Snipe Hunt

by Sage

His head hurt. Well, to be honest, all of him hurt, but his head was probably the worst. He opened his eyes to take stock of his surroundings. Bars, that was the first thing he noticed. He was lying on his side, face pressed against a cold metal surface, staring at bars. He was in a cage.

He closed his eyes again and groaned. Why did things like this keep happening to him? He'd swear that he wasn't this much of a trouble magnet before he'd joined up with Larabee and his team. He levered himself into a sitting position. That was it. It must be Larabee's fault.

Pushing those thoughts away, he turned his attention once more to his surroundings. There wasn't much more to the room besides the cage he was in. It wasn't a very large space. Bare concrete lined the walls, and he had to wonder why there would be a cage in what was virtually a cell. There were no windows, and the door was merely a gaping hole in the wall that led to what looked like a forest. In the far corner there was what appeared to be a speaker. By the door was a small pile that might have been clothes, but he couldn't be sure.

He shivered, only a part of it from the cold. He had been stripped of his shirt so his only defense against the chill was his jeans, but they were old, faded, and ripped at the knees, so the protection they offered was limited.

His head hurt, probably from being knocked unconscious, but the pain had receded some, and was at a manageable level. As for the rest of him, from the new bruises on his lean torso he guessed that it was likely that whoever had put him here in this state hadn't been overly gentle.

So he was here, wherever here was, somewhat worse for the wear, stripped half naked and locked in a cage. Which left him with a lot of questions and almost no answers, top on the list were who, where, why, and did the guys know he needed help.

The last one was probably the most important, but as he thought about it, he began to remember the events leading up to his present incarceration. They had just gotten done with a major bust and Chris had given them the rest of the week off. It would be Monday before he was missed, or at least missed in a way that caused any concern. The last thing he remembered was getting his keys out to unlock the door to his apartment Thursday afternoon.

That gave someone a lot of time to… Well, whatever their plans were, he had no illusion that it would bode well for him.

"Ah, so you finally decided to join us Mr Tanner, so very good of you." Vin glanced quickly at the door, then focused on the speaker mounted on the wall. The voice that emanated from it was like poisoned sugar; there was nothing in the tone that suggested anything but pleasure that he was awake, and yet it sent shivers down his spine.

"I'm sure that you are wondering why it is you're here. Have you ever heard of a snipe hunt, Mr Tanner? I have such fond memories of them from my youth. We would all go out into the woods on my grandmother's property after dark and bang on the trees to get the snipe to come out. Unfortunately the very nature of a snipe hunt where we lived was such that there were never any snipe to find.

"On a whim, I decided to recreate the experience for myself and a few friends, but to go into the hunt knowing that there is no prey, well, it takes the fun out of things, don't you agree? So instead, I thought we could use one who sniped, a sniper, as it were. You, Mr Tanner."

A chill ran up Vin’s spine. They were going to hunt him down like an animal. He was going to end up a trophy on some sick, rich person's wall. And Chris would never know.

The voice continued oblivious, or more likely indifferent, to Vin's horror. "The rules of the game are as such: upon release, you will run, and an hour after sundown, we will come after you. The hunt will only take place after dark. If you reach civilization, you are free to go about your business in any way that you see fit. If we catch you, well, you can imagine, I'm sure. You will find some supplies by the door. Good luck, Mr Tanner."

There was a faint click as the speaker went dead, followed by a louder series of clicks and bangs as the lock on his cell was released automatically. Vin rose warily to his feet and approached the door to the cage, pushing gently. The door swung open and Vin exited quickly, moving to where he had seen the cloth earlier.

He found his shirt, thankfully a dark green that wouldn't stand out in the forest; his pocketknife; his watch, the one Chris had got him after their last camping trip with a compass on it; his keys; a coil of rope and a small satchel with some food and water in it.

The one thing that he had been carrying that was missing was his cell phone. It was the one thing that he would probably trade the rest to have, but it was no use crying over spilt milk. He had enough food and water to last him for three days, if he was careful, and he could last without any other rations to supplement that for at least two days more. By then someone would have missed him and would come looking. If he was still alive.

He gathered the supplies quickly, slipping into the shirt, putting the knife in his pocket, and the rope in the pack. He pulled his shoulder-length hair back from his face and tied it with a band he’d found in his pocket. A quick glance at the watch as he pulled it on told him that there were about two hours left 'til sunset, so he had a three-hour head start.

Once out in the open he surveyed his surroundings and was immensely glad to find some landmarks he recognized. He moved quickly, quietly, and confidently into the forest in a direction that would take him to Denver, but once out of sight of the small concrete structure, he changed direction and began to lay a series of confusing trails. There was no way that he would reach Denver in the three hours he'd been given, so he had to buy himself enough time to get through the night, and maybe he'd be able to get to the city the next day.

+ + + + + + +

"You think Vin's coming?"

