"Hey, kid!" Buck called across the ATF Team 7 bullpen, "It's lunchtime!"
JD pushed back from his desk and fixed Buck with a glare that would have given their boss, Chris Larabee, a run for his money. "And, your point is...?"
Buck looked surprised, rather than intimidated. "Well, my point is that someone has to go pick it up. How long will you be?"
"I don't suppose it matters to you that I've gone almost every other time we order out, right?" JD complained. "Go get it yourself."
"Hell, kid," Buck exclaimed, "you know you don't want me drivin' that bike of yours. The last time I was on one, I landed in a hospital bed." He scratched his head thoughtfully. "Not that that was so bad, I mean--"
"Yeah, yeah," JD groused. "That's where you met Nurses Candi, Brandi, Sally, Cathy, and Margarita. I know!"
"Don't forget Nurse Susanna," Buck said wistfully.
"How could I?" JD asked impatiently. "You keep reminding me that you've never had a better sponge bath before or since." Realizing that Buck would not budge on the lunch run issue, he sighed. "Fine, I'll go get the food. Where did we order from this time?"
"That's just great of ya to volunteer, JD!" Buck said enthusiastically as JD glared again. "Uh, the Chinese place at Fourteenth and Jackson."
"Right," JD replied, "back in twenty, then."
+ + + + + + +
"Hey," Buck said, opening the door to Chris' office, "Chris, Vin, JD should be back with lunch in a little...whoa!" He took in the looks of frustration, anger, and--was that fear?--on both men's faces. "Whose funeral did I just walk in on?"
"Maybe Vin's," Chris stated coldly. "Why the hell didn't you tell me about your problems as a Marshall?"
"Ya never asked," Vin replied with an ease Buck suspected was practiced. "'Sides, he wasn't a problem until now."
"Vin," Chris pinched the bridge of his nose in impatience. "How can we protect you unless we know about people like this?"
"I don't need your protection," Vin muttered. "Did just fine when he was givin' me hell back in Texas."
"Yeah, and from what Travis tells me," Chris chastised, "back in Texas, he nearly killed you!"
"Ya hit the nail on the head, Larabee."
Chris shook his head in exasperation. "What do you mean by that?"
Vin smirked, saying, "'Nearly'. Anyway, now the law knows that he's guilty and I'm not. Ya think I woulda been allowed to work here if there was any doubt?"
"Of course not, Vin!" Chris answered hurriedly. "Listen to me. I never thought you were at fault." He paused contemplatively, and then gave one of his predatory smiles. "Maybe for not blowing him away when you had the chance, yes, I know you had an opportunity, but you could never be guilty of what he did."
Buck cleared his throat, garnering a glare from Chris and a look of mild interest from Vin. "For the uninformed among us, just who are we talking about, and what sort of threat does he pose?"
Chris scowled at Vin. "Mr. Independent here," he gestured at the team's sniper, "has an uncanny knack for finding trouble."
"Heck," Buck smiled, "I already knew that about Junior. What else is new?"
"What's new," the scowl deepened, "is that the trouble he found in the U.S. Marshalls came in the form of a dirty partner. That man, Eli Joe, was suspected of murder, which Vin tried to prove. While he couldn't get enough evidence to take Marshall Joe to court, the man lost his job over the accusations."
"Let me guess," Buck said with a sigh. "He rode outta town, swearing vengeance on the man who ruined his life, etc., etc., right?"
"Well," Vin drawled, "he had a pickup truck, so it was more drove than rode, but, yeah, that's about it."
"And how does this concern us now?" Buck asked, even though he had a pretty good idea where this was going. Tales of revenge were all too familiar to the men of Team 7.
"One of Ezra's contacts told him about someone who arrived in Denver a week and a half ago, bragging that he would 'make Tanner pay for what he's done'." Chris looked toward Buck. "We've been trying to track him down before he gets to us, but he's completely below the radar. Either he's getting some very experienced help..."
"Or," Buck concluded, "he's using his expertise in tracking down fugitives to stay hidden until he's good an' ready to strike. Damn." Buck came fully into the office, closed the door, and sat in the one remaining chair in front of Chris' desk.
"That's what I've been thinkin', Bucklin," Vin said. Grinning, he pointed at their glowering leader. "He, on the other hand, has spent the last four days imaginin' painful ways ta bring Eli Joe down."
"Damn it, Vin, what else am I supposed to be thinking about?" Chris exploded. "Your choice in partners is terrible."
"What does that make you then, cowboy?" The sniper was incorrigible. Buck watched as Chris and Vin exchanged one of those spooky speaking-without-words looks, and then Vin replied, "No, ya ain't."
"Of course I'm your boss," Chris smirked, "why do you think I've got the private office?"
Vin glanced at the walls, his gaze tracing the corners as though measuring something. "This little thing?" he asked, smiling knowingly. "This place is just to keep your temper from affectin' the rest of us."
Chris growled. "Tanner!"
"Yep," Vin glanced at Buck for support, "there it is."
"Hey, leave me out of this," Buck said, spreading his hands in surrender. Deciding to change topics, Buck asked, "What's being done about all this, Chris?"
Chris glared once more at Vin before replying in a falsely serene voice. "Oh, nothing."
Buck's brow furrowed in consternation. "Nothing? How can you be doing nothing about a problem this big?"
"We talked about this already, Larabee," Vin said firmly. "I ain't puttin' the rest of the team in danger by bein' too hard to find. Movin' out to your ranch would just make him take somebody else. You really want him getting his hands on Ez, Nate, 'Siah, Buck or JD, while I'm safe out at your place? Didn't think so."
"And the alternative is what?" Chris prompted. "Would you rather he uses some of the kids in Purgatorio to get your attention?" The team leader asked, reminding Vin of his weak spot for the children of the bad neighborhood in which the sniper lived.
"He wouldn't," Vin mumbled at the carpet.
"Excuse me, I didn't quite hear that," Chris said.
"I said, 'he wouldn't'." The sniper locked gazes with his friend and leader. "Look, Chris, I know ya think this guy is the scum of the earth..."
"That's because he is!" Chris interrupted hotly, only to be stopped as Vin continued to speak.
"...but he does have a sort of messed up sense of honor," Vin explained. "One of the cases we worked was a guy who killed whole families. When we finally caught up with him, the bastard was using an eight-year-old girl as a shield. Seein' as she was being held up off the ground, I was getting ready to go for one of his knees. Eli took the head shot, and comforted the girl all the way back ta headquarters. Since she'd been made an orphan, Eli felt responsible. He pushed an' basically made himself a pain in the ass ta child services 'til she got counseling and the best foster family possible."
The room was silent as the remaining two men grudgingly, but silently, admitted that Eli Joe was not the personification of evil incarnate. "So," Vin said, smiling, "the worst that can happen is that Eli Joe will wait for me in my apartment. The kids won't ever be in danger, cause he ain't got it in him ta hurt kids."
