nate. Josiah, JD, spread out that way and see what you can do to lend a hand. Nathan, you and I will go this way."

"Aren't we gonna look for Buck and Vin and Ezra first? Isn't that why we came all the way down here?" JD's need to find his best friend and mentor overrode his sense of decency.

Josiah put a large hand on the young man's shoulder. "Take a good hard look around, boy. There' s nothing we can do for our lost brothers right now but pray for them. Some of these people we can help." Turning the youth down the road, he lead the way to where an older woman was sitting on a pile of rubble that had once been her home. Now there was only a slab of concrete.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra picked through pile after pile of debris, searching for anything that might aid him in taking care of his friend. Buck was lying in the skimpy shade provided by an oak tree that still stood. The cat was lying in the shade with him and somehow, that made it easier for Ezra to maintain his focus on going through the rubble. So far he had found a soaking wet blanket, two plastic bottles of water, a dented can of tuna, and one of the cushions from the couch. Everything else was in ruins.

Making his way back to Buck, Ezra tripped over a spray can of white paint. Picking it up, he shook it. It sounded full. He tucked it inside his shirt and continued on his way to Buck's side. The man had not yet woken, and Ezra could hear that his friend was having more trouble breathing. Ezra silently thanked Nathan for grilling all of Team Seven on basic first aid. He tilted Buck's head back, opening the airway.. Sitting down on the cushion beside the critically injured man, the Southerner draped the blanket over Buck' s bare legs. The big man shivered but made no other response.

"My goodness, it's hot. I am afraid that you are in shock. I wish.... there is nothing more I can do for you." Ezra twisted the cap off of one of the bottles of water and tipped it up to Buck's dry lips. Water slid down Buck's chin, a slight amount making its way inside his mouth.

The sight of the massive laceration one his friend's cheek upset the undercover specialist more than the other injuries he had found on Buck's body. At least it had stopped bleeding. However, now the skin around the cut was turning a dark red. The swelling was a ffecting the whole left side of his face. Ezra poured a little of the water over the wound, hoping against hope that the water would wash away some of the impurities that were causing the infection. When Buck remained motionless, Ezra hauled himself up to his feet.

The Southerner made his way to where the house had been. The front yard had the least amount of debris and that was Ezra's goal. Taking the spray paint out, he shook it well and then removed the cap. Slowly he moved, painting the ground as he went. When he was done, he moved back to Buck's side and made himself as comfortable as possible. His reserve energy was depleted and he closed his eyes.

+ + + + + + +

Simmons had taken over one hundred photos and it was sweltering inside the glass cockpit in the afternoon sun. Both photographer and pilot were heartsick and weary. They were also running low on fuel.

"We should be heading back. We have just enough fuel to get us home." Garret spoke to his passenger over his headphones. He didn't want to look at the ground anymore. It was too unsettling.

Tyler was tired, he didn' t want to see anymore death and destruction, but he had a job to do. "Let' s go just a bit further. I want to see right where the eye came ashore. Do we have the time for that?"

Garret checked his gauges and nodded. He flew a little faster towards the NASA buffer zone. At least in that area decimated towns didn't barrage them as they flew over massive amounts of downed and leaning trees.

"Okay, Garret, swing back around. I' ve got what I want for today." Tyler focused his camera lens to take a picture of the decimated forest below him. "Holy shit! Garret, down there by the water, fly over that area again!"

Daniels turned his helicopter around and swooped low over the small piece of land that belonged to Carl Dedeaux. There, written in bright white paint was a cry for help. Bringing the helicopter around, he stopped and hovered right over the empty foundation. Simmons was looking out his side of the copter, trying to find the person who had written the message.

"There," he shouted, "under the tree."

Daniels set the helicopter gently down. Simmons was out instantly, running towards the lone tree and the two men lying under its depleted limbs. He knelt down beside the survivors and laid his fingers on the smaller man's neck. As he did so, the man's eyes snapped open. Tyler smiled at him.

"Thank you, thank you," was all Ezra could find to say.

Part 13

Nathan finished wrapping a bandage around the lacerated leg of a ten- year-old girl. She smiled shyly at him; he returned the smile, adding a pat on the top of her head. She giggled and moved to find her mother. The black medic stretched his back and scanned the area for his boss. He located Larabee near a small pile of rubble, standing beside an old woman who seemed to be directing the ATF agent's actions. Nathan ambled over to see what Chris was doing.

Arriving by Chris's side, he heard the woman having words with his boss. Despite the circumstances, Nathan had to hold back a chuckle. Evidently, Chris was pawing through the pile all wrong.