There were a fair number of customers at the Saloon for a Thursday night. Still, Team Seven had no trouble procuring their usual table. The Saloon was, for all intents and purposes, a cop bar, and all of the patrons had a healthy respect for the ATF’s top team, so they never had a problem getting their "usual table". Ezra had begged off for the night, and Vin hadn’t shown up yet, but other than that the whole team was present.

"How the hell should I know, JD?" Buck replied distractedly, eyes tracking the progress of one pretty, Hispanic bartender as she made her way across the room. "You know how Vin is, he's probably off somewhere - what does Ezra call it? - communin' with nature. Ask Chris."

"Ask Chris what?" the blond inquired as he settled at the table with a beer, completely at ease with life and happy with his team's recent performance.

"Our young friend was wondering if our wayward sharpshooter would be joining us this evening, or if he has already succumbed to the call of the wild," Josiah summarized, managing, as only he could, to make the summary longer than the original conversation.

Larabee shrugged. "He said he might drop in for a beer, but I wouldn't count on it."

"After this case, that boy deserved to get away," Nathan asserted.

"You better not let Vin hear you calling him a 'boy'," JD giggled.

"I'm older than him, I'm allowed," Nathan replied levelly, though every man at the table knew that had Vin been there, Nathan would never have gotten away with such an act.

"So," a mischievous twinkle came into JD's eyes, "I can call Buck a tired old geezer, since he's older than me?"

"What?" Wilmington roared, tearing his attention off of Inez to focus a deadly stare at JD.

"Nathan said I could," the youth pleaded off.

"Now Buck," Nathan tried to appease the ladies' man when he turned on him, speaking in a soothing voice, "that isn't what I said. You know how JD is, he hears one thing, and thinks it means something all together different."

Buck's mustache twitched a little as he held off a grin. "Reckon that's the burden of youth. Someday the whelp will grow up and then he'll know better. And the first thing he'll have to do is get a decent hat," Buck teased good-naturedly, reaching over to knock JD's pride and joy, his newsboy hat, off his head.

"Hey," he complained. "There's nothin' wrong with my hat, and I'm not a whelp!"

"Sure kid," Buck laughed as he watched JD settle the cap onto his dark mop of hair again.

JD scowled at Buck. He sure wished Vin were here, then Buck would have someone else to pick on. "Wonder what Vin's doing now."

"If he's smart, he's keeping better company than I am," Buck laughed.

+ + + + + + +

Somewhere to the west of the city, Vin was crouched in the brush, waiting. Three hours had come and gone. Vin had used the time to lay a trail to mislead his pursuers; he hoped to make them think that he had no idea where he was going by heading in a southwest direction and away from the city. He then found a small river he could use to hide his actual trail from any dogs they might have, circled back, careful not to leave any signs, and returned to hide near the small shack he'd been in initially.

Vin wanted to see who exactly he was up against. He refused to fear a nameless, faceless entity. If he was going to be afraid, it was going to be of something that he could see; not knowing would just amplify the fear.

He didn't have long to wait. Three men came into view soon after Vin's three hours ran out. They were all older, and obviously of the "gentleman" class, dressed well in tailored hunting gear. Each carried a pistol of some sort, and one had a rifle. Three hounds yapped at their heels.

Of all three, only one of them looked to be a real threat. The man carrying the rifle was lean and fit where the other two had, to one degree or another, gone soft in age. Shorter than his companions, he nonetheless had a deadly air about him that the two others lacked, and there was something familiar about the hard features, but Vin couldn't place him.

The three men set off following the southwest trail that he had laid earlier, the two taller ones laughing among themselves; the other, the dangerous one, merely looked speculative, but followed along, as if content to be a part of the pack, for now. Vin knew that he'd have to watch out for that one.

When he was assured that they were all going to follow that trail Vin slipped away and headed towards Denver.

Though cutting northeast to Chris's ranch would be almost as fast, Vin decided to go directly to Denver. As inviting as the prospect was, he wasn't entirely sure that the ranch would be considered "civilization" or that he wanted to bring this danger that he suddenly found himself in down on his best friend. Of course, if Chris knew that he was thinking like that, the blond ATF leader would rip him a new one.

Vin knew that he'd never make it to Denver in just one night. The moon was good, but even so, traveling at night would be slower than in the day, and it would be dangerous to be moving around the woods with those three men out there too, more chance that he'd run in to one or more of them. What he needed to do was find a safe, defensible place to spend the night and hope that the hunters didn't find him and stuck to the rules they'd laid out for him. Cynical as it may have been, Vin couldn't quite see that happening. But then, better cynical than dead, he supposed.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra Standish sighed and relaxed back in his chair, a glass of wine in his hand, a good book lying open on his lap, and quiet euphony of classical music playing a soothing melody in the background.

Eyes closed, a smile graced his serene face. Most nights after the close of a big case would find him at Inez's Saloon, sharing a drink, and, more importantly, company with the six men that now made up his family. His mother would be appalled. Still, there were some times when he enjoyed a quiet night at home alone.

It hadn't always been this way; there had been a time when he never went out for drinks, never associated with his coworkers beyond what was strictly necessary. A time when he had been very alone.

