The Bonds Of Brotherhood
1. - 10. | 11. - 16. | 17. - 22. | 23. - Epilogue
MacDougherty cursed softly as he scanned the house with his scope. He had three men in there now and one was down. He was perched in position out front and had Colin out back. They were the two best at long range. He had one man left, waiting for the signal to go in, but Franklin was waiting for confirmation that their targets were inside before committing him.
"Report," he hissed again. They had already had to change channels once because Three had gone down.
"Two reporting. Sanchez is in the den with another man. They have Three in there with them. I have the door covered."
"Four reporting. Waited in the master bedroom as you suggested. Have spotted Standish. No sign of Tanner yet."
Another curse escaped the impatient man. "One, any activity from your side?"
"None," Colin replied.
"Five. I want you to head toward the barn and check it out."
Wondering where Tanner had gotten to, MacDougherty settled in once more.
He had been back in position about two minutes when the sound of a vehicle coming up the long drive caught his attention. Lifting his field glasses, he turned toward the sound and frowned. "Company coming. Front door," he advised his men. Focusing on the vehicle, he continued. "Two men."
"Five, sir. Do you want me to redirect?"
"No, Five," MacDougherty decided. "I'll handle the party crashers."
Setting aside the glasses, he waited for the new arrivals to stop and exit the vehicle.
+ + + + + + +
"Something's definitely not right," Nathan muttered scanning the deserted looking house. Pulling up close to the front door, he put the car in park and they surveyed the area.
Buck was looking back toward the barn when a movement caught his eye. "I'm going to head off toward the barn," he said. "Knowing Tanner and the kid, they probably took this chance to be with the horses."
Seeing Wilmington load a round into the chamber of his gun, Nathan pulled his own and advised, "Stay low. Stay hidden. I don't have my kit with me."
Offering a cocky grin in response, Buck replied, "Yes, sir." Then, sliding over toward the door away from the house, he opened it and stepped out. A bullet impacted the vehicle beside him as he came into the open. Instinctively dropping to the ground and sliding under the truck, he let out a string of curses.
Thinking the better of getting out of his own door, Nathan slid across to the passenger door and opened it. Sliding out, he hissed, "Buck, you hit?"
A moment later, the ladies' man appeared on the house side of the truck. "No," he replied, getting up. "But it looks like Chris was right about having uninvited guests out there."
With a nod, Nathan asked, "Think you can still get to the barn?"
Turning and looking for cover along the path he would have to take, Wilmington winced at the open space he would need to cover. It wouldn't be easy and if there were a sniper in back as well as in front, he wouldn't stand much of a chance. Still... "I'll make it," he assured. There was no way he would let his friends down.
Jackson glanced over at the path Buck had to take and opened his mouth to protest. Just as he was about to tell Buck to forget it, he saw a shadowy form slip into the building. What caught his attention, however, was the gun in the man's hand. If any of the guys was in the barn, they were as good as dead. Fishing the keys out of his pocket, he passed them to Buck. "Roll the truck back. It'll give you cover to get there."
Raising his eyes from the keys to the warm brown eyes of his friend, he nodded. "How are you going to get in?" Buck asked
A knowing smirk appeared on the healer's face. "Latch on the dining room window is broke. I should be able to get that open and slip in."
With a glance over his shoulder, Buck noticed that the medic had stopped right in front of that very window. Nodding his agreement to the plan, Buck informed, "I'll wait for you to get in before I head off."
"It's a plan," Jackson confirmed.
Offering his hand, Buck waited for Nathan to return the grip.
Reaching out and taking the ladies' man's hand, the medic squeezed firmly and nodded. Then, keeping low, he made his way onto the front porch and to the window. With very little effort, he was able to jiggle it open. When it was wide enough, he lifted his left leg and stepped through. A rifle shot tore through the curtain above Jackson's head and buried itself somewhere inside the house. A moment later, Nathan was in the dining room and out of sight.