"Stop that, you're gonna break anythin' worth savin'! Careful now, there that's my favorite one," she exclaimed and reached out for the small doll that Chris had just uncovered. Chris handed it to the semi-grateful woman, then turned to Nathan and shook his head slightly.

"The last one was her favorite too. You done?"

"Yep. We should be movin' on. That is unless you want to go through the whole pile for her." Nathan grinned as he said it.

Chris glared at his black agent and then moved to stand in front of the woman. "Ma'am, I wish I could stay and help you find your whole collection but we are ATF agents and I really need to find a police officer. I hope you understand."

Mrs. Lillian Dawson tilted her head and quickly weighed her options. "My boy'll be here in just a lil'while. He told me to wait here for 'im and he's a good boy."

Chris leaned over to come face to face with the cantankerous lady. "Good, then he can help you in your quest. I'm sure your boy will be able to find all of your dolls."

"Ya know, if ya stick around, he might be able ta help ya'll." She waggled her finger and Chris moved in a little closer. "He does what I tell him ta do."

Chris had to smile. "I' m sure he does all he can for you, Ma'am. However, we need to be movin' on."

Lillian played her ace. "He's a policeman. He's got a radio."

Chris stood and glared down at the woman who he knew was dallying with him. Could he believe this southern con woman. His mind conjured up Maude Standish. Were all women of the South just as devious? He decided to risk it. "How soon will your son be coming back?"

"Said they were gonna give him a break at four. That's only another half hour," she smiled sweetly at the gruff federal agent. She knew her son was too busy to help her find her treasures. If she could hold on to these two men for another half hour, she might be able to recover most of the dolls she had been collecting her whole life.

This could be the break they needed or... she could be stringing them along. Chris decided to risk it. "All right, Ma'am, we'll stay and help around here until he comes by. We need to find my men, and soon. I sure hope he can help."

"He'll do all he can, I assure you. My name is Mrs. Dawson."

+ + + + + + +

The supermarket parking lot was full of people who were regrouping, greeting their neighbors, and worrying about where they were going to go next. All of them were looking for food and water. Some were angry, some in shock, some simply resigned to the loss of all they had worked so hard for.

Tanner sat with the Muellers. They were talking quietly about what their next move might be, Marie wanting to stay where they were, Ben wanting to make his way to his office. He still held files he had been working on in his left hand. Vin, however, thought only of the two men he had been assigned to protect. His heart was heavy, his throat constricted as he imagined what the previous night had been like for the friends that had been abducted and.... If they were dead, he kind of hoped they hadn't had to go through the hellish night the hurricane had spawned.

"How far is your office, Ben?" Vin needed to do something to take his mind off the loss he had suffered.

Mueller looked over at the young man. At least he still had his Marie and he knew his kids and grandkids were safe. His heart went out to Tanner. "Marie, you stay right here with Jane and Colleen. Vin and I are gonna go to the Federal building."

"But that's over three miles away from here! It's so hot, Ben, and you don't have to go!" She was scared, for herself, but more for her husband. He was so tired and he hadn't had anything to eat today. The water they had tried to save in the cooler had slid off the roof shortly after they had moved up there. After the storm was over, they had looked for the cooler but it was nowhere to be found .

"Marie, I can't just sit here. You wait with your friends, hopefully someone will come by and you can get us some food and water. That's your job. Mine is to get these files to the office and see if I can help with securing the area. Vin needs to find his friends, Sweetheart, and we can't do it from this parking lot." He gave his wife a look that she knew meant 'the discussion was over'.

Gulping back her next argument, she nodded her consent. "Vin, take care of him, for me, okay?"

"Thank you for everything, Marie, just in case I don't see you again. I' ll get him to the federal building, I promise." He leaned in and gave the woman a chaste kiss on her cheek. The two men waved as they took off.

+ + + + + + +

Tyler Simmons instinctively knew that the mustached man was in bad shape. He had seen death before and this man was close. He and Daniels had to do something quick. He glanced back at the helicopter and saw that Garret was already unloading all that he could from the small aircraft.

"I need to get him some help." The plea was barely more than a whisper but Simmons felt it deep in his soul.

Returning his gaze to Ezra, he said, "We're gonna do all we can for him, okay? He needs to be in a hospital and I don't know which ones are still functional in this area. Let's see if we can't get him in the bird and find a doctor. By the way, my name's Tyler." He extended his hand to the man determined to keep his friend alive .

"Ezra Standish, ATF agent. This is Buck Wilmington, also ATF." The tears that he had held back now flowed unbridled down his cheeks.

Simmons tried to lighten the man's load. "ATF, huh? You're a long ways out here, Ezra." He took the wrist of the unconscious man in his and felt for a pulse. It was weak and thready, but it was there.