"What about one of us?" Buck asked weakly, thinking of how he had just sent JD out for food. While the kid wasn't defenseless, he wasn't aware of the danger either. A white-hot anger boiled up in Buck instantaneously. "Where do you two get off not telling the rest of us about this for four whole days? If he's willing to use one of us against you, then we need some kind of plan! No one goes anywhere alone, and we always have our backup pieces, and we set up a phone tree so that we all know everybody's alright, and--what the hell are you two starin' at?"
Chris stared at Buck, face devoid of expression, and then said. "Is there something you want to tell us about?"
Flustered, the ladies man listed off the locations of their teammates. "Ez is down on eight makin' copies of something or other and Josiah and Nathan are arguing the value of a medical training course we all have to take, but..." Buck drew a deep breath, trying to convince himself that he wasn't having a panic attack, "I just sent JD out alone to get our lunch from that Chinese place."
"You did what?" Chris shouted, astonished.
"It's not like I knew there was danger, Chris!" Buck yelled back. Lowering his voice, Buck turned to Vin, a plea apparent in his tone. "Do ya think he'll be alright?"
Vin frowned, considering the problem. "It's hard ta say, Bucklin. I mean, he's hardly more than a kid himself, so maybe he'll fall inta the category that Eli would rather protect than use, but--"
"Yeah," Chris continued the thought, "but, he's the same age you were when you turned on Eli Joe."
+ + + + + + +
The former US Marshall watched from where he had parked his motorcycle in an alley across from the Denver Federal building, which housed, among other agencies, the ATF. One of the Seven, the Dunne kid, stepped out the front door, his face blank with the tedium of daily routine. 'They probably sent him to get lunch,' Eli Joe thought.
He observed John Dunne as the young agent walked to his motorbike parked a block away. It was a skinny blue and red contraption that had, perhaps a decade ago, seen better days. The oblivious agent kick-started the complaining bike, and pulled out onto the street, headed south. Eli Joe followed at a distance.
From what information he'd been able to glean about Team 7, Eli knew that John Dunne was not the ideal choice to draw Tanner out. Larabee was the one Tanner was close to, but Eli wasn't stupid. He knew Larabee would be too much for him to handle alone, and he didn't want any outside help involved. All outsiders did was complicate things and provide a trail that would lead back to him; he'd found enough fugitives that way to know better when it came to his personal vendetta. No, John Dunne would do just fine, Eli reassured himself. Besides, he smiled mirthlessly; Vin always did have a soft spot for the weak and helpless.
A loud scraping sound, followed by a bone-jarring crunch forced Eli Joe's attention back to his prey, only to find that the boy's bike was not visible. Pulling to the side of the road, Eli spotted the motorbike, crashed, and he looked back into traffic, searching for a vehicle with paint from the bike scratched off by the collision. After a few seconds of looking--there!--he took out a notepad and pencil, jotting down a description of the silver van that had sideswiped Tanner's teammate. If the kid died, at least Eli would have a lead on who to blame.
Speaking of the kid--Eli looked back to the crash site, finally seeing a bloody and twisted figure. Could that really be the same man he'd watched leave the Federal Building not ten minutes before? A passing figure stooped low over the kid, and Eli hunched over his motorcycle, not wanting to be seen by a Good Samaritan. However, when he realized the figure's purpose, a self-righteous rage enveloped him.
Grabbing his handgun out his shoulder holster, Eli strode angrily up behind the criminal, jamming the gun in the unfortunate man's back.
"Wha! Hey, man, what's your problem?" the thief asked in alarm.
"My problem?" Eli asked, almost laughing. "I don't have a problem, mister, but you do. Why don't you jist put that kid's wallet back and get out of here before I decide to waste a bullet on you?"
The terrified pickpocket dropped the wallet and ran. Eli chuckled, returning his gun to his shoulder holster; that had been almost as much fun as the time he and Vin had tracked down...Eli abruptly shut down that line of thought. He and Vin were no longer a team, the ungrateful bastard had tried to get him arrested for being too zealous in his work.
Another part of him, a decidedly smaller part, argued that Vin had been right to look for evidence in the shooting death of an innocent store clerk, but the larger part of him ignored the opinion. The store clerk had been far from innocent; he'd been harboring a fugitive, and was unwilling to part with the criminal's location. An accidental discharge on Eli Joe's part had brought the fugitive, a concerned older brother, running into the shop, guns blazing. In the end, both brothers were dead. Eli had taken the fugitive's weapon and shot from the correct angle into the exact place where his bullet had penetrated, hopefully confusing the Medical Examiner and throwing her off his scent.
The evidence had mostly cleared him. With a good story and a cool temperament, both of which he had in abundance, almost everyone believed him. If only Vin hadn't been able to see clear through him, if only the boy had known to leave well enough alone. The good guys had won, should the methods have really mattered? Evidently, to the kid, they had.
A weak groan snapped Eli out of his reverie. The kid, this kid, was coming to, and from the extent of his injuries, that probably wasn't a good thing. Before he knew what he was doing, Eli had knelt beside the hurt boy. Gently probing, he determined that no bones were broken. As for internal injuries...well, Eli was no doctor.
"Ow!" the Dunne kid exclaimed, prying open the eye that was not already swelling shut from a bruise. "Who are you?"
'Come on, Joe, this is your chance!' Eli tried to convince himself. 'Just grab the kid while he's still confused and hurt, take him back to the place you've arranged, call Tanner, and...' Eli found he could not.
"I'm a friend," he eventually said. "Now jist lie still 'til the ambulance gets here, okay?" Eli pulled out his cell phone, called in the hit-and-run's location, description of the vehicles involved, and gave a brief summary of John Dunne's condition. "What? Oh, sure...yes, ma'am, I kin wait with him 'til help gits here."
Dunne was blinking, as though trying to clear his vision. "I've seen you before, but I don't think we've met."
Eli recalled that this young man was the team's computer specialist. Dunne did everything from basic surveillance to advanced code cracking and computer hacking. 'Please don't recognize me!' Eli silently prayed.
"You're Eli Joe, aren't you?"
'Damn,' the former US Marshall thought vehemently, 'now I'll have to kill him before he tells the cops that I'm here.'
"Did you cause the accident?" the Dunne boy asked.
'Well, I guess we can rule out a concussion,' Eli thought wryly. "No," was all he said in reply.
John Dunne gazed at him appraisingly, nodded, and then looked as though he wished he had not moved. "I believe you, but why not?"
Eli heard the sirens. He scooped up Dunne's wallet from where the thief had dropped it, shoved it into the kid's hands, and stood, trying to guess how much time he had to do the deed and then escape.
"Mr. Joe?" from far below him on the pavement he heard the boy's voice. "Why didn't you? I mean, it would make sense, unless..." the eyes cleared completely with realization and fear as his mind skipped the last few logical steps. "Are you going to kill me now...you know, because I'm not...useful?"