His smile broadened when he thought about what had changed all that.

There had been a time, not all that long ago, that Ezra wouldn't have been caught dead associating with someone who wore flannel and talked like a backcountry hick, and yet it was one scruffy, semi-literate, drawling Texan who had dragged him out of his shell and made him a part of what he could honestly say was the best thing that had ever happened to him.

It was Vin, the apparent loner who had worked so adamantly at integrating him into their makeshift family when the others had all but given up on him, and it was Vin with his dogged determination who had eventually succeeded where all before him had failed.

Ezra would now say without reservation that Vin Tanner had become his best friend. He knew that Vin considered Chris his best friend, and probably always would, but there was an unspoken understanding between the sharpshooter and the undercover agent. Perhaps it was because, in spite of appearances, the two weren't that different after all, or perhaps it was some other reason, but whatever it was, Ezra owed Vin a greater debt than he'd ever be able to pay off. And for once in his life, Ezra could just be grateful with no thoughts of paying the Texan back, knowing as he did that Vin himself thought he had done nothing that merited paying back.

Vin Tanner was certainly a treasure among men.

+ + + + + + +

The night had passed uneventfully, and Vin thanked God for that. There had been something in the visage and bearing of the last man that worried him, something that told Vin that he hadn't gone for the false trail that Vin had lain, and was just going along with the others for the sport of it. Which was all well and good, what worried Vin was when they split up.

It didn't do to dwell on it now, Vin decided. What he needed to do now was get as close to the city as he could, without leaving any traces of his passage, preferably before the rain came.

And it was going to rain. The sky was slate grey, and the air was heavy with it. It was only a matter of time. While rain wouldn't aid his hunters, neither would it help him, and he didn't have the resources they had to stay dry, nor the advantage of not needing to worry about the trail he left in the wet ground.

Today was going to suck.

+ + + + + + +

Chris stared at the uniformly grey sky as he stood on his porch, half-full, lukewarm coffee cup cradled loosely in his hands. There was rain coming, and there was a hole that needed to be patched in his roof. Vin had promised to help him fix it, but Vin wasn't here and it needed to be done before the rain came.

By the look of the clouds, he'd probably have until just after lunch until the rain started and even then, it would more likely be a gentle, pervasive rain rather than a raging storm, but he still needed to get it fixed.

Chris was contemplating calling Vin and asking him if he wanted to come out and help, knowing full well he'd agree with no argument at all, and after they could just hang out, find a game or movie to watch. Yet knowing that Vin wouldn't refuse made Chris more hesitant to call. Sometimes his friend just needed his space, and, sensing that this was one of those times, Chris was reluctant to encroach upon it.

Chris came to a decision. It would be an arduous and tedious task to perform alone, but he could do it. Besides, Vin might very well turn up anyway, the Texan had an admirable and yet infuriating habit of doing just that. Was almost like the man knew when Chris wanted or needed him around, even when Chris didn’t know it himself.

Chris turned with a sigh and went back into the house to put the cup in the sink and get the materials he'd need to mend his roof.

+ + + + + + +

Cold and wet.

Wet and cold.

Vin's whole world had shrunk down to those two factors. Cold and wet. And, of course, hunted. Couldn't forget that one. He'd end up dead if he was careless enough to forget that.

The rain, which had started not long after midday, had stopped about half an hour ago. Not that that helped him now. He was still cold, he was still wet, it was getting dark, and he was a whole hell of a lot farther away from the city than he'd expected to be. It almost seemed like the closer he got, the further away the city seemed. The first night he'd been certain he could make it most of the way today, but now it was looking like he'd be lucky to make it much more than half way by the end of the night.

Vin was starting to feel the fatigue of several nights of missed sleep catching up to him, and he would have given anything to find someplace warm and almost dry to curl up in and go to sleep. He knew it wasn't likely though. He couldn't risk it, nor could he afford the time it would take. If one of the hunters were to come upon him while he was asleep and vulnerable, he'd be as good as dead.

No, he had to keep moving, there was no two ways around it. The sooner he got to the city, the sooner this would all be over. Then he could sleep.

The sun would be going down now, if there weren't clouds to obscure the sky, which meant that he had maybe an hour, if he was lucky, before the hunters came after him. They'd probably have dogs again, and Vin wondered whether or not they'd start out where they left off yesterday, namely in the wrong direction, or if what little good fortune he'd had so far would run out. Not that his fortune could really be called 'good' of late. He just hoped it would take them a while to catch up with where he was now, and hopefully by then he'd be far enough away for it not to matter.

For some reason, Vin didn't think he'd be even that lucky.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan Jackson was restless. It was rare for a Friday night to come when he had nothing to do and nowhere to go. If Rain wasn't home, he'd go out with one to all of the boys. And even if he did end up spending a quiet night at home alone, it was rare for him to be this agitated, quality time with a book was always time well spent.

But today he'd spent all day home, alone. Rain was pulling a double shift at the hospital and wouldn't be home until much later, and Nate hadn't talked to any of the guys since last night, nor had he made plans.