Ezra sucked in a shaky breath and went along with the inane conversation. "We were shot and abducted and left out in the forest to die. Because of this man and the owner of this house, we managed to survive. I will not lose him now."

"No, we sure don't want that. I'm gonna go find something to move him on. That guy over there, he's one fine pilot and I'm sure he'll be able to get you both to a hospital. Now, you hold on for just a few more minutes." With that, the photographer left, heading towards the helicopter. When he got there, he saw that the pilot had already removed all of his camera gear and the large cooler they had loaded with water before leaving Pensacola.

"You got room for both of them?" he asked, looking behind the two seats of the aircraft.

"Yeah, I think they'll fit, but..." Garret looked at the man who he had come to respect today.

"Yeah, I know. Give me a hand finding a board or door or something to use as a stretcher. You will leave me some of that water, right?"

Garret smiled. "All but three bottles. I'll be back for you as soon as I can but it might not be until the morning."

"Understood. Let' s get with it, the one ain't far from the Reaper's door."

Together the three men loaded Buck's still body in the back of the small helicopter. The scoundrel had moaned some when he was lifted onto a broken door but he didn't regain consciousness. Ezra climbed stiffly into the passenger seat. He placed the headset on and then turned tear-filled eyes on the photojournalist.

"I can't thank you enough. Be safe," he called out over the roar of the rotors. "By the way, if you can save the cat, I'd be grateful."

Tyler smiled and nodded. He watched the helicopter whirl away from him, heading for Florida.

Part 14

It took Vin and Ben the better part of the afternoon to reach his office in the Federal Building. They had stopped frequently, sitting in the shade, trying to conserve energy. Vin could see that the older man was having a tough time, but Ben insisted he could make it.

When they finally arrived, they found the exterior of the building had been damaged and the first floor had flooded but the structure was still sound. They made their way inside and through the sludge that covered the lobby. The stair well was dark but together they made their way to the third floor and then to the offices of the Southeastern Regional ATF. Windows were blown out and most everything was wet but the office was basically still intact and Ben was elated. It was the first good news he'd had since learning that Vin's companions had gone missing. They took the large plastic water container from the dispenser and drank their fill. Ben put his files away and then they sat for a few minutes, trying to decide what to do next.

"Vin, I don't think I'll be able to assist you much further. I think you need to go to the police station which is just four blocks northwest from here. Hopefully, the local police can find some way for you to contact your boss and in a few days, they might be able to help you find your friends. I know it's hard to wait, but nobody's going to aid you in your search until the area is secured and people have food and water."

Begrudgingly, Vin had to agree. "I think I'll try for the P.D. Maybe I can help them out for awhile. What are you gonna do, Ben?"

"Make my way back to Marie. Should have just enough daylight to do that. Vin, I don't know what to say to you except thanks for all your help. I don't know that we would of made it through last night without you. And after I lost your friends, well, you didn't have to help at all."

Vin slapped his hand down on the other man's shoulder. "You and Marie saved my life. You've got nothin' to thank me for. It wasn't your fault that Buck and Ezra got snatched, hell, it wasn't even your agents'fault. So," he said as he stood to go, "You best get a move on. Give Marie a kiss for me, will ya?"

Ben stood also and sighed heavily. "Wish there was more that I could do. Good luck, Vin. Hope you find them alive and not in too bad a shape."

They went down the stairs together and then, with Ben's directions in mind, Vin left the older man and made his way to the Gulfport police station.

+ + + + + + +

"We got better things to do than help this old bat find her dolls," JD said with contempt. He was willing to put his search for Buck, Vin and Ezra on hold because of the circumstances but staying put and digging through rubble to find some old dolls, no, he wasn't going to go along with that.

Chris stood and stretched. He looked at his watch and made a decision. He walked over to Mrs. Dawson and gave her his best glare. "You been stringin' us along long enough. You got most of your precious dolls back and we're leavin'."

"Ya don't wanna do that," she reiterated. "My son will be here any second. He will help you.... just as you've helped me." She stood up from her perch on the stairs. "Thank you."

Chris was slightly taken aback by the woman's change in attitude. "You're welcome. But we do have to be leaving. Our friends aren't getting found this way."

As he spoke, the sound of a vehicle pulled everyone's attention. It was a Gulfport squad car and it came to a stop right in front of them. "See, I told ya' ll he was comin'." She walked to the car and greeted her son. Then she led him to where Chris and his three men waited.