Eli Joe looked down at the youthful face, younger in experience than his old partner had ever been, and yet there were similarities. The Dunne kid had the same longish hair, the same almost childish innocence, the same naivetÃ©, and he felt the old hatred rise up within him. A young man like this one had nearly brought about Eli's downfall; he would have had the evidence been more convincing. How dare he!--wait. Reason slowly prevailed. This young man was not Vin, only Vin should be punished for his betrayal.
Eli Joe saw the fear in the youth's eyes, and felt remorse that he had been the one to put it there. 'The boy is innocent,' he thought. "No," Eli Joe repeated. "You'll live, iffen the paramedics have anything ta say 'bout it." The sirens stopped, and Eli belatedly realized that the paramedics had arrived, but, as yet, no cops. Eli ran out to meet the paramedics, yelling that they'd better hurry, that the kid was getting worse...and then he jogged back to his motorcycle and disappeared into the crush of the lunch hour traffic.
+ + + + + + +
"Did I hear the dulcet tones of our indefatigable leader?" Ezra Standish said, leaning in the doorway of Chris' office. The fact that he had managed to open the door without anyone noticing was not surprising; Chris suspected that Vin and Ezra had worked together to plant the most recent of their practical jokes in his office, after all, he was sure he'd locked the door.
"Ez, I thought you were down on the eighth floor?" Buck asked in amazement.
"Much as I would like to claim that our infamous general is so full of certain heated elements of the gaseous persuasion as nitrogen, hydrogen, and a choice few others, that he can project his voice three floors, I will refrain from doing so."
"That's good, Standish," Chris growled, "because I would have to say, you're the last one who can accuse anyone else of being full of hot air."
"Mistah Larabee," Ezra said in mock bereavement, "I must protest this slander against mah good character..."
"Brothers," a deep voice asked from behind Ezra, causing him to jump in surprise, "is there trouble among the fold I should be made aware of?"
"Don't make me break out the first aid kit," Nathan's voice came from farther away; he was probably still at his desk. "I've got no problem using iodine tincture to clean up any injuries you inflict on each other."
Silence and winces met this statement, as every man present had, at one time or another, been subjected to the painful sterilizing procedure of which Nathan spoke. Finally, Chris spoke up.
"Everybody in my office, now!" He shook his head dispiritedly. In a lower voice, he said, "There's something Vin and I have to tell you about."
When Chris had brought everyone up to speed on the possible threat caused by Eli Joe's presence in Denver, there was a burst of sound. Additional questions, outraged comments, and general complaints about the invasion of one's privacy nearly drowned out the sound of Chris' cell phone ringing.
"What? He's where?" Chris held up a hand for relative silence. "Yes, we'll be right there. Thanks." He hung up, stood, and stalked out the door, five men at his heels. "JD's in the hospital, he was hit by a van."
Vin paled. "Was it Eli Joe?"
"Too soon to tell," Chris said tersely, "and Buck," he said more forcefully, "no finger pointing just yet, alright?"
With a great effort, Buck held back from accusing Vin of putting JD's life in danger. After all, each of the seven had their own demons, and it seemed that the one whose demon it was was rarely the one to face it.
+ + + + + + +
"Can we see him?" A man in black with a veritable army of men amassed behind him stormed into the hospital, demanding an answer of the rather intimidated nurse at the visitor's desk.
"I--that is--It would help if I knew who the patient is, sir." She managed to stutter out, despite the visitor's murderous expression.
"JD Dunne." The man in black said shortly. "He's with the ATF, and we're his teammates. We heard he'd been in an accident. Now, can we see him?"
Three minutes later, six men crowded around the bed their seventh was occupying.
"Kid?" Buck touched JD's shoulder gently, trying to wake him. Though the doctor had warned them that he was heavily sedated, the young agent sat bolt upright.
"Eli Joe!" JD looked around wildly, recognized the faces around him, and slumped back in relief. "He said he wasn't going to kill me, but I lost consciousness before I could be sure..."
"Did he cause the accident?" Buck asked his anger apparent.
Vin shrank away from the group, as though confirmation of this would mean condemnation of himself for his past.
"No." JD said quietly.
"Are you sure?" Buck was adamant. "Do you have a concussion?"
JD laughed; the joyful sound out of place in this depressing environment. "No, Buck, I don't have a concussion. It's the third of September, I'm in a hospital, George W. Bush is president, and my name is JD Dunne. Besides, Mr. Joe told me he hadn't caused the accident."
"And you believed him?" The ladies man was aghast.
Shrugging, JD replied. "Why not?"
"He's a killer, for one thing!" Buck exclaimed.
"Yeah," JD glanced around the room, looking steadily at each of his friends, "and which of us here is not?"
"You know what I mean. He's a murderer!" the ladies man was at a loss. Why did JD seem to be defending Eli Joe?
JD closed his eyes. "I'd like to talk to Chris and Vin for a moment. Would the rest of you please step outside? And before anyone complains: If I need absolution, I'll call for you, Josiah. Nate, I'm in a hospital, for Pete's sake; you don't have to worry. Buck, I need someone who's calmer right now. Ez...actually, there's really no reason for you to step outside except to run interference for Buck, and you do that so well." He slowly opened both eyes. "Please?"
Ez, Nate, and Josiah all chuckled at JD's candor. Between the three of them, Buck left the room without a significant display of anger. As soon as the door closed, JD related what had happened to Chris and Vin.
Vin gave a half-smile. "We might need 'Siah in here after all, cowboy," he looked to Chris, and then explained. "Eli always was a little, well, strange. I may not be the best person ta judge."
Chris sighed. "Explain to me, JD just why you believe he didn't cause your accident."
JD smiled wanly. "You mean, give you a reason to not go tearing through all of Denver trying to hunt this guy down?" Chris looked startled at JD's analysis. "Don't give me that, Chris; it's how you always are. Anyway, there are two reasons I don't think he caused the accident. One, he phoned in a description of the van, license, make, and model...everything. Why would he do that if the trail would lead back to him? Two, he was upset."
Shaking his head in confusion, Chris said, "About what?"
"About..." JD glanced at Vin, "about me not being stable enough to use as bait."
"Ya didn't tell us that he ever said that," Vin observed.
"That's because he didn't, but it was apparent in his hesitation and anger," JD said. "One time," his voice was little more than a whisper, "toward the end, when I realized he might need to kill me to get away...I asked if that was what he was going to do, and he looked, um, worse than you around that anniversary, Chris."
Silence blanketed the small room as everyone tried, extremely unsuccessfully, not to think about how Chris behaved around the anniversary of his family's deaths.
"I was sure he would kill me," The fear left JD's voice so quickly that Chris wondered whether he'd imagined it, "and the thing is... I was pretty sure Mr. Joe wouldn't have thought he was actually murdering me. It seemed like he was angry at Vin, and, if he couldn't kill Vin, then I would," JD swallowed, "be good enough until he could get at the genuine article." JD cleared his throat. "Then the ambulance showed up, and he just disappeared. I don't know what he would have done if they'd been any later getting there."