Opening the passenger side door, Buck slid over and inserted the keys. Not wanting to sit up and offer a target, he turned the ignition only enough to unlock the steering wheel. Releasing the brake, he shifted into reverse and felt the truck begin to roll backward toward his destination. Using the side mirrors, he was able to get almost where he wanted and stopped. The sniper might know where he was, but unless they had some way to communicate, the man inside the barn wouldn't even know he was there.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra sat and waited. The soft ticking of the clock behind him did little to calm his nerves. If anything, he was sure the second hand was slowing down. The more he waited, the slower the clock got. Still, he maintained his position and waited.
He had been foolish to rush things the last time and wouldn't make the same mistake this time.
A small squeak from the bedroom door next to the one he currently occupied was barely discernable, but he knew he had heard it. Taking a deep breath and releasing it slowly, he kept his eyes trained on the door and waited.
After what seemed like an eternity, the door to this bedroom began to slowly open. Ezra waited. Soon the door stood completely open, but there was no sign of his adversary. From his position, Standish had a full view of the portal, but no one was there. Keeping his gun trained low, he remained silent.
His patience was eventually rewarded. A head appeared around the corner first, followed by a man crouched down. "I would recommend you drop your weapon," Standish commanded softly.
The intruder jerked around and brought his gun up to fire. He was too slow and at the wrong angle. Ezra, however, was perfectly placed and fired. A cry sounded from the invader as his body tumbled backward and his gun went flying. Ezra's shot had been very precise - the right shoulder.
Picking up the curtain cords he'd taken down when he first came in the room, he headed toward his attacker and forced the man to roll over.
When it looked like the man was going to refuse, Standish took aim at his head and asked him to reconsider. With his prisoner on his stomach, Ezra made short work of tying him up.
With the man secured, he dragged him into the room, gagged him and then applied pressure to the wound. "Though you hardly deserve it," he hissed, keeping an eye on the door in case one of the man's friends decided to investigate the cry of pain, "I will make sure you receive proper medical attention before hauling you off to jail where I hope you rot for the rest of your miserable life."
+ + + + + + +
Chris heard the two rifle shots and headed in that direction, praying his friends were okay. As he moved through the trees, he scanned for something, anything, that looked out of place. As he reached the edge of his woods, he paused. Waiting, he listened intently and heard the soft murmuring of a voice. Movement was what finally gave the man away.
Larabee's prey was laying behind a flat rise in the land. If he was swift, and quiet, Chris was certain he could take the man down.
Crouching, the man in black moved forward, his eyes never leaving his target as he ears took in the noises all around. His steps made no sound on the soft ground and as he approached, he lifted his gun.
He was still about twenty feet away and just about to announce himself, when his target turned and reached for the handgun lying by his side. "Don't!" Larabee commanded.
The man, Franklin MacDougherty, froze.
Though he felt he had control of the situation, Chris was not about to relax. "Good. Now I want you to lay face down on your stomach and move your hands so they're over your head."
Franklin complied without complaint or comment.
Chris waited until the man had done as instructed. Then, moving forward, his gun still trained on the prone form, he reached back for the handcuffs he hadn't had a chance to use at the warehouse. Stepping around the man, he reached down to slap the handcuffs on one wrist.
The moment the cuff was secured around his wrist, MacDougherty pulled on it with all his might, causing Larabee to lose his balance and fall forward. Feeling himself fall, Chris tucked slightly to absorb some of the impact. He lost track of his prisoner for a moment as he rolled over and into a crouch.
That momentary lapse was all MacDougherty needed to pull his hunting knife.
Turning, Chris caught the flash of sunlight on steel just a moment before the blade imbedded itself into his arm. A harsh cry of agony raced from the blond as he found himself falling forward once more, this time from the momentum of the blade.
As he fell, Larabee felt his attacker falling with him. Not knowing what would happen if the other man fell on top of the blade, Chris twisted slightly, screaming as the knife resisted the movement and then broke free of his attacker's grip. As the team leader's body hit the ground, the blade was knocked out of his limb. The momentum of his body caused his head to impact the ground as well. Unfortunately, his head landed on a rock, causing stars to dance in his sight.