"Jimmy, this is Special Agent Larabee of the ATF. And these are his men, Mr. Sanchez, Mr. Jackson, and Mr. Dunne. This is my son, Jimmy Dawson." She finished her introductions and then lead her son to the pile of dolls by the lonely staircase. "Look, sweetheart, they found almost all of them."

Jimmy turned after examining his mother's cherished collection and offered his hand to Chris and then the others. "Ma said I should assist you in a search for your men. Did I hear her right, you're with the ATF?"

"Yeah, out of Denver. I have three men down here on special assignment and we haven't heard from them since before the hurricane hit."

Jimmy took a deep breath and let it out in a whistle. "One of 'em named Vin?"

All four ATF agents surged forward. "Yeah, Vin Tanner. You know him?" JD burst out before the others could respond.

"Yep, took him from the hotel over to Ben Mueller's place. That was yesterday," he added. His face took on a grim appearance. "That was near the bay. And most of that area is gone."

The air of confidence escaped them like a burst balloon, all of them but Josiah. "Some people survived in that area though, right?"

"Yeah, they did. A lot of 'em are congregatin' by the Pass Market. Look, I can take ya'll to the station, get ya some food and water, then I'll take ya to the store. Maybe he' s there."

They all followed as the young officer took his mother by the arm and escorted her to his car.

"We've got our own vehicle and food. We'll follow you." Chris lead his men back to where the Suburban was parked and they wound their way through downed trees and houses, following the squad car to downtown Gulfport. They piled out in front of the police station and entered the building behind Jimmy Dawson.

Standing in front of the dispatch window stood Vin Tanner, dirty, smelly, but definitely alive and well.

In unison, all four men from Denver joyfully yelled, "Vin!"

Part 15

Garret radioed his base of operations and an ambulance was waiting for them when they set down. Buck and Ezra were whisked away to the Baptist Medical Center. Ezra watched as two nurses grabbed the gurney, wheeling Buck straight into an emergency room. He arrived in the cool, pristine waiting room just as four more people, two doctors and two nurses, rushed into the same ER room. Eventually, one of the nurses approached him.

"Come with me and we'll get you situated in another room. You look like you could use a little doctoring yourself," she chided as she took Ezra's arm and lead him to his own cubicle.

"I want to stay with him. He needs to know I'm still here with him," Ezra stammered out but it didn't take much force by Nurse Stanley to get him down on an exam table. Exhaustion had set in with a vengeance. Giving him a backless gown, she smiled at him as she closed the door. When she returned five minutes later with a clipboard and IV, Ezra was asleep.

He awoke with a start when a young intern placed an ice-cold stethoscope on his chest. "Where's Buck," he demanded as he tried to sit up.

"Whoa, settle down there," the doctor said as he held the Southerner down. "Let me finish here and I promise I'll take you to your friend, okay? You got yourself a nasty wound on your forehead and a lot of lacerations and contusions. You probably have a concussion, too. Has your vision been affected?"

Tiredly, Ezra sank back onto the table. He had almost forgotten about the bullet wound. "Some, yesterday, but it cleared up. Just a headache now."

"It looks like a bullet did this. Am I correct?" Doctor Marcetti shone a light into both of Ezra's eyes, making his headache worse. Ezra nodded.

"We need to let the police know about your wound. I think I saw a few of them out by admissions. You think you can stand?" The young doctor held his elbow as the ATF agent stood. "I'll put you in with your friend while I go find them. I believe he's going up to surgery soon, but you can stay with them until then."

Ezra nodded gratefully and let the doctor lead him to a larger room where Buck still rested. Looking at Buck's grey pallor, he turned to his escort. Choking back his emotions, he turned to the young doctor and quietly asked, "Will he live?"

"I'll have Dr. Mason come and talk with you. He did the prelim. Wait here." Dr. Marcetti left and Ezra moved to stand beside his fellow agent.

"Buck, I can't believe we made it. You did a fine job of taking care of me and I will be eternally grateful but you..." He bowed his head as emotions swept over him once again. "Buck, I'm afraid that you have a long ways to go. You have to be strong now, you have to hold on. They are going to take very good care of you and I'll be right here the whole time." He took Buck's hand in his own and squeezed. "Remember, I'm right here."

The door opened and a man of about forty with a receding hairline entered. He had on scrubs and a stethoscope hung around his neck. He held out his hand. "I'm Dr. Mason. You don't look much better than your friend. Here, sit." He pulled up a chair and Ezra sank gratefully into it.

"From what I' ve heard, you two went through quite an ordeal. It's a miracle both of you survived." He perched on the side of a sink counter. "So, I won't bullshit you. I know you're tired and in a lot of pain but you should know that Mr. Wilmington is in very critical condition. I'm not going to make any grandiose promises, okay? He has a lot of infections going along with some pretty serious injuries. Any one of the injuries by itself would probably not be life threatening but all together... How long has he been unconscious?"