"So, let's work this through," Chris said. "You've already been targeted once, and the only reason his plan didn't work is because someone in this city almost killed you with their careless driving, right?" Vin agreed, although JD had some serious reservations about the 'almost killed' part. He knew he'd felt worse on a few occasions. "Vin, do you think JD's still in danger?"
Vin shrugged. "Probably. I'm guessin' that guy who tried ta lift your wallet kinda put things inta perspective for him. Chris, you remember what I said about his sense o' honor? I mean, sure, he was plannin' on takin' JD against his will, but as long as I followed his rules, JD would've been released. Seein' that guy, more ready ta steal from ya than check fer your pulse, probably brought up the one shred of decency he has left. Oh, and Chris, my first plan is still the best."
Larabee scowled and glared. "Is not."
Tanner grinned, "Is too."
Before the two could get into a shouting match only a kindergartner would pursue, JD spoke up. "Uh, guys? What plan are we talking about?"
Chris immediately said, "The one where Tanner sacrifices himself and hopes that Eli Joe won't come after the rest of us. Or hadn't you thought of that?"
Vin growled. "Eli's problem is with me. If I'm easier ta find, he'll settle the score an' leave ya'll be." He muttered, "Even if he won't leave ya'll alone, the six of ya kin look after each other and go after him if need be."
JD relaxed, the painkillers finally sinking in. He jokingly said, "You know what? The only option that will keep both of you happy is one that will drive Ez and Nate crazy."
The verbal combatants paused at JD's unlikely pairing of the most spoiled and the most practical agents in their brotherhood. Vin was the first to recover. "What option is that, JD?"
"Everybody moves out to the ranch. It draws him there, but keeps Vin safe."
Chris wanted to ask just how he was supposed to get Ezra and Nathan to agree with the plan; Standish would not want to abandon his high society lifestyle, and Nate would protest that, should any medical emergencies arise, they would be too far from the proper facilities, but the young agent had already fallen asleep.
"Ya know," Vin said, "it's better than either of our plans."
"Sure," Chris allowed, "but it's just as risky."
+ + + + + + +
"I thought that the best defense was a good offence, Mistah Larabee. In that case, would it not be wiser for me to remain at mah condo?"
"Shut up, and get in the house, Standish," Chris growled. "Your room is down the hall, third room on the left.
Ezra looked around the driveway, determining by the mix of vehicles that he was the last to arrive. Smirking, he asked, "Mistah Larabee, how did ah manage to get a more spacious room, considerin' I must be the final arrival?"
Chris glared, his concern over his team's safety making his expression almost deadly. Before he could answer, a shadow separated itself from a wall beyond the door.
"It ain't a good space, Ez," Vin replied. "Your room has the most windows."
"So?" Ezra was unperturbed. "I fail to see the problem with that as the windows are not facing east."
Rolling his eyes, Chris answered. "What Vin means is that your room is the least defensible from sniper fire."
An eyebrow climbed higher, Ezra's only sign of worry. "I did not see any sniper trainin' in the despicable Mistah Joe's file."
"Ya wouldn't," Vin said, not making eye contact.
Understanding dawned on Ezra Standish's face, "Please assure me you did not, Mistah Tanner."
Vin shrugged. "He was my partner, Ez. I've walked JD, Buck an' Chris through the basics. I do for anybody I trust that asks right."
Ezra shook his head. "Wonderful. May I enter before Mistah Tanner's alarmingly talented protÃ©gÃ© decides mah head is more aesthetically appealin' off of mah shoulders than on?"
+ + + + + + +
Watching from above and behind the house, Eli Joe chuckled at the fancy man's fear. He had a rifle with a sniper's scope attached laying nearby, but was currently using binoculars to magnify each arrival's face. His ability to read lips, something he had never shared with Tanner, might be useful in the days to come. He toyed with the idea of shooting the Southern agent, maybe ruffle the hair with a graze or take an ear, but he restrained himself. Injure any one of them too seriously, and they would traipse back into the city, where police were minutes away.
No, this location suited him far better. Of course, there was the problem of the five agents playing Secret Service surrounding Tanner--he did not think the Dunne boy would be up to leaping in front of any bullets just yet--but when given the choice of somehow drawing away five men or five thousand, it was no contest.
The front of the house would have been a far more entertaining option, had there been significant cover. Even with good concealment, Eli might still have chosen the wooded backyard, because Vin had always had an uncanny ability of detecting Eli Joe, and the former Marshall was not about to risk his freedom just to see what Tanner and Larabee were talking about.
Delicately placing the binoculars in a basket hanging from the branch above him, Eli picked up the rifle and stared at the back of the house. Through the kitchen window, he saw the old one stirring a pot. Dunne, Jackson, and Tanner all sat around the kitchen table. The Dunne boy tapped furiously away on a laptop computer, the black man nervously took inventory of his bandages and salves, and Tanner was grinning unrepentantly at something.
Probably no one else would recognize the slight half-smile on Tanner's lips as a sign of mischief and outright enjoyment, but Eli knew him well. The question was, just what was he staring at?
Eli followed Vin's gaze to...ah, there was the reason. The ladies man, Wilmington, was standing in the doorway of the kitchen, saying--
"I thought I smelled your five-alarm chili, Josiah." The dark-haired man poured himself a cup of coffee, took a sip, and then seemed to sneeze it out again. "Dang it, Vin, how many times do I have ta tell ya not ta make the coffee? I'm surprised I didn't catch it, though. Usually, I smell this stuff a mile away..."
Eli had liked the strength of Vin's coffee, in fact, he'd been the one to introduce the shy Texan to the stronger drink. 'I bet he hasn't admitted that to anyone,' Eli thought in amusement. He lost the conversation momentarily as someone cut Wilmington off. Quickly, he refocused, finding that Tanner had been the one to interrupt.
"--not true, Bucklin...Ya always fall for this. 'Sides, if ya don't like how it's made, get up before I do, an' make yerself a pot!"
Guessing that 'Bucklin' would need to have a response for this Eli shifted the rifle's sight in plenty of time to catch Wilmington's next speech.
"Vin, you know that's hardly possible! You're up before I ever want to be..."
The Dunne boy said something, but as his back was to the window, Eli could only guess what was said based on how the others reacted. Everyone present laughed, evidently at Wilmington's expense. Slightly red in the face, Wilmington continued.
"Well, Kid, if you had been the one with Candice that night, you probably would have overslept too!"
Thinking that this banter would probably continue until after dinner, Eli attached the rifle to the harness he had hanging from his branch and pulled out his own, considerably less tasty meal.
+ + + + + + +
In the office the next day, JD gingerly knocked on Chris' door. Even the slightest movement hurt, and walking was pure torture. A barked "Come in!" was the reply. JD opened the door, entered stiffly, and began to speak, but was stopped by a protest from Chris.