It was cabin fever, he decided. Being cooped up in an apartment all day doing odd choirs would do that to a man.

It was times like these that he knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he could never quit his job. No matter how infuriating his teammates, who seemed to have no regard for their health, were, no matter how terrifying each injury was, or how heartbreaking every convalescence, Nathan was not the kind of man who could be idle, who could sit around and do nothing, who could not help people in one form or another.

Maybe he should call one of the guys, just to do something. It was Friday night, so Buck was likely on a date, JD too, maybe. Josiah had mentioned helping at the homeless shelter this weekend. Ezra seemed to have taken himself off the radar, and Chris was … well, sometimes it just wasn't the best move to intrude on the dark leader's privacy. Unless you were one precocious Texan with no sense at all, and it was only by the grace of god that Vin could get away with being that indifferent without receiving some mortal injury.

Maybe he'd call Vin. Last he'd heard, the sharpshooter wasn't doing anything. Which didn't necessarily mean anything; Vin could as easily be doing something and not have told them about it as doing nothing. But, provided he wasn't injured, the Texan was usually good company, easy to get along with, and not liable to talk your ear off. For that you went to Ezra, JD or Buck, depending on what kind of talk you were looking for.

Nathan stared at the phone, contemplating his options, which basically consisted of whether or not he wanted to bother Vin if he was busy.

As if thinking about it made it a reality, the phone rang. Nathan grabbed it up, grateful of anything that broke up the monotony. "Hello?"

"Hey baby," Rain's laughter was music to Nathan's ears, "you busy?"

"Would you believe me if I said yes?"

Rain laughed. "No, I think you're sitting in the living room with nothing to do, bored out of your mind."

"I'm not sitting," he growled.

"Pacing then."

"I'm not pacing."

"I know you too well, love. You can't lie to me."

"So you just called to tease?"

"Nope, called to tell you that I'm comin' home."

"Really?" Nathan straightened up.

"Thought you might like that. Yeah, I got off early. I expect you to be ready when I get there."

"Ready for what?"

"Surprise me Cowboy," Rain purred provocatively.

Nathan grinned, "I think I can come up with something."

"Good, I'll be home soon. Love ya."

+ + + + + + +

Breathing echoed in his ears. Too loud, Vin chastised himself. Even the sounds of the night disappeared beneath the rhythmic intake and expellation of air.

The suspense, he suspected, would kill him long before the night was over.

Friday, it was only Friday night, no chance of anyone missing him until Monday at least, and Thursday seemed like forever ago. He wouldn't last another two days, not on the few uneasy hours of sleep he had gotten, or the meager rations that churned and sat heavy in his stomach but he knew he had to eat.

Morning was a long way away, and Monday even longer. And that was only if nothing went wrong.

Vin took a deep breath and held it for a few beats, listening to the world around him. When he let it back out, he tried to concentrate on hearing nature's peaceful song over his own harsh breathing and the sharp staccato of his heart.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah breathed in and savored the relative silence that had descended on the shelter. It was late, and all of tonight's boarders had settled down to sleep. Some of the staff were still moving around, but they did so almost noiselessly, and there were only a few of them, at that.

He loved moments like this, the feeling that he was doing God's work, touching people's lives, making a difference. Josiah knew he did much the same thing each day at work, but this was different somehow, more fulfilling in some ways. He ought to make more occasions to do this.

Josiah took a deep breath, closed his eyes, and savored the peace.

+ + + + + + +

Vin's peace had been shattered by the baying of a hound. What he had hoped to be a quiet night hidden away from the hunters had turned into a nightmare.

He raced through the night, knowing full well that he was leaving a trail that a blind man could have followed, and knowing too that he had no choice. His only chance at survival lay in this unchecked flight, if he could just avoid capture until the sun came up, he could rest then, move closer to the city and take time to find a better hiding spot before sunset.

If he could last until morning, an unknown eternity away.

It had happened suddenly. So quickly that Vin was fuzzy on the details, but one of the hunters, one of the soft, just-for-fun ones, had nearly literally stumbled upon him, and in the confusion, Vin had fled. Right into the Hunter, who had immediately given chase.

He didn't know how long he had been running; all concept of time had evaporated like mist in the golden sunlight. All that existed now was the heavy darkness that he wove, ducked and dodged through in a near futile effort to keep the hunters from his trail.

It wasn't working. Ever since he's had to break cover, he'd been hounded (and there was no longer any question in his mind as to where that particular expression had come from) by the blood thirsty barbarian. All he knew was morning was a long way off, and he was losing ground.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan was woken from a deep and contented sleep by the doorbell. It was the middle of the night, he told himself, he must be imagining things. Then it sounded again.

If it was one of the guys, he’d kill them. And if it was one of the idiots come to him because of some perverse fear of hospitals, he’d fix them up or take them to the hospital and then he’d kill them.

He maneuvered adeptly so as not to wake Rain up from where she lay sleeping against him on the couch.

Who the hell would show up at his door in the middle of the night…?

He jerked open the door.