"Since the hurricane took him. I found him this morning but he's never been aware. He's simply moaned a few times."

The doctor nodded and made a notation on his clipboard. "He has a major head trauma. We've taken a CT scan which shows swelling and slight bleeding. We'll keep observing him for any signs that it's worsening. His right arm is fractured in three places and his right leg has a complex fracture. Dr. Jordan will deal with those after we have him stabilized. The laceration to his cheek and the broken orbital bone will be Dr. Miller's job. He'll work on that after we repair a slow bleed in his liver. We also need to surgically repair the deep laceration near his clavicle. Then there's the bullet wound in his side. Infection has set in with a vengeance there, I'm afraid. He's lost a lot of blood. As you can see, we are infusing him with whole blood along with the strongest antibiotics we have."

Ezra started, realizing he had zoned out, only hearing the doctor's words. "He stands a chance though, even with all you have to repair?"

"Yes, definitely. Like I said, it's the infections we have to fight. Now, I think we' re ready to take him to surgery. It will take about five or six hours so once you are done with the police officers, please try to get some rest. I believe Nurse Stanley has a room ready for you." He moved towards the door. "We'll do everything we can for him."

Ezra nodded and returned to Buck's side. "Remember, I'm right here. You fight, you got that? You fight with all you have."

They wheeled Buck out of the room and two detectives from Pensacola Police Department accosted Ezra. They asked all the proper questions and Ezra answered as best he could. Evidently, while he was in his own cubicle, Garret Daniels had arrived at the hospital and had given the story that Ezra had shared with him while flying to Florida. The detectives were kind and understanding and said they would try to reach someone from the team for him .

Then they left and Ezra was escorted to the lobby to await his room. Reflectively, Ezra sat by himself in the lobby. His ruminating was interrupted by a soft friendly voice. "You look sad, mister. You want a Skittle?" A boy of about seven with white blonde hair and a very serious expression held out his hand containing the brightly colored candy.

"Thank you, kind sir." Ezra took one of the candies the boy offered.

The lad giggled at Ezra' s choice of wording. "What's your name?"

"Ezra, and what may I call you?"

"Brian. Does that hurt?" he asked pointing to the wound on Ezra's forehead.

The Southerner touched the spot gingerly. "Not too bad. What are you here for, Brian?"

"Ah, my sister fell off her bike and broke her arm. My mom's fightin' with the lady over there." He pointed to a young blonde woman who was deep in conversation with the administrator. "You got anybody with you?"

"My friend is in surgery right now. My other friends are probably worried sick as they have no idea where we are." He hadn't meant to say it out loud , but he had and he immediately felt bad for laying his problems on one so young.

Brian searched the man's face and saw only sadness. Hoping he could help the man, he held out a cell phone. "Here, its my sister' s." Seeing Ezra's hesitance, the boy added, "Go ahead, she calls on it all the time. She won't even know you used it."

Ezra reached for the cell phone, touching it as if it was gold. "Are you sure, Brian? Maybe we should wait and ask your mother."

"Nah, she's mad at Joanie right now. You don't want to go there." Brian pushed the phone into the man's hand.

Knowing he shouldn't, Ezra punched in the numbers he knew by heart. When it began to ring, he held his breath.

"Larabee." came the demanding voice of the leader of Team Seven.

"Chris, its Ezra." The sound of his friend's voice brought tears to his eyes. He waited breathlessly for Chris to say something else.

There was a moment of silence and then, "Where are you? Are you all right? Is Buck all right?" The blond's voice sh

wed his disbelief at having one of his lost friends on the line. "Ezra?"

Taking a deep breath of relief, he answered, "We're in Pensacola. At a hospital. Buck is in surgery, he's hurt and in critical condition but he's alive. Chris, I don't know where to find Vin."

"He's right here with us at the Gulfport P.D. You're both really okay?"

"Indubitably." Ezra started to laugh and he heard laughter returned on the other end. He then heard Chris yelling to the others and quickly thereafter, he heard the other voices that filled him with delight.

"Ezra, Buck's really all right?" JD's voice was filled with his youthful exuberance.

Reality struck. What could he say to Buck's best friend? Knowing he was raising the lad's hopes, he answered guiltily, "JD, the doctors are doing all they can for him. They say that all his injuries are not in themselves life threatening." As quickly as possible, he changed tacks. "Can you make your way over here?"

"Yeah, yeah, we'll be over as soon as we can. Ezra, God, I'm glad you're okay!"