"JD, sit down before your legs give out."
Team 7's youngest member gave a surprised look; he thought he'd been concealing his pain adequately.
A derisive snort from Chris gave him an answer. "Kid, you've been out of the hospital less than forty-eight hours, and they only let you out early because we told them that Nate could look out for you. There's no way you should be up to any activity yet. I should know," Chris added in a conspiratorial whisper, "Buck can tell you, I took a nasty fall from a motorcycle during my junior year of college."
JD gaped. "You used to ride a motorcycle?" At Chris' amused expression, JD faltered. "Er--I mean--sure, I can see you having that phase...um..."
Chris chuckled. "It's alright, JD. I know I'm old and decrepit, and must have been growing up before the invention of the wheel, but you didn't come here to discuss my age, right?"
Smiling slightly, and extremely glad he had not offended his boss, JD nodded slowly. Every movement had to be slow lately; anything else caused the room to spin. He wondered if anyone had noticed. "I'd like your permission to bug the ranch," he said in a rush. "I mean, we don't know how this will turn out, and if...if...well, I'd like for there to be evidence, even if Mr. Joe isn't brought up on charges."
Chris watched JD intently. Finally, he said, "You mean, you want someone, like Assistant Director Travis to know what went wrong--if something does?"
JD's head snapped up quickly in shock, and he immediately had to close his eyes and cradle his spinning head in both hands to slow the room's clockwise motion. When nausea no longer threatened him, JD clarified. "I was thinking more along the lines of Casey, Nettie, Maude, Mary, Inez, Rain, and--well, any lady friend that Ez is keeping secret from us." He smiled weakly.
Chris looked as though he wished to argue that Mary was not his 'lady friend', but then seemed to think better of it. "Sure, JD, if it will make you feel more secure about this; go right ahead."
Smiling wider, JD said only, "Thanks," and then slowly stood and left the room.
Shaking his head sadly, Chris called out, "Nathan!"
A few moments later, it became evident that Nathan had seen JD's pained walk back to his desk, as evidenced by the surveillance expert's indignant yelp of, "Nate, I'm fine!"
"That's supposed to convince me?" Chris heard the team's medic say skeptically. "Come on, I'm checking your temperature, and then you're drinking some fluids. No, soda does not count. I'm talking about water or juice, okay? Mm-hmm. Alright, no fever...here, take this water bottle."
"Nate," said a particularly petulant voice, "I'm--"
"--not fine, believe me," Nate concluded. "Your accident is too recent for you to be taxing your strength..."
At that point, Chris tuned out the lecture, simply content that JD was, hopefully, listening.
+ + + + + + +
Eli Joe put the skeleton key he'd had made into the door's lock. The back door to the sprawling ranch-style house opened easily, and the alarm was quickly disabled with the code he'd seen Larabee use when he was preparing his house for company. Smiling, Eli visited a few places within the house, and then let himself back out, careful to rearm the security system and lock the door.
+ + + + + + +
JD looked down at the crate full of boxy structures he had assembled, and groaned.
"What's the matter, JD?" Nathan called, misinterpreting the noise as one of pain. What he really felt was frustration.
"Nothing," JD called, biting back an 'I'm fine' because he knew it would bring Nate running. Heaving the crate full of his creations off his desk, JD walked to his boss' door and entered without knocking.
"--do you mean, 'none of my damn business,' Agent Larabee? Of course I want to be informed of something like this. How am I supposed to make the legal angle easier if you keep me out of the loop?" Assistant Director Travis was well and truly angry.
"Well, sir," Chris tried to explain, "we weren't counting on needing--"
JD decided to intervene before Chris admitted to their vigilante agenda. Such a confession would, at the least, land them a new team leader. "Judge?" JD called. "I thought you'd want to see these, you know, approve of us bugging Chris' place. I'm sure we'd like your advice on this."
Momentarily distracted, AD 'Judge' Orrin Travis turned to survey the youngest agent's gizmos and gadgets. While he was examining the listening and broadcast devices, JD continued, pressing his advantage.
"I think what Chris was trying to tell you is that Josiah already did a profile on this Joe guy," JD said, his eyes meeting Chris' while the Assistant Director was distracted. "Considering my encounter with him, Josiah claims that Eli Joe has some kind of moral code. Vin's the only one he wants to kill. There's no telling how far he'll go to get at Vin, so we thought moving the battleground away from innocents would be wise. What do you think, sir?"
AD Travis gently returned the device he held to its resting place, considering what the young man had just said. "Why is this report not on my desk, Chris?"
Chris glared at his youngest team member. "What Agent Dunne failed to mention, sir, is that Josiah's 'profile' is more of an educated verbal opinion. If you want, I can have him document his findings."
AD Travis looked from Agent Larabee to Agent Dunne and back, trying to detect a lie. He sighed, showing his frustration. "No, Chris, that's alright. Just, try not to kill anyone."
"You know how we are, Travis," Chris said, his eyes hardening to two points of hell, "as soon as that bastard puts one of my men in his sights, all bets are off."
"Yes, unfortunately, I do know." Travis shook his head. "Look after yourselves, and deal with this as quickly as possible. I'll prepare the brass for some unpleasant questions."
What passed for a smile graced Larabee's lips. "Thank you, sir." The AD left and Chris turned his attention to the computer wiz. "Well, what do you have here?"
JD briefly outlined the devices' purpose. "So, two clicks mean all's clear, and three mean that Mr. Joe or some other threat is in the area. Once I get these set up in various rooms, the clicks will cause a light to come on in all other devices...you see the row of lights there? I'll have to play around with it a little, but the panic code will cause every device but the one pressed to light up one of those. It should give the room's location, just in case whoever's in the room with Mr. Joe can't broadcast. Broadcasting is done by pressing the round button on the side here, not the panic panel. Oh, and these will automatically make an audio recording of what's going on; that feature will activate as soon as I attach them to a wall. They're battery powered, just to be safe. Sorry I couldn't get visual, but I thought this would be less conspicuous that putting in cameras. Besides--"
"Take a breath, JD," Chris said, chuckling at the youth's enthusiasm, "I get the point, and you're right." The younger agent looked surprised. "If Eli Joe saw us putting in cameras, he might think twice about coming after Vin, and we want him to feel over-confident. Arrogant men make mistakes. Have you been taking lessons from Standish?" Chris asked, an amused smirk perforating his usually taciturn demeanor.
"Huh?" JD wondered aloud, "Oh...you mean how I talked to AD Travis. No, I just walked in, and it looked like if someone didn't interrupt you would talk yourself right into a suspension." JD ducked his head, embarrassed that he had exposed a lack of faith in his leader.
Chris snorted. "Thanks, Kid. I was pretty close to telling Travis off, wasn't I?" JD didn't answer, and Chris recognized that the kid didn't want to get in trouble. "Why don't you go tell the guys how these things work, okay? I'll be right out."