“NATHAN!!!” The woman’s shrill and enthusiastic scream accomplished what his leaving had not.

A second later, there was a matching call from behind him. “SADIE!!!” Rain cried.

Nathan felt his scowl deepen. Of course, who else would show up at their door in the middle of the night? This was worse than he had imagined it might be.

+ + + + + + +

Vin held his breath as one of the hunters passed by, dog leading him on what would hopefully prove to be a wild goose chase that lasted all night. They seemed to be everywhere tonight. He would finally manage to lose one hunter just to pick up another a short time later.

He'd set another false trail, doubling back when, by supreme good fortune, he had reached a small stream. Now he was doing his best impression of Tarzan, moving, or not when the situation warranted, as best he could without touching the ground and thus leaving less of a scent trail. Or that was the hope anyway. It helped that he was in the forest, but these trees really weren't made for that kind of thing. It was a last ditch kind of effort at best, and only worked about half of the time. At the moment, he was relying on the natural impulse of human beings to not look up.

He only had to keep this up until dawn, he reminded himself, then he was off and running. Or as near to it as his tight, over-stressed muscles would allow. Just until dawn, and unless he was mistaken, the sky was beginning to lighten in the east. Unfortunately though, dawn always took longer to come than sunset.

The hunter moved on, and after waiting what he deemed to be a safe amount of time, so did Vin. It was slow going, made infinitely slower by the need for silence and to listen to and correctly interpret the noises of the forest.

Vin heard the silence before he heard the noise. Something or more likely someone was coming. The forest heralded their approach with a sudden, deafening silence. Vin froze. Unless he was extremely lucky, this would be another hunter. It took longer than it should have for him to hear the actual sounds of the approaching person, which worried him. Only one of his pursuers was that adept.

He shifted his weight and moved slowly until he was better hidden among the branches and leaves though his footing was more tenuous. Dawn was lightening the eastern sky and he could only hope that the sun would rise to an acceptable height before the hunter reached or saw him.

Vin had learned a thing or two about hope in his life though, and he knew better than to count on it. Unfortunately, there wasn't much else he could count on at that point.

He closed his eyes briefly, and if there really was some supreme being, he hoped against hope that it could hear him. God, I know we ain't always been on the best a' terms, but I could sure use a miracle 'bout now. Reckon I know you're there, and lookin' out fer me least part a' the time, else I never would a' hooked up with Chris an' the boys. So, if you could just get me through to mornin' I'd sure 'preciate it.

Vin's eyes opened, and he scanned the sky. It was graying in the east, but Vin knew from painful experience that sunset came much more quickly than sunrise.

The soft crunch of dead leaves and dried twigs accompanied by the quiet panting of a dog alerted him that he was no longer alone. He tensed and tried not to breath.

In less than half an hour, the sun would be well past up and Vin would be free and clear to make a break for Denver without worrying about whom was on his six, at least for a little while. In half an hour, he'd be home free.

He wasn't going to last that long.

His muscles were tensing almost painfully, his fingers were losing their grip, and his feet were slipping.

He tried. He tried desperately to stay in the tree, and then when it was clear that he wasn't going to be able to, he tried to maneuver his body so that he could land on his feet and take off running in the hopes that the hunter was a bad shot.

He failed at that too, and when he landed awkwardly on his side, he heard a crack in his shoulder that was accompanied by a sharp pain.

Through his pain, he heard the yelp of a dog, and felt teeth latch on to his forearm. Just firmly enough to restrain, barely breaking the skin.

Vin forced his eyes open and found himself staring up into the soulless eyes of the Devil himself. It chilled him to the core, and if he didn't know he was going to die, he would have been certain that that face would have haunted his dreams until he did die naturally. A gun was held level with his head.

"Human life is so fragile, don't you think," the Hunter mused. "A single bullet and it's gone forever. It's almost sad."

"Nobody's makin' ya pull that trigger," Vin shot back.

"You are an impressive man, Mr Tanner," the Hunter continued on, as if Vin hadn't said a word. "It has been a long time since anyone has lasted this long, or provided such an interesting chase. I will be disappointed when this game of ours comes to an end."

The Hunter pulled his gun, and turned, whistling to his dog as the sun peaked over the horizon.

Vin went limp with relief. It took a second for the Hunter's words to penetrate his mind in its semi-euphoric state. There had been others. And none of them had lasted. Vin wanted desperately to be sick when he realized that. Instead, he picked himself up and forced himself to push onwards. He had to make it to the city, for himself, for the boys, and for the others that had never made it.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra woke Saturday morning to the incessant ringing of his doorbell. He rolled his head so he could see his alarm clock. Upon seeing the time, he pulled the sheets over his head with a groan and focused on ignoring the unwanted annoyance. Whoever was at the door could rot in hell for all he cared; it was far too early.

The phone rang next. After three rings, the answering machine picked up, but at the message, he knew he was going to have to get up.

"Come on, Ez," Buck Wilmington's voice carried through the room, "we know you're in there. Get your lazy ass up and open the door."