After delivering the hospital's information to Josiah, Ezra reluctantly handed the small phone back to the boy. Brian smiled up at his new friend.

Ezra gladly returned the smile. "Thank you so much, you can't imagine how much that meant to me." His smile exposed his shiny gold incisor.

"Yeah I can. It's all over your face. Whoops, here comes Mom. You take care." With that, the lad was gone. In his place stood Debbie Stanley with a wheelchair.

Part 16

Standish awoke and stretched languidly. Then reality hit! Sitting up, he frantically searched the room and found that not one, not two, but three of his teammates shared the room with him. Two of them were smiling at him, the other slept on the second bed in the room.

"Josiah, Nathan, is Vin all right?" His eyes searched the lanky form that was curled up on his side. There was no visible sign of injury but he couldn't see all of the Texan.

Josiah moved to stand beside Ezra, his hand coming to rest on the smaller man's back. Rubbing gently, he breathed a sigh of relief. "Vin is just exhausted, like you still are. You need to lay back and let us take care of both of you."

"Whose with Buck? Is he doing better?" Ezra was ready to take off and see for himself just how the ladies man was doing if they didn't answer him quickly. Thankfully, Nathan stepped forward and began a litany of Buck's problems.

"He's in intensive care and Chris and JD are with him. He has a broken arm and leg, which you probably knew. The two major lacerations have been cleaned out and hopefully the infection won't become life threatening. He has a gunshot wound in his side, that's infected enough to cause a high fever." Nathan paused. Already the black man could see the Southerner's body begin to sag. Nathan hated to continue but Ezra needed to know. "The internal injuries have been dealt with. He has a problem with his back, massive swelling has caused some paralysis. The doctor thinks that will go away when the swelling subsides. He has a broken jaw and a lot of swelling in his face which is causing some problems with his sight and speech." Once again Nathan stopped. The sadness in the man's gentle brown eyes was noticeable and it tore at Ezra's heart.

"Has he regained consciousness? I remember the doctor told me he had a concussion with some bleeding inside his skull. Has it worsened?" Ezra had promptly picked up on the fact that the medic had left that part out. The hesitation by the paramedic told the story and Standish sank lamentably back into the pillows, guilt and remorse weighing him down.

"No, he hasn't woke up yet, but Doctor Mason thinks its due to exhaustion and the fever as much as the head injury. Ezra, none of this is your fault. It's a miracle you got him here."

"I didn't do anything but make it harder for Buck to stay alive. I want to go see him. Would you please remove this IV before I remove it myself?"

Nathan sighed, knowing the undercover specialist would do just as he said. "I'll compromise with you, Standish. I'll unhook the line but the port stays in. You may want to get up now but you'll be back in bed before you know it. You aren't in the best shape, Ezra, you really do need to rest." The black man leaned over the bed and disconnected the line that led from the IV bag to the needle still inserted in Ezra's arm.

Just as Ezra swung his legs over the side of the bed to get up, the door opened and Chris walked in. "Where do you think you're going?" His voice was gravelly and acerbic, conveying the exhaustion he felt.

"Aren't you supposed to be with Mr. Wilmington?" Ezra snapped back, waiting for an explanation. He hoped Chris leaving his old friend's side meant he was getting better.

"They took him down for another CAT scan. JD went to get something to drink and I thought I'd check in with you and Vin. He still sleeping?" he asked, nodding towards the sharpshooter.

Before the others could answer, a voice came from the far bed. "Nah, not with all the jabberin' goin' on in here. Buck wake up yet?" Vin sat up and stretched his aching muscles. Turning his head, he inquired, "How you holdin' up, Slick?"

"I will be just fine as soon as I get out of here. I see no reason why I have to stay incarcerated in this bed." Buck was the one injured, not him. He was sure the room could be put to better use than to provide beds for the two uninjured hurricane victims.

"Standish, don't make a scene. They don't just automatically stick IVs in a person's arm and hold them overnight unless something is wrong with them." Chris switched his focus to his best friend. "Same goes for you."

"Dammit Chris, Ezra' s right. We don't need to be here. We need to be near Bucklin. So," He got up and made his way to the door. "Ya comin'?" Ezra was beside him, headed for the door before any of the others moved. Nathan and Chris gave each other an exasperated look, following the two out the door and down the hall to the elevators. Josiah caught up before the elevator arrived.

"Ya might want to cover your backside, Ezra." He handed the smaller man another hospital gown, which Ezra sheepishly put on backwards.