Nodding, JD grabbed the box and moved slowly back into the bullpen.
+ + + + + + +
Larabee sighed. "Okay, boys. Bring in the groceries before they get wet."
Someone behind Larabee must have said something, because Eli saw Larabee scowl. "No, Buck, you can't invite the twins over. You'll just have to put your love life on hold for a while."
A slighter figure, the Dunne kid, entered, saying, "Don't worry, Buck. I'm sure you won't have any problems. It's not like abstaining ever had any bad permanent consequences." Buck must have made a crass reply, because JD's face blushed. "I have so, Buck. Look, just because I don't have a different lady for every day of the week--" The boy turned back to chastise Wilmington, so Eli lost the rest of the sentence.
He watched as the rest of the Seven entered the house. They were so relaxed, so vulnerable. 'I thought you would have learned something from our prey, Vin,' Eli thought sadly. 'I'd hoped you would at least make this interesting for me.'
A few hours later, Eli was rethinking his less than complimentary opinion of Team Seven. The Dunne kid, with the help of Standish and Jackson, was installing several identical devices on a wall of each room in the ranch. Leaning against Jackson for support, Dunne even went out to the barn with one, and returned without it.
Eli shifted on his branch, uncomfortable in the rain, and quite aware of the multiple lighting strikes that had already fallen within mere miles of his location.
Back in the house, an argument was in full swing. Tanner was complaining about something to Larabee. Eli could only tell what Vin was saying, because Larabee's stiff back was turned to Eli.
"Dang it, Larabee, you know I hate bein' cooped up like this," the former US Marshall said. After his boss replied, Vin explained. "Look, I'm jist goin' ta check on th' horses. I don't need a damn babysitter fer that. Hell, the horses'll tell me somethin's wrong long before any of ya'll could--I..." His ex-partner listened to something Larabee was dictating and his face fell. "Aw hell, cowboy. Ya tryin' ta help me or do me in? Ya know he'll talk so much I'll never hear anybody comin'. Fine. Bucklin, let's go."
Eli smiled. The target was away from the house. He knew he could take the shot, but that would only bring the other six down on him. No, the solution he had arranged earlier was better. Eli waited for Wilmington and Tanner to enter the barn, and then he approached the house, crouching outside. The fun was about to begin.
+ + + + + + +
"Alright," Chris tried to calm himself. Rubbing the back of his neck, he could not shake the feeling that they were being watched. 'That's pure genius, cowboy,' he mentally scolded, 'of course you're being observed. Isn't that the whole point?' "Nate, how's JD doing?"
"You could always ask me!" JD's voice replied weakly from the couch.
"Would I get a straight answer?" Chris retorted. When none came, he redirected the question. "Nate?"
The medic shrugged his shoulders. "I'd like him to rest, the bed is probably more comfortable than the couch, so..."
"Right," Chris said, "no problem. Up you get, JD." Working together, he and Nathan carried JD to one of the guest bedrooms near the back of the house. When they had gotten JD settled, Chris caught Nathan's gaze. "You'll stay with him?"
"I don't need a babysitter," came an even weaker voice from the bed.
Both men scowled at the stubborn surveillance expert. "Sure," Nate answered. "I'd catch hell from Buck if anything happened to the kid."
"Ain't a kid," JD said, obviously losing the fight to remain conscious.
Chris looked over at the bed, a worried frown on his face.
"He'll be fine, Chris," Nathan assured the perplexed leader. "It's been a big day. He shouldn't even be walking around, yet he did a full day's work and almost single-handedly bugged the place. He's got a right to be exhausted. Don't worry."
Nodding, Chris headed back to where his remaining two agents waited for instructions. "Josiah, Ez, see what you can do about dinner," he said, taking great pleasure in the distraught look on Ezra's face. The southerner muttered something about 'menial labor', but Chris ignored him. "I'll be--what the hell?"
A small explosion sounded, followed by loss of power. Recognizing a possible attack, but recalling that the weather was acting up as well, Chris curtly ordered, "Josiah, there's a backup generator out back, beneath the bathroom window. Take Ezra with you."
"Where will you be, Mistah Larabee?" Ezra asked.
"Where I'm needed," Chris muttered, heading out the front door.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah shook his head in disgust at the still sparking mass of conduits and wires.
"Am I to assume from your expression, Mistah Sanchez that our electrical situation is not likely ta improve?"
"Loss of electricity is the least of your problems, boys," A soft Texas drawl said from the shadows of the house. "I suggest ya'll drop yer weapons." The glint of metal appeared in the next lightning strike, as did Eli Joe's profile. "That includes that pop-gun o' yours Mistah Standish." He referred to the backup piece Ezra always hid up his sleeve.
Eli Joe was careful, he watched both men with equal scrutiny, and stood far enough away to ensure they would not charge him, but close enough to ensure his handgun could not miss. After the men had divested themselves of all weapons, Eli Joe threw a pair of handcuffs to Standish. The smaller agent caught them easily, looks of disdain and hatred mingling on his face.
"If it ain't too much trouble," Eli Joe said with a smirk, "could ya cuff yer friend ta that pipe?" Standish stood his ground obstinately, and Eli sighed. "It's up to ya, Standish. I'm after Tanner, an' I mean ta get him, but that means goin' through ya'll first. Whether yer' incapacitation is permanent or temporary is your choice."
Standish glared, before securing his fellow agent in the manner instructed. "Very well, Mistah Joe." Standish stood and turned to face Eli. "May I inquire how you intend ta subdue m--" Standish crumpled from a blow to the back of his head.
Eli secured Standish similarly, cold cocking a glaring Sanchez before smashing in the bathroom window and climbing inside.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan heard glass shatter, and moved to the bedroom's doorway uncertainly. He was met with the cold stare of the man the team had been trying to draw out.
Eli gestured with the gun. "Back up inta the bedroom, nice an' slow," he paused, eyes quickly sweeping the area, sticking on the mysterious panel beside the bed, "an' stay well clear o' that panel, ya hear?"
Despite being outgunned, Nathan glared. "You leave JD alone. He can hardly stand, he's no threat..."
Smiling, Eli nodded once. "Ah know. Iffen ya want him ta be alright, yer gonna do jist what I say, understand?" He waited for an affirmative response before continuing. "Turn an' face that wall, doctor."
Jackson did as Eli told him, his fear for JD's safety paramount. 'Buck,' he thought, 'I'm sorry; I tried--'
After giving Jackson the same treatment as Standish and Sanchez, Eli handcuffed Jackson's hands behind him, certain that the man would not wake any time soon. He was turning to the bed, when movement startled him. Eli shrugged off the attack by the weakened young man. Aiming his gun at the Dunne kid's face, he was surprised when no fear entered the youth's expression. Instead, Eli faced a cold rage he had seen only in himself.
"Why didn't you leave?" the Dunne kid hissed; his rage palpable.