Pain radiated through him, from his arm outward. He didn't notice the other man fall on top of him. It was a moment or two before he opened his eyes to see the man he was arresting rise and step toward the gun Chris had dropped.
Knowing that if the man got the gun, he was as good as dead, Chris struggled to rise, but was having a hard time regaining his breath and coordination. Just as he saw the man rise after retrieving the gun, a lasso encircled the would-be murderer and drew tight around him.
A moment later, Vin appeared on the other end of the rope, moving swiftly and gathering the slack as he reached MacDougherty. The Texan tugged so that the man had no choice but to fall to his knees. With the man down, Tanner made quick work of him, tying the prisoner's hands behind him and then looping the rope around his feet, not entirely dissimilar to a calf in a calf roping contest.
"What took you so long?" Larabee gasped out, falling to a seated position on the ground. He was just too tired and dizzy to maintain his crouch.
"Stopped to take in a movie along the way," Vin teased, ignoring his own pain as he moved toward his injured friend. Seeing the blood, he walked around behind the blond and hissed his disapproval at the deep, bloody wound. Reaching for the bandana he had around his neck, the Texan quickly tied it around the wound, applied pressure in the hopes of stopping the bleeding. He could only hope the artery hadn't been hit. "How'd you know to come back?" the sharpshooter asked, moving around to take a look at the red spot on Larabee's forehead and check the older man's pupils.
"The bust didn't make sense," he explained. "The two groups met. The two men who were selling were the only two of the MacDougherty gang we had positive ID's on and the shooting started almost immediately, even before we announced ourselves. That's when I stared putting things together and Buck, Nathan and I left to come back here."
"Where are Buck and Nate?"
"House," Chris replied.
"Dead," MacDougherty interjected with a sneer.
"They are. You are," Tanner informed him, his tone making it evident that what he spoke wasn't a threat or promise, but the truth.
The two men locked eyes for several seconds before Chris slumped against Vin.
Turning back toward his friend, Tanner tended to Chris, ignoring the bootlegger.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah heard the shot down by the bedrooms and the cry of pain. His first instinct was to race down the hall and make sure his sons were alright, but years of training wouldn't allow that. He would just have to believe his boys were fine.
"It wasn't Ezra," Travis assured as he peered out the window. As soon as the name slipped past his lips, he winced and mentally cursed himself. He knew he was supposed to call Ezra and Vin by the other names. Turning to see what affect, if any, his slip had on the profiler, Travis cursed again.
Leaving his post, he quickly crossed to the other man. Josiah was staring blankly ahead. There was no reaction whatsoever when Orin called his name or snapped his fingers. Even shaking Sanchez gently garnered no reaction.
Just as Travis was about to give up, however, he watched as the profiler's face twisted in soul-deep pain. Orin knew in that moment exactly what was happening for he had lived it himself. Josiah was reliving the discovery that his sons were dead. Speaking soothing words to calm the upset man, he felt completely useless as nothing seemed to be getting through.
As Sanchez surged to his feet, Travis could only sit back and watch as a soul was once more reliving a pain no man should suffer.
He watched as Josiah dropped his gun and lifted his arms. He felt every ounce of pain as the salt and pepper head was thrown back and a one word cry of denial was torn from the depths of the profiler's being, "Noooooooooo!"
+ + + + + + +
Nathan's head snapped up at the loud cry that seemed to reach from Hell itself and send wave after wave of agony crashing behind it. He closed his eyes against the tears he felt threatening, knowing that Josiah had just regained his memory.
Shoving aside the emotions and fear, he took several deep breaths and focused on the job at hand. Moving slowly toward the living room, he scanned the area. Seeing something odd, he tilted his head as he puzzled out what he was seeing. It finally dawned on him. It was the partial shadow of a man hiding behind the couch. Moving as silently and swiftly as he could, he focused all his energy on his target. He would take this man down and take him down quick. Josiah needed him.
As he was slipping around the end table, he didn't see the bullet casing that had been left behind from an earlier shot. Stepping on top of it, he lost his balance and threw his arms out to try and recover. There was no hope for it, however and he crashed to the ground, releasing a yelp of pain as he felt the ligaments in his knee give way.