+ + + + + + +

The six men waited in the plush family room. It contained recliners, overstuffed sofas and two TVs as it was the room where family members awaited visiting hours. To the men of Team 7, it seemed like all the other dreary waiting rooms they had been in since the team had been formed. Against the doctor's, Nathan's and Chris's decrees, Ezra got himself released from the hospital. Vin was released at the same time, both men getting strict instructions to rest and see their primary physicians as soon as they got back to Colorado. As Nathan predicted, Ezra was still exhausted and weary. He gratefully took the recliner that JD gave up, dozing off and on. Vin lounged on the couch, telling JD for the fifth time all about his trials and tribulations during the storm. Chris and Josiah took turns pacing while Nathan kept an eye on all of his friends but one. Eventually, a cute little nurse came out the closed door that led to the ICU rooms and headed straight for the six men.

"It's not quite time for visitation. However, given the situation, Dr. Mason has given permission for two of you to stay with Buck." Then, noting the six men wanted more, she added, "Nothing has changed and we won't know about the CT scan for a couple of hours."

Ezra moved to go with her, then turned back, looking at Vin. Vin looked at Chris and then JD, seeking permission.

"Go," JD granted.

The two hurricane survivors followed Nancy Eberhart into the inner sanctum of ICU. She led them to Room 6 and ushered them in. "If you need anything, just press the call button."

Most of Buck's head and face were swathed in bandaging. His right eye and cheek were all that remained visible. His right arm and leg were in inflatable casts, awaiting permanent alignment and fiberglass casting. Several IVs were inserted into his left arm, one feeding in plasma and the other strong antibiotics. He also had leads for multiple monitors on him \endash pulse-oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure, ekg to registered brain waves, intubation, and a chest line. Vin moved to Buck's right. Ezra moved to his left. The Southerner took the limp hand in his and felt a tear slide down his cheek. "I tied his arm to the branch in front of him. When the tree split, he couldn't get away from it. That's why he's so busted up, Vin. It's my fault," Ezra exclaimed, his voice low, the guilt and pain evident.

Vin looked from Ezra to Buck and then back again. "If that ain't the biggest bunch a'hooey I ever heard! Just stop right there, Ez. You found him up above the water level, didn't you?" He waited until Standish nodded. "If he hadn't been tied to the tree, he might'a drowned. Seems to me, what with getting him down and spray paintin' the grass, ya probably saved his life."

It took several minutes but Ezra eventually smiled. "All right, we'll move away from the past and focus on the future. And, Buck, that future needs you in it."

+ + + + + + +

It was JD and Josiah in the room with Buck when the nurse came in with a plastic IV bag. Both recognized her as Nancy, the day shift nurse.

"I have a bag of magic," she proclaimed as she hung the bag from the pole attached to the bed. She detached the IV line from a similar bag and plugged it into the new bag. "Dr. Mason finally got the blood tests back and he came up with a perfect solution of antibiotics to help Buck. This should act pretty quickly to get the infections under control."

"I thought he was already getting antibiotics?" JD was perplexed. "You mean the stuff he's been getting was the wrong stuff? How could you do that to him?"

Josiah stepped in before Dunne had a chance to stick his foot in his mouth. "JD, there are all sorts of antibiotics, some are for general use and some are specific to the infection they are fighting. Until they do some thorough blood testing, they don't know what the exact contagion is. So, now they do and Buck's gonna get better. Got it?"

The youngest nodded and smiled tiredly at the nurse. "Sorry, Nancy, I just want him to be okay, ya know?"

"No problem JD. Hopefully we can get him feeling better by tomorrow so the other doctors can finish up what they're doing and we can get him out of ICU." She moved towards the door. "Can I get anything for either of you?"

Josiah glanced at JD who was already engrossed in talking to his best friend and mentor. "We're good, Nancy."

The magic took several hours to work. Ezra and Chris were with the ladies man when he started to come to. Buck slowly turned his head and then his hand came up and touched the intubation mouthpiece. Having been through this before, Chris quickly jumped up and grabbed the hand before Buck could pull on it. The leader of Team Seven smiled thankfully as he saw a blue eye blink slowly open.

"Hey there, Stud. "Bout time you woke up."

The eyelid closed again but as soon as it registered with Buck just where he was and whom he was with, he struggled, with everything he had left, to get the tube out of his throat. He had to know if Ezra was all right! He had to make Chris understand! His old friend knew exactly what he needed and motioned the other man in the room to come around the bed. "He's right here, Buck."

As soon as he could, Ezra grabbed the good hand and squeezed. "Buck, I'm right here, remember? I told you I'd be here for you. Easy, you need to relax, everything is just fine." The soothing tones in the familiar Southern accent immediately got through to the big man and he seemed to grin as he fell into a deep healing sleep.