Eli's grip on the gun did not waver. "Could you have?" he returned. "Could you have jist let the bastard that ruined yer life walk away?"
The Dunne kid sneered. "Vin didn't ruin your life; you did that on your own. All he did was make sure you paid for your sins. Shooting the innocent brother of an escaped convict...that's just wrong. The guy wasn't even armed!"
"I don't hafta explain m'self ta you," Eli said, "I got the job done, which was more'n yer friend did. Now," Eli pulled back the hammer on his handgun. "How does that panel work?"
The Dunne kid smiled. At least, Eli thought it was a smile. It was freaky and kind of chilling. "Go ahead and kill me, Eli," Agent Dunne said, spreading his arms wide, "I'm not armed, and we know you've got plenty of practice at murdering unarmed men."
Eli felt his face twist with anger. "Ya know who else ain't armed?" The former US Marshal picked up the black medic with ease, putting the gun to the unconscious man's temple. "Tell me." He let the threat hang in the air, satisfied to see the first glimmerings of fear in the young agent's eyes. "Well?"
Agent Dunne's face contorted as he tried to come to grips with betraying one friend to save another. Finally, his features relaxed, and he said in a monotone. "Tap twice for a panic signal and three times for all clear. Whatever room it's activated in, everyone will know because a light starts blinking on the other sets. What do you want me to do?"
Eli snorted. "Do? Ya must really think I'm stupid, huh kid?" He let the medic slide to the floor and re-aimed his gun at Agent Dunne. "I'll work the panel myself. Cain't have ya 'accidentally' hittin' it two times instead of three." Agent Dunne glared, and Eli chuckled, thinking that he had caught the Dunne kid's scheme. "As fer you, stay put, an' you'll live through the night."
The steel-hard glare he received in response was far from reassuring. Moving to the head of the bed and keeping the gun steady, Eli Joe reached out and depressed the panel...once...twice...three times. A panicked voice came from the device; Eli Joe jumped a foot and had to concentrate on not mistakenly firing.
"JD? JD, are you alright? What's going on in there? JD?"
Eli glared at the Dunne kid. The boy had lied to him! "Tell him you're alright," Eli ordered quickly.
"Uh...this one doesn't broadcast..." The boy was clearly stalling for time.
Grabbing the black man again, Eli repeated his earlier gesture. "Well," he said coldly, "then ya better find a way ta make it broadcast real quick, boy. Convince them there ain't a problem." The kid reached for a button on the side of the device. "No, wait. Convince me."
Trembling, the Dunne kid nodded, then pressed the button. "Hey, Buck. Don't worry. Nate thought he heard something, but then we found out it was nothing, and he told me to send an all-clear, but I must have messed up. What did Chris decide was the all-clear signal, again?" Agent Dunne let up on the button, biting his lip nervously.
Wilmington's voice came through the speakers again. "Ya sure you're feeling alright, kid?"
Staring, scared, at the position Eli held, Agent Dunne replied. "Yes, Buck, I'm fine. You keep this up, and I'll tell the next lady you date that you've got kids at home."
"JD!" Wilmington's annoyed voice came over the line.
"It would be true! Quit mother-hennin' me to death, Buck. I've told you I'm fine. Go bother someone else." Agent Dunne held his breath.
"OK, kid. Have it your way. Can I talk to Nate real quick?"
Eli tightened his hold on the medic, shaking his head and glaring at the boy.
Dunne paused a moment before pressing the button. "He says that you should stay with Chris an' Vin and let me get my beauty sleep."
A nervous chuckle sounded from the device. "Fine. I'll let ya get your beauty sleep," the voice teased, "heaven knows ya need it."
"Over and out, kid."
There was a tense silence that slowly stretched until Eli chose to break it. "Good work, kid. Get up, you're comin' with me."
"What!" The Dunne kid protested, "I can hardly stand, what makes you think I can walk?"
"An' that what-cha-ma-call-it don't broadcast, right?" Eli said sarcastically, "Anyway, I saw ya walkin' jist fine earlier today," Eli shot back. "It's you or Jackson here, an' I don't think you'll like how I wake him up or how I insure ya stay in bed."
Gasping slightly, Agent Dunne laboriously pulled himself from his horizontal position into a sitting one. Eli rounded the bed and jerked the moaning boy to his feet. "Come on, kid." He growled.
+ + + + + + +
They made it to the front door without incident, though JD was pretty sure he could feel every bump, bruise, and scrape from his disagreement with the pavement and that van. Eli Joe steered him out into the stormy night, heading for the barn and calling out Vin's last name at regular intervals.
"Tanner!" Eli Joe yelled. "Don't tell me yer morals have slipped since ya sicced half a' Texas on me! Don't make the kid suffer fer what you did, Vin!"
JD stumbled, and Eli Joe held him tighter, cursing and demanding that he hold still, all the while speaking in that manner so eerily similar to Vin's.
"Maybe he and Chris rode out," JD suggested hopefully. If Vin wasn't around, then he couldn't respond to this madman's demands. That still left Buck, but Buck wasn't the one Eli Joe was after.
"In this weather?" Eli Joe said disbelievingly. "Ya got quite an imagination, kid. All the horses are in their stalls, an' none of 'em is calm enough ta ride right now. Damnit Tanner, show yerself!"
JD lost hope when he saw a tan-colored shadow detach itself from one of the stalls. Vin Tanner stood up as straight as his scoliosis would allow; hands away from his sides, showing Eli Joe that he was unarmed.
"Eli," Vin said in a voice far too calm for the situation.
"Vin," Eli sneered, his hatred pouring into the single syllable.
"I reckon ya can let the kid go now," Vin said, sparing a glance for JD. "He ain't 'zactly been feelin' too good lately."
"I don't much care fer what you reckon, Vin," Eli said scathingly, tightening his grip on JD's shoulders. "Where are the others? An' don't tell me they've left; all the cars 'r in the driveway, and I heard Wilmington not five minutes ago. They kin both leave, so long as you stay."
"I don't know how they do it in Texas," Buck said from the right, "but we don't leave our partners high and dry, right Ez?"
"You are precisely correct, Mistah Wilmington." JD heard Ez's voice from the loft above. "Whether said associate is erroneously accused of felonious misconduct or rendered susceptible to the unacceptable possibility of murder, we fully support our compatriots. Do you concur, Mistah Sanchez?"
"Indeed, Brother Ezra," Josiah booming voice startled both JD and Eli, as it came from directly behind them, and quite near. "I feel a certain, though rapidly flagging, obligation to inform this misguided sinner that any action against Vin or JD will be met with the best fitting form of punishment."
"What they're trying to say nicely, you bastard, is: release JD, drop your weapon, and let us arrest you, and I just might not blow your head off." JD tried not to grin. Chris' hard voice, coming from the only other direction not yet blocked, sounded so much like a cowboy from the Old West that JD was thinking up cowboy-related pranks he and Vin could pull on Chris if...his smile faded instantly...if everyone got out of this unscathed.