When Ezra Standish descended to open the door to his friends, he was impeccably dressed and anyone who didn’t know him wouldn’t know that he’d just woken up. "Do you gentlemen have any idea what time it is?" he demanded, incensed.

"It's almost eleven, Ez," JD replied as Buck pushed past the Southerner into the town house.

"Won't you come in Mr Wilmington," Ezra remarked acerbically. JD grinned at the undercover agent, a little apologetically. "Why are the two of you here?" he asked, resigning himself to the inevitability of their presence and allowing JD to enter as well.

"The power's out in our apartment," Buck informed him distractedly, apparently scooping out the living room.

Ezra, taking note of the bags both men carried, felt a sinking sense of dread. "It is a gorgeous autumn day," he tried, "what necessitates the use of electricity?"

"There's a game on in a couple of hours," JD informed him, bouncing a little in excitement.

"And you've got the nicest pad," Buck put in, turning to give the unwilling host a thousand-watt smile.

"Joy," Ezra drawled as he watched the two men set up camp.

"Hey Ez," Buck called when they appeared finished, "think you could scare up some cards? I know you've got some here somewhere."

"Whatever for?"

"So we can play some poker while we wait. I may even let you beat me." Buck grinned.

"And what makes you think I would demean myself by partaking in a game with you?" Despite his words, the Southerner produced a deck.

Buck took the cards, grinned and began shuffling. "It's the only game in town." He wagged his eyebrows suggestively.

+ + + + + + +

Exhaustion slowed him, and Vin worried that it was making him too careless. He'd come too close before to a bullet in his brain, and he didn't want to repeat the experience, but the Hunter was good enough to track him even when he wasn't tired and sloppy.

It wasn't that he hadn't been in situations where he'd almost been shot. Hell, in his line of work, with his team, you could hardly avoid it, but with his team, it wasn't something that he really had to worry about. If Chris or one of the guys didn't stop the trigger from being pulled or couldn't take the hit for him, the way he would for any one of them, they were right there to rush him to the hospital and mother hen him to death until he was fully recovered and then some. It wouldn't be like that this time if the Hunter got him. There would be no hospital, no mother henning, and probably no answers for the guys.

He wasn't sure, given the state he was in, that he'd make it to Denver before sunset. He was just too tired and in too much pain to make good time. What he needed was a way to buy himself a little time. Vin knew he didn't need that much, just enough to make sure he wouldn't have to be looking over his shoulder the few hours it would take past sundown to get into the city proper.

His mind was working furiously as he pushed his fatigued body onward. Something from years ago and his Army training occurred to him and actually stopped him dead in his tracks.

He knew that would work, Vin reasoned; he'd seen it work, and by necessity it was easy to set up. All he needed was the right spot.

Vin set out again with a renewed energy in his step and a more watchful eye.

+ + + + + + +

The knock at his door startled Josiah and he glanced up from his book. He hadn't been expecting anyone. He was even more surprised to open the door to find Nathan standing there.

"Hey Josiah, you mind if I hang out here for a while?" Nathan was smiling, but there was a desperate gleam in his dark eyes.

"Not at all, brother, come on in." Josiah was never a man to turn away a friend, and he hadn't been doing anything that couldn't be interrupted. "I must admit though, I am curious to know what drives you out of the arms of your lovely wife this evening."

"Sadie," Nathan sighed as he collapsed onto Josiah's couch.


"Rain's college roommate," Nathan explained. "She showed up unannounced last night. Late last night,” he added significantly. “Rain's delighted to see her."

"I take it you don't much care for her," Josiah observed neutrally.

"She's awful, Josiah. She's got this voice that just grates on your nerves, and she's annoyingly cheerful all the time, and she expects everyone else to be too. I swear, if Rain has one fault, it's that she likes that… woman."

"Now brother," Josiah chided gently, amusement evident in his deep, soothing voice, "the Lord would have us love all of his creations."

"Well, this is one creation I prefer to love from afar," Nathan shot back. "She's staying for a week. With us, because we have a guest room and Rain wouldn't have it any other way.” Nathan sat, deflating at the thought. “I don't think I'll survive," he moaned

+ + + + + + +

Vin ran. Two and a half miles more, three at the most, and he'd be in Denver. No one would be able to dispute he'd reached civilization. It would be over.

Three miles, he did more than that on his daily run most mornings. Three miles, that was cake.

When he wasn't dead with exhaustion from three days of a sadistic game of cat and mouse, when he was well rested and fed, when he wasn't being pursued by a homicidal maniac, three miles was easy.

These were going to be the longest three miles he'd run in his entire life. Vin only hoped he'd finish them.

He didn't know if he was being pursued any more. His trap had worked, but not as well as it could have. The Hunter had fallen into it - a fact Vin derived immense pleasure from - but it hadn't killed him. The burn from the bullet graze along his right side reminded him of that with every breath he took.

Vin hoped that the Hunter had been unable to follow, and that one bullet had been his parting shot, the end of the game, but he knew better than to set much store by that hope. This man had proven a wily adversary, and Vin knew he couldn't truly expect to stop him very long without killing him.