He still had control of his gun, however, and when the enemy showed himself and took aim, Jackson was ready. With one shot, he eliminated the threat.
Moving as best he could, he half-crawled across the floor and glanced at the man he had just shot. Satisfied that at least this one would no longer be a threat, he grabbed the man's gun and headed into the other room to be there for Josiah.
+ + + + + + +
Buck made his way out of the truck and slipped into the shadows. Debating the best way to go, he decided to play it as safe as he could. Slipping around the barn, he headed toward the back door, thinking that he would be able to surprise the man inside.
Unfortunately, the ladies' man stealth had not gone completely unnoticed. The sniper behind the house had seen the movement and let his friend know that company was coming.
Closing his eyes to help prepare himself for the dimness of the barn, Buck opened his eyes and spun around the side of the door, quickly stepping in and sliding behind the hay bale that Larabee always kept there. Giving his eyes a few more minutes to adjust to the change in lighting, he scanned the area, listening intently for some sound, any sound that would give away the position of his foe.
There was nothing but silence. Looking up toward the loft, he tried to see if the man might be up there. Seeing nothing unusual up there, either, he stepped out from behind the bale and kept close to the stalls as he headed down the length of the barn toward the tack room.
He was about half way down the length of the barn when a sound caught his attention. Turning and straightening, he just barely had time to register the presence in Peso's empty stall before a gunshot sounded and he felt a searing pain in his leg. His own shot was more instinct than training, but he saw his adversary drop.
Unable to support himself, Buck slid to the floor, one hand clenching his wounded leg in the hope of staying the blood, the other maintaining its grip on his gun and keeping it aimed at the unmoving figure on the floor.
+ + + + + + +
JD rode as best he could through the woods. He was in a lot of pain from the pulling on his stitches and still-healing muscles, but he had little choice. The lives of his friends, his family, were depending on him to take this sniper out.
Reaching the tree line, he encouraged Milagro to move into the field with his knees as he prepared the lasso with his hands. The maneuver caused the pain to intensify, but the young man gritted his teeth and kept going.
A short snort from his horse alerted the gunman to JD's presence. Seeing the sniper turn and take aim, Dunne encouraged his horse to hurry along.
That encouragement kept the young brunet from being hit, but the shot also spooked his horse, leaving him no choice but to drop the rope and hold on with all his strength as he struggled to control the terrified animal.
As Milagro began to calm, he saw the sniper taking aim a second time. Knowing he had nothing to lose, he urged his horse to head directly at his attacker, hoping to scare the man into moving.
Colin was made of tougher stuff, however, and maintained his position, shifting his shot as the young man rode toward him. It was a decision that would cost him dearly.
Racing toward his adversary, JD could still feel the tension and fear in his mount. Since they had spent a lot of time together, Dunne knew that Milagro wouldn't trample the man, but try to jump him instead. Still, the move would hopefully prove disconcerting enough to allow the young man to regroup and plan another attack.
As he predicted, upon approaching the man, Milagro's muscles bunched as the horse tried to clear the obstacle. What he couldn't have predicted was Colin raising his head as the horse leapt over him, or the mount's front hoof connecting solidly with the gunman's head.
Struggling to maintain his seat and fight off the agony he was in, Dunne turned Milagro toward the trees and caught sight of the sniper lying on the ground, eyes open and staring at nothing, a large, bloody gash on his head.
He drew no satisfaction from the death of this man, but knowing it had either been the shooter's life or his family's, he couldn't argue with the results. Praising his horse and patting him on the neck, JD decided to rest for a few minutes and gather himself before beginning the long, painful ride back.
Josiah's cry reached the bedroom where Ezra was sheltering. His head snapping around, Standish felt his stomach drop as he realized that cry could only mean one of two things - one of his friends was hurt badly or the profiler had just regained his memory.