JD wondered what was going on in Eli's head. He wished he knew, because then he might be able to add something to sway his attacker's decision.
"Iffen ya come quietly," Vin said, "I'll put in a good word fer ya; make sure they don't give ya the death penalty." JD would later reflect that Vin probably thought this offer would be appealing to Eli Joe. Most men would want to avoid death, even if it meant life in prison.
Eli Joe, however, was not most men.
The deadly quiet whisper almost made JD shudder. Eli could be just as scary as Chris. "Ya self-righteous son of a bitch, I don't need anybody's pity!" Tossing JD into Buck to throw off the man's aim, Eli turned his gun on Vin, aiming for the sharpshooter's head.
The next three seconds were a confused blur of movement. Vin grabbed a handgun from somewhere behind his back, firing a second after Chris did. Chris' shot punched through Eli's chest from the front, Josiah's from the back, and Ezra took off the top of Eli's head, though not before Vin's shot got him right between the eyes. Buck, who had fallen to the ground under JD's weight, rolled JD over, checking him for wounds. Chris ran to Vin to do the same, and Nathan chose that moment to shuffle into the barn, hands still secured behind his back. Without a word, Ezra jumped down from the loft, plucked a tool from some hidden pocket, and undid Nathan's handcuffs. Nate put a hand to his head, cushioning the forming bruise, and stumbled. Josiah steadied him.
"JD...JD can ya hear me?"
JD tore his gaze from Eli Joe's bullet-riddled body to Buck. "Remind me never to insult Vin's mother," he said with a small smile. Everyone had a good chuckle over this, as Ezra pulled out his cell phone, making a quick call.
"What happened?" JD asked, including everyone in the query.
"Well..." Josiah looked over to Ezra for support, but found the man embroiled in a conversation on his cell phone, "I believe Brother Ezra and I were the first to fall victim to Marshall Joe's less-than-stellar subduing efforts. Due to the cold rain and loud thunder, we came around quickly. Brother Ezra affected our escape and tapped into the intercoms you installed, JD. We heard what was happening and reached the barn just before you arrived."
"Yeah, kid," Buck added helpfully. "Anybody listening to that conversation would have known something was wrong."
"What conversation?" Nathan asked.
JD quickly explained how Eli Joe had made him send a false all-clear verbally. "I said you wanted me to have my 'beauty sleep'," JD explained, almost laughing.
"Just what, pray tell, is wrong with beauty sleep?" Ezra asked, having just snapped his phone closed.
"Nothing," Buck said, "except that Nate here woulda said 'rest' and not 'beauty sleep'. Actually, though, it was when you asked what Chris had decided the all-clear signal was that we decided something was wrong."
The others looked to Chris in confusion, so Chris explained that JD had come up with the system, and was not likely to forget it under pressure. JD beamed at the subtle praise of keeping his cool under fire.
In the sudden silence, Chris looked at the corpse and groaned. "Now we have to explain this to Travis."
"At least we have the recordings!" JD said brightly.
"Mistah Larabee, I fail to see why it takes all of us to explain how this miscreant reached his current state," Ezra began. "As team leader, the honor of elucidating the matter falls into your rathah capable hands."
A glare started to form and was directed at Ezra.
"Those of us sufferin' from goose eggs and other such monstrosities are to be evacuated by helicopter to the nearest hospital."
"Is that what the call was about?" Chris asked, just as Nathan protested, "I can take a look at everybody," and Vin said, "Iffen ya want, I kin drive ya'll."
Ezra gave a dimpled smile. "Mistah Larabee, yes, that is precisely what the call was about. Mistah Jackson, I must point out that your head suffers the same malady as my own and Mistah Sanchez's. Vin, I would not infringe on your psychological state at the present time by askin' you to concentrate on anything so tedious as drivin' in this weathah. Mistah Dunne, Mistah Sanchez, Mistah Jackson and mahself will travel in the helicoptah, and Mistah Wilmington will chauffer Mistah Larabee an' Mistah Tannah, meeting us at the hospital at their leisure. Feel free to take your time, gentlemen, but I will be going to direct the helicoptah so that it does not land on the residence."
With that, Ezra exited the barn at a brisk trot, leaving confused compatriots behind. "What's his hurry?" JD asked.
"He probably doesn't want to wait around for Chris to find out he took command for a few minutes..." Buck supplied.
"Or for Nate to realize that he's going to have a hospital stay," Chris said with a malevolent grin.
Nate looked confused, but rallied. "I don't need to go to the hospital!" He said too quickly. "Really, I'm--"
"FINE!" the other five men bellowed in glee.
Josiah alone looked introspective. "Brothers, if you would excuse JD, Nathan and I, we should join Brother Ezra." He efficiently extricated JD from Buck's care, and convinced Nathan that the rain would not adversely affect their probable concussions.
Buck looked around and saw that everyone had found another place to be, specifically so Vin and Chris could talk the night's events through. He started to stand, with no real excuse in mind, just escape, but he was stopped by a low Texas drawl.
"'S okay, Bucklin. We don't mind ya bein' here."
"He's right, Buck. Stay."
Still feeling like a third wheel, Buck went over to the corpse and examined it. He hadn't put a bullet in Eli Joe, so he wanted to make sure the man was truly dead. The other two men seemed to be having one of their silent conversations anyway.
M fine, Mother Hen Larabee, Vin thought, staring hard at Chris.
Chris snorted. Sure you are. I know I've got no problem killing old partners.
Vin smirked. Hell, I only hit a dead man. It was you, 'Siah, or Ez that got him.
"Nah," Chris said out loud. "Ez fired after you did, and the chest shots might not have been fast enough."
Don't start feelin' guilty, Cowboy, Vin scolded silently. "Ya did the best ya could, and he didn't get a shot off." So what's the difference?
Chris stood, anger filling him, giving him a second wind since the adrenaline rush had left him. "Damnit Tanner, you could have died!"
"But I didn't," Vin replied, his calm voice taking on an edge. "Ya'll were here and everything turned out fine."
"Only because you were fast enough," Chris said, losing energy. "Damn. Vin," the name was filled with unspoken emotion. You shouldn't have to be fast enough. We should be there...I should be there.
Chuckling, Vin looked Chris dead in the eye. Fine, I'll try ta scrounge up some other old grudge so's ya can shoot 'im an' feel better 'bout yer sorry self, "Cowboy."
"Damn, ungrateful, sorry-assed, excuse for a sharpshooter," the litany of names faded away, leaving the two men facing each other, one furious, the other amused...and then their forearms snapped together in the gesture that signified their friendship.
A third man cleared his throat from across the barn. "Now I didn't hear half of that, but can I assume everything's alright?"
Vin stared hard at Chris, forcing him to accept the way things were. "Yep, I'd say everything's jist great." The trio walked out into the downpour, got into Chris' car, and drove to reunite the Seven.