Which was one reason it was disappointing that he hadn't managed to do just that. On the other hand, Vin could live without that burden on his conscience. Provided he lived.

So he ran. Every gasping breath drowned out any sound of possible pursuit, but every stride took him closer to the city, to safety, with any luck, to Chris.

+ + + + + + +

The phone rang, jerking Chris out of a dreamless sleep. He rolled his head so that he could see the clock. 1:49. Buck, at this hour it could only be Buck, and Larabee swore, as he pulled his body up so he could get to the phone, that if he had to bail Wilmington out of jail or pick him up at a bar, he was going to kill the man.

"Larabee," he growled into the receiver.

"C-Chris?" If Chris were just a bit more awake, he would have picked up on the slight hesitation and small tremor in the voice.

"Do you know what time it is Tanner?"

"Um - not really."

Chris sighed. And why the hell shouldn't Tanner be calling him in the middle of the night? "What do you want Vin?"

"I-I need … a ride."

Chris did pick up on the way Vin stumbled over his words this time. He sighed to himself again, what made Buck special anyway? "Where are you?"

"Um - sign says - uh - Maple I-I think. 's a little - deli 'cross the street."

Chris was familiar with the general area. "Jesus Christ Vin," he cursed. "You think you could have gotten any further away? You'd have done better calling Ezra."

"I - I'm sorry, I didn't - I'll call -” Vin's soft voice faded in and out, and Chris wondered if he was sober enough to manage a second call.

"That's all right, Vin,” he sighed, rubbing a hand over his face. “I'll come get you."

"I can -”

"I'll come get you," Chris growled, the words coming out a little harsher than he meant them to. He softened his voice as best he could. "You know how Ezra is when you get him up. Just stay where you are."

"Thanks Chris," Vin whispered before hanging up.

Chris put the phone down and lay still in bed for a moment. Tanner wouldn't be thanking him when he got done with him. Chris was going to make him pay for waking him up in the middle of the night because he was too drunk to drive.

+ + + + + + +

Chris found the deli on Maple without a lot of trouble, but Vin was nowhere in sight. He wondered if a drunk Vin would have wandered off or tried to get home another way. Chris realized, sitting in his idling truck, that he had never actually seen Vin drunk. The rest of them might get drunk when they went out, but usually Vin would still be nursing his first or second beer when the rest of the team was plastered. Chris wondered if maybe he wasn't missing something. The idea made him uneasy.

Before he could meditate on that thought, Vin came up out of nowhere and climbed into the cab.

"Jesus Christ, Vin, where the hell did you come from?" Chris swore, startled at the Texan's sudden appearance. He frowned, Vin didn't smell like alcohol, and Chris hadn't seen any bars on the quiet street; he also wondered if a drunk Vin would still possess the uncanny ability to move as silently as he just had.

"Jest drive Larabee," Vin commanded softly, ignoring Chris's question.

"If you think you can call me up in the middle of the night for a pick up in the middle of nowhere, and then not give me an explanation, you've got another thing coming Tanner," Chris stated, making no move to go anywhere.

Vin could appreciate Chris's position, but he was in no mood to deal with a temperamental Larabee. "You don't want to know Larabee, just get me outta here." All Vin wanted was to be able to lie down somewhere he knew was safe and sleep. When he woke up, a week later, he'd worry about eating and all the other pain he was in.

"Not until I get some answers," Chris persisted.

Vin took a deep, bracing breath, and let it out in a tired sigh. He just didn't have the energy to fight Chris on this right now. "I ain't ate 'r slept prop'r in three days. I don't particular care if'n you want answers, Cowboy."

Chris looked, really looked, at his friend then. Vin did appear to still be wearing the same cloths Chris had last seen him in, though they were quite a bit dirtier. His eyes were closed, and his head was resting against the glass of the window, but the Texan still seemed tense and on edge. His left arm was curled protectively around his abdomen, and there were several suspiciously dark spots near his wrist.

Chris's demeanor changed immediately, and he just about kicked himself for not noticing earlier. "We're stopping at the clinic on the way out to the ranch," he informed his passenger as he pulled out onto the road.

Vin didn't like that plan, specifically the clinic part, but he was too tired to protest, and he knew he'd need some kind of medical attention soon anyway. In his mind, the clinic was a long shot better than a real hospital.

That there was no argument from Vin scared Chris more than he wanted to think about. The Texan was notoriously stubborn about accepting medical assistance, if he wasn't even going to protest a stop at the twenty-four hour clinic… Something was very wrong.

Chris drove to the clinic with one eye on the road, and the other glued to his silent passenger. It would normally have been a half hour drive, but there was no traffic, and Chris pushed the speed limit, so they got there in under twenty minutes.

Vin was silent the entire ride, and though silence was a normal occurrence for the two men, this one was strained and tense. Chris got the feeling that if Vin were a guitar string, he'd be wound so tight he'd snap at the slightest pressure.