Checking to make sure his prisoner was secure, the undercover agent moved to the door and slowly turned the knob. When he had the door cracked open, Standish peered down the hall. Not seeing any threat, but not wanting to take a chance, he moved stealthily toward the front room. Reaching the living room, he scanned the area and spotted the unmoving body on the floor. He had taken two steps into the room when he heard Josiah's words.
"How could you lie to me about this, Nathan?" the anguished voice of the profiler demanded. "You know what those boys meant to me! You know what I went through when I lost them. What kind of sick game were you playing?"
Ezra's heart sank in his chest at the words as he believed he had just lost his friend. Doing his best to tune out the hurt and pain-filled voice, he quickly scanned the other rooms and found no one. Making his way to the kitchen door, he scanned the area, but saw nothing. With a deep breath, he stepped outside, staying crouched as low as he could. He knew it was foolish to step outside under these circumstances, but his dual needs to get away from the source of fresh pain and to check on his friends, overwhelmed his training. Right now his deeper instinct was to get away from the voice that was causing him such anguish.
Moving as quickly as possible, he raced across the open ground between the house and the barn, breathing a sigh of relief when he reached the sheltered security of the truck. As he waited for his breathing to calm, Ezra struggled to block out the words he had heard. He needed his wits about him if he was going to enter the barn. Taking one more deep breath and releasing it slowly, he moved as silently as he could into the dim building.
With movement slowed by his healing wound, Ezra slipped through the doorway and stepped into the shadows before crouching down again. Moving so he could see into the building, he spotted Buck sitting on the floor, one hand holding his gun trained on some unseen object and the other gripping his leg. It took only a moment for the sight of blood to register in his mind.
Believing he had just lost one friend and unwilling to lose another, he threw caution to the wind and hissed, "Buck!" When the dark head turned in his direction, he continued, "Are there others?"
"No," came the weak reply. "Not sure if he's alive," Wilmington added, his voice fading.
Moving down the aisle in the barn with alert swiftness, Standish soon found himself next to Buck. Turning his eyes, he spotted the still figure in the stall. Moving across the way, a quick check revealed the man was dead. Leaving the body in the stall, Ezra moved back to his friend. "Dead," he informed as he set his gun down and reached for Wilmington's injured leg.
Now that he was up close he could see it was bleeding, but not nearly as badly as he had initially thought. "If you will just move your hand," Ezra advised, "I will be more than happy to administer what aid I can."
Too tired and in too much pain to respond verbally, Buck just nodded his head and allowed both hands to drop to his sides.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan was crushed. He didn't know what to say, he didn't know how to respond to Josiah's accusations. It was true, he had lied to his friend and had asked others to do the same, but it had been the right thing to do, hadn't it? "Josiah," he began, reaching out toward the decimated man.
Tears streaming down his face, Josiah turned and walked away, choosing to sit across the room in an armchair. Jackson watched as the profiler dropped his head into his hands and began weeping in earnest, his whole body wracked with sobs.
Feeling a hand come to rest on his shoulder, Nathan turned his own devastated eyes toward the third man.
"Go get a headset and see if you can contact the others," Travis urged gently.
With one more look at his brokenhearted friend, Nathan turned and left the room, feeling his guilt increase with every moan of loss expressed by Josiah. Once outside the den, Nathan took a moment to lean against the wall and close his eyes.
The pain in his knee made itself known again, but it was nothing compared to the pain in his heart as Josiah's shattered voice called the names of his family.
+ + + + + + +
JD swayed as the pain in his back seemed to wash over him in waves. He had known it would hurt when he agreed to ride out, but it had been necessary. The ride back was proving devastating to his stamina and will.
Each time the waves of pain came too near driving him to the welcoming black of unconsciousness, he would think of his friends and fight the darkness, wrapping his hand tighter in the reins. He needed to get back to the ranch. He needed to know that everyone was fine and that they had defeated MacDougherty.
But unconsciousness would not be denied forever. As the door to the barn came into view, JD lost the battle. Only his tight hold on the reins and the horse's sure steps kept him from falling.