Part 17

Three days later, six men stood together outside a hospital room, growing impatient.

Inside, Dr. Mason and Dr. Miller were examining their patient. Dr. Mason checked the newly casted arm. Dr. Miller had replaced the bandage that covered the deep laceration on Buck's face. The plastic surgeon then instructed the nurse to finish taping and both doctors made their way to the door. As the two men exited the room, the ATF agents surrounded them.

Dr. Mason spoke first. "He's got an excellent chance for a full recovery. We even got toe wiggles today. He's going to be here for quite a while and he's got a long recovery ahead of him but Mr. Wilmington is improving nicely. Dr. Miller, do you have anything to add?"

Dr. Miller was smiling at the pleased men. "Well, if I must say so myself, I did a fine job on that facial laceration. I don't expect any problem from the fracture, but his vision will probably be affected for a while. I think Dr. Jordan wants to set the leg later today since his fever seems under control. Anything else I can do for you?" Dr. Miller smiled at the pleased men.

"No, you've already made our day." Chris shook hands with the plastic surgeon while the others smiled and slapped both doctors on the back. When they moved on down the hall, all six men tumbled into Buck's room.

"Looks like you've got some company," the nurse said softly to her patient. "Gentlemen, please try to keep it down. He needs to rest." She glared briefly at each man, then smiled and made her way to the door.

Chris and Ezra made their way to the patient's side, where Buck could see them. His face, or what they could see of it, lit up at their arrival.

"He's not to talk, you got that, guys?" The nurse, Katy Whitworth, was adamant on that point. They all felt chastised, nodding as she exited.

Ezra was first to reach out to the big man lying in the bed. He placed his hand on Buck's shoulder. "We made it, Buck. We took everything she had to throw at us and we made it." Buck nodded gingerly.

Josiah laid his hand on Buck's left leg. "God was surely looking out for all three of you." They all nodded their agreement.

"Buck, when we get ya back home, I'll even bet Ezra that ya never want to be near water again, will ya?" JD planted himself in the recliner by Buck's bedside. He wasn't about to leave his roommate's side again for a very long time.

Nathan moved to where Buck could see him. "We sure are glad you and this Southern cuss made it. You need to rest now so we're gonna go but JD's gonna be right here with you. We' ll be back tonight." He smiled warmly at his friend, and then moved away.

Chris got himself in Buck's line of sight. Softly he said, "You, Vin and Ezra scared the shit out of us, out of me. Can't imagine Travis loaning out my men to anyone any time soon. Try to rest, I' ll be back in a little while."

Vin smiled down at the friend he thought he had lost. "Bucklin, we got us a gun runner to catch. Ben promised me he would get him no matter what. Then, you, Ez and I are gonna put his ass in prison." He squeezed Buck's hand and felt the scoundrel squeeze back.

Ezra acknowledged that the others were leaving but he turned back to Buck once again. "I'm right here. If you need anything."

Buck smiled and whispered, "Thanks."

+ + + + + + +

A month later, six men sat at their desks in the office on the sixth floor of the Denver Federal building. Ezra was attempting to type up a report on the latest raid Team Seven had just successfully completed. He was having trouble, however, as the youngest of them was telling the Texan of Buck's antics at their shared abode.

"And then, he asked me to bring him his little black book which is actually a large binder with like a thousand pages. The last thing he should be doing is calling his female companions. The doctor flat out told him to stay in bed and take his medicines. By the time I get home, he'll probably have a harem in the living room!"

As Vin and Josiah roared with laughter and Chris shook his head, Nathan glared at JD, and then moved to his desk to call their wounded comrade. Ezra couldn't help but laugh at his good friend's antics. Buck was back!

The elevator opened and a security guard from the lobby made his way into the bullpen. "I have two packages for Ezra Standish." The Southerner stood and took the large envelope and perforated box from the man. Opening the envelope first, Ezra gasped at the photographs he found inside.

"What' cha got, Ez?" Vin strolled over to stand behind the undercover specialist and looked over his shoulder. "Oh shit!"

"What are they, Ezra, photos of naked women?" JD moved to get a look.

Ezra carried the packet to the conference room and, liked the Pied Piper, was followed by all the others. He spread the professional photos of one Tyler Simmons, photojournalist, out on the table so all could see. He picked up one near the end of the stack. It was a picture of an empty concrete slab, a pile of debris, and a lone tree with the word "help" spray painted in the dead grass. In stunned disbelief, he promptly sat down on one of the chairs.

Chris entered with the other package held out before him. "I think this is for you too."

Ezra smiled as he realized what was in it.

Chris's ranch became the new home of Boots the cat.

The End