When they reached the clinic, Chris didn't bother to park, just pulled in to the emergency lane. He hovered, ready to lend a helping hand, but Vin got out of the truck on his own power.

In the harsh light of the clinic's entry way, Vin looked even worse. He was obviously exhausted, his face haggard planes and gaunt hollows. He was limping fairly well, and his left arm never moved. Even worse was the fairly large stain on his right side that - to Chris's experienced eye - could only be blood.

Chris wanted to know what had happened to his best friend, but he knew that would have to wait. Vin had already made it clear that the first things on his mind certainly weren't explaining to what he'd gotten himself in to. Instead, he channeled that energy and frustration into getting Vin the help he needed.

"I need a doctor here," he demanded of the first person he saw, all the while keeping a wary eye on Vin to make sure the sharpshooter didn't just collapse from exhaustion.

In no time flat, which was still longer than Chris would have liked, Vin was whisked away by a group of efficient looking nurses and Chris was left with nothing more to do than pace the waiting room floor and make a general nuisance of himself.

Forty-five minutes later - a far shorter wait than in a hospital, but longer than Chris comfortable with - a man in surgical scrubs emerged. "Mr Larabee, I presume?"

"That's me," Chris growled. The words were superfluous considering there were no other people in the room. "How's Vin?"

"Mr Tanner will be fine," the doctor informed the worried blond, motioning that he should follow him out of the waiting room. "He sustained numerous cuts and abrasions and is mildly dehydrated. He fractured his left clavicle and has what appears to be a dog bite on his right forearm."

The two of them came to a stop outside a curtained room where Vin was sitting on a bed, shirt off with a bandage wrapped around his abdomen.

"He also twisted his ankle, but most serious is the bullet graze on his right side."

Chris did a serious double take, tearing his attention from where it had been focused on Vin and staring intently at the doctor. Bullet graze?

The doctor continued, seemingly oblivious to Chris's surprise and subsequent scrutiny. "We cleaned all the wounds and bandaged the major ones. We put an IV in to combat the dehydration, and he's receiving antibiotics for the bite and the graze."

Chris turned to stare at his friend. Jesus, Cowboy, what the hell happened to you? "When can I take him home?"

"We're not actually equipped to treat patients for long periods of time, and his injuries are of a nature that he doesn’t need hospitalization," the doctor informed him. "We're preparing instructions on how to care for his wounds as well as a diet plan for the next few days. As long as he follows those, he should be able to avoid the hospital. So you can take him home as soon as those are ready and I give him his prescriptions and a sling. Just watch for infection, and don't hesitate to bring him back in if something doesn't seem right."

Chris nodded mutely and moved towards the younger man as the doctor disappeared from his perception.

"Hey Cowboy, you ready to blow this pop stand?"

Vin gave his friend a tired smile. Chris could see the lines of exhaustion that framed his face. "Gotta wait fer the doc ta get back."

Chris settled on the chair by the side of the bed, watching as Vin slowly struggled into his shirt. "You want to - "

"Not here Chris." Though it was almost a command, the blue eyes pleaded for understanding.

Vin was saved from any further pushing by the return of the doctor.

"Mr Tanner," the man greeted.

"Hey Doc, 'm I 'lowed ta go home now?" Chris couldn't help but notice that Vin's Texan drawl was more pronounced now when he was exhausted.

"You're free to go," the doctor informed him, "but I'd prefer that you weren't alone, at least for a day or two."

Vin gave him a small grin. "Don't reckon that'll happen fer a while if'n Larabee gets his way." Of course, after the past three days, Vin had no desire to be truly alone, and while that was certain to change, for a while, he would have no complaint to offer there.

The doctor nodded, apparently satisfied. "I've got some instructions here, how to take care of your injuries, what to eat, what you can and can't do at work for a while, and a few prescriptions."

"I'll take those," Chris broke in, and Vin was grateful. At this point, he didn't think he had the will or the energy to deal with any of it.

The doctor handed them over. "My number here is also on there. If you have any questions or concerns, feel free to call."

"Thanks doc," Vin said, and Chris nodded his gratitude as well.

+ + + + + + +

The rest of the ride to the ranch was quiet and uneventful. Upon entering the house, Vin immediately collapsed on the couch in a way that, to Chris's eye, couldn't be good for any of his injuries, least of all his shoulder. He brought his legs up and shifted a little to get comfortable, his head fell back, eyes closed and he looked for all the world like he wasn't planning on moving - ever.

"You know I've got a guest room," Chris said, amused.

"Too far away," Vin murmured. And too close to Chris's room. He'd already disturbed Chris's rest enough tonight, Vin didn't want to burden the man with any nightmares that were lurking in his subconscious - and there were sure to be a few.

Chris didn't say anything, and in the silence the exhausted Tanner drifted off to the first sound sleep he'd had in days, confident that Chris would be there to watch his back.

Chris watched him with concerned speculation. He still didn't know what had happened to his best friend, but they would have that talk tomorrow. For now it was enough that Vin was here and safe. The blond cowboy settled down in a nearby chair to guard his brother's sleep.