+ + + + + + +
Changing the makeshift bandage, Vin grew worried about the amount of blood Larabee was losing. The flow was definitely slowing, but the fact that it was still bleeding was a concern to him. "Got your cell?" he asked as he finished up with the new bandage.
"Right pocket," Chris informed, his teeth gritted against the pain. He closed his eyes and nodded as Vin squeezed his shoulder in support.
Flipping the phone open, Vin received the "No Signal" message. Hissing out a curse, he said, "I thought you had coverage out here."
"Do," Larabee replied, his pain-filled green eyes turning to look at his friend.
A sound like a muffled laugh came from the direction of the bound and gagged MacDougherty. Walking over to the prisoner, Vin removed the gag. "What's so funny?"
"Can't get a signal without a tower," he laughed.
"House," Chris suggested.
"Land lines don't like it when the wire's cut," the prisoner laughed. Replacing the gag with a bit more force than necessary, Vin cursed and looked around. His back was hurting and he was sure some of his blisters had popped. That meant more painful debriding of dead skin, but he would have to worry about that later.
Crouching down next to his injured friend, Vin informed him, "I'm going to have to ride to the neighbor's to call."
Chris nodded. "Do it."
"Alright," Vin agreed with a nod. Rising, the headset that MacDougherty had been using caught his eye. Walking over, he lifted it to his ear and spoke into it. "Report," he commanded
It was Nathan's voice. He knew it wasn't proper procedure to reveal their plan and might even be dangerous, but they needed help and they needed it fast. "Riding for help," he said simply, not waiting for a reply as he handed the headset to Larabee.
With a final nod to the blond, Vin walked over to his horse and managed to suppress a groan of pain as he mounted. It would be a painful ride, but it needed to be done. "Back in no time," he assured as he spurred the horse into a run.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had his head turned toward the open back door of the barn while Ezra fussed with his leg. A soft curse escaped him and any remaining color drained from his face.
"What?" Ezra asked, his green eyes taking in the expression on the ladies' man's face.
"JD," Wilmington managed to whisper as he struggled to get up. He was hindered by the hand on his shoulder pressing downward.
"Stay, I will see to him," Ezra assured.
Buck could only nod, his eyes never leaving the sight of his young friend slumped over his horse. He didn't see the raw fear and trepidation on the Southerner's face at the thought of what he would find. Buck's own imagination was too busy filling in gruesome details for him to think of anything else but JD.
Wilmington watched as Ezra approached the horse and stopped it. He saw his friend reach up and check for a pulse. "Please, God," Buck prayed with everything within him. "Please."
"He's alive!" Ezra called back, quickly checking over the young man. Turning to face Buck, he continued, "He appears to have pulled out several stitches and I am quite sure the effort he exerted and the pain have simply overwhelmed him."
The dark blue eyes closed in relief as a quick prayer of thanks escaped the ladies' man. He made a mental note to talk to JD when this was all over. The kid had just scared twenty new gray hairs onto his head. Leaning his head back against the wall behind him, he closed his eyes, not realizing when he too slipped into unconsciousness.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah couldn't think, could barely breathe. His whole world had been shattered, washed away in a moment's remembrance. What was worse was the disbelief and pain that came with knowing his friends had lied to him, had pretended to be those two precious boys who had been the light of his life and the center of his world.
"We didn't have much choice," Travis informed, his voice low and soothing.
Dropping his hands from his eyes, Josiah looked at the man. "There had to be choices other than lying to me," Sanchez accused.
"You didn't give us any," Travis shot back, not flinching from the pain, anger or conflict. "You were the one who insisted that Vin was Kyle and Ezra was Peter. Neither of them wanted to go along with the charade. I ordered them to because it was the only way to keep you calm enough to be treated and to heal." That wasn't an entirely true statement, but Team Seven was too valuable to let something like this split them apart. If taking the blame meant the profiler hated him, well, it was better him than Nathan, Chris, Ezra or Vin.
A hundred retorts sprang to Josiah's lips, but he said none of them. Instead he listened to Travis' words as they repeated in his mind. "I ordered them to..." That meant that Vin and Ezra were victims in this just as he was. Though he couldn't completely forgive them for their deception yet, he knew that he would be able to do so eventually. "Nathan..."
"Nathan gave us the information we needed for Vin and Ezra to play their parts," Travis insisted. "Again, on my orders," he reiterated. "And I overrode Chris on this."
Josiah nodded and was aware that he would be able to forgive Nathan and Chris eventually, too, but right now the crushing weight of his loss was making it hard to think of anything or anyone other than his wife and sons. His head dropping forward into his hands once more, Josiah began weeping in earnest.
+ + + + + + +
Chris glanced at his watch. He was in pain and had seen pain in Vin's eyes as well. All that riding couldn't be easy on the young man. An image of the burned back and the fading bruises that decorated his friend appeared in his mind. Definitely shouldn't be riding, but at least he knew Vin was safe.
Looking at the headset in his hands, his need to know about the others overwhelmed his caution. There had been no sounds of gunfire since before Vin left. Deciding to risk it, he slipped the headset on and called, "Nate?"
"Chris?" the medic asked.
"Yeah. What's your status?"
"Did something to my knee. There's one dead and two captives in the house. There are snipers front and back. Buck's in the barn. I haven't seen Ezra, JD or Vin, but one of the two live ones here was definitely Ezra's doing. I'd guess he's out in the barn."
"Vin just left to call for help," Chris informed, a portion of his mind knowing they were revealing far too much information. But the pain in Nathan's voice seemed to equal his own. "Josiah and Travis?" He was met with silence. Larabee's heart constricted in his chest. "Sanchez and Travis?" he demanded, hoping his panic and worry wasn't evident in his voice.
"Josiah got his memory back. Travis is with him."
From the defeated sound in Jackson's voice, Chris knew it couldn't be good news. But they would have to talk about it later. "Sit tight," he advised. "Help's on the way."
He then removed the headset and closed his eyes, hoping the team would be strong enough to get through this.
Though it was more a poorly controlled fall than an aided dismount, Ezra managed to get the unconscious JD off the horse and onto a pile of clean hay. With some effort, he checked over the younger man for any obvious wounds and then managed to get JD into a recovery position before leading the horse back to his stall, making sure to apologize for not tending the animal before returning to see how Buck was doing.
"JD?" Wilmington asked, anxiety for his young friend evident in his voice.
"Unconscious, but he should be rousing soon. I haven't checked his back to see what damage has been incurred," Standish supplied, unwilling to meet Buck's eyes. Ezra was hurting enough himself that he was having trouble remembering his first aid class and if the bleeding wound or the unconscious person was more urgent. Since he wasn't sure what, if anything, he would be able to do for JD he decided to check on Buck's bleeding leg. Looking at it, he saw the flow seemed to have slowed almost to a stop, he froze when a hand came to rest on his shoulder.
"Ezra," the deep voice said, drawing the reluctant green eyes up to meet deep blue ones. "You did good. You're doing good," Buck assured, knowing Ezra had to be hurting.
Searching for any hint of a lie in his friend's eyes, Standish felt some of the tension that had been plaguing him fade. He still hurt from Josiah's words and from his own still-healing wounds, but some of the pain and worry afflicting his heart and soul began to fade. Nodding, he looked back at the wound and re-covered it. Then, wiping his hands, he began to stand to look in on JD.
"That guy wearing a headset?" Wilmington asked seemingly out of the blue.
Ezra's followed Buck's eyes and saw the dead body. Curious as to the answer and cursing himself for not thinking of it sooner, the undercover agent walked over and quickly identified the equipment in question. Detaching it from its previous owner, Standish lifted the earpiece to his own ear and smiled as he recognized his boss' voice. "Indeed he was, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra assured. "And it would appear that we have successfully defeated the enemy." Seeing the question in Buck's eyes, Ezra explained, "Mr. Larabee and Mr. Jackson are conversing. " Before he could say any more, a low groan from the stall where he'd left JD drew his attention.
Passing the headset to Buck, Ezra headed off to check on his young friend. As he knelt beside the younger man, he could hear Wilmington greet, "Chris. Nate. Me, JD and Ezra are in the barn. Ezra seems OK. JD did a little too much and passed out, but he's coming around. I tell you, kids today... What?... Oh, GSW... leg... no, Ezra got it stopped... a lot... hope he hurries."
With an effort, Standish tuned out the rest of that conversation and turned his attention to JD. "Mr. Dunne?" he asked. When JD turned his head, Ezra reached out and tapped the younger man's cheek. "JD," he called. He was rewarded with a soft groan and the smallest slit of hazel eye.
Another groan escaped Dunne. He really didn't feel good. Thinking that he'd heard his name, JD cracked open an eye and quickly spotted Ezra's concerned face. "Ez?" he asked as he tried to remember what all had happened. Scanning his surroundings, he realized he was in a stall in Chris' barn, lying on hay. "The men!" he exclaimed as everything came back to him, he began to sit up, but gasped in pain as his back protested and the world grew dark around the edges of his vision.
"Calm yourself, my friend," Standish soothed, reaching out to support the young man. "All is well. Our foe has been defeated and help should be here shortly."
JD listened closely to the words being spoken and felt some of the stress and worry drain from his body. They were going to be alright. Letting out a shaky sigh, Dunne offered a small nod and opened his eyes once more. "Let's get back to the house," he suggested, looking at the undercover agent. He was puzzled by the reluctance he saw in the green eyes. Ezra was really good at hiding things, so that meant something really bad must have happened. "What is it?" Dunne demanded, his voice harsh.
"Buck was injured in the leg and I am reluctant to move him just yet," Ezra offered. While true, it wasn't his only reason for not wanting to return to the house, but hopefully it would be enough for JD. A sigh escaped when he saw the suspicion and doubt in the young man's eyes. They were training him far too well in the skill of reading people. "And Josiah regained his memory," Standish informed, his voice soft and filled with pain.
"Aw, geeze," JD said, not sure what else to say or do for his friend. "I guess he didn't take it too well?" he asked.
"No," Ezra replied. "No, he didn't. I don't know if he'll be able to forgive us for the deception."
JD hated to see his friends hurting and decided that, even if he had to take on Josiah himself, he would find a way to make sure things worked out. "It was probably just the shock, Ezra," he comforted softly. When the undercover agent looked up at him, he continued, "It's a huge thing to overcome," he added, closing his eyes and pushing away the pain as best he could. "Especially when it's something that hurt so deeply at the time," he continued, shifting until the pain retreated. "But once he's over that initial pain, I just know he'll realize we only did it because we care about him and he'll forgive us," the young agent finished, the pain now at a manageable level.
Ezra didn't trust himself to reply to JD's words. It was his fervent wish that they come true, but, as much as he trusted all of these men, he wasn't sure he could believe in such a happy ending.
Seeing Ezra had accepted his words and not sure what else to say, JD sighed and said, "I suppose you should help me up so I can have Buck lecture me about riding out with a back full of stitches." He was rewarded with a flash of smile.
+ + + + + + +
Chris could feel himself getting weaker, no matter how much he fought it. Blood loss was never good; blood loss like he had suffered was worrying, even to someone who knew only basic first aid like him. He knew there was an artery in the arm - they had learned it as an alternate way to check a pulse in his class. Right now, he could only pray that MacDougherty had missed that artery and the Vin would return with help soon.
Glancing around the small area, he found an unopened bottle of water that had fallen from his prisoner's backpack. With some effort he managed to retrieve the bottle and get it opened. As he lifted the bottle to his mouth, Larabee caught sight of his prisoner's mocking stare.
"You're still the one tied up and going to jail," the blond informed MacDougherty before taking a slow drink of the liquid. He was beginning to feel nauseous and didn't want anything coming back up. The corner of his mouth lifted in satisfaction as he took in the now angry look on the bound man's face.
When he was finished with all he could drink at the moment, Chris recapped the water bottle and then lifted the headset once more to his ears. "Check," he commanded, able to hear the weakness in his own voice.
"Things are still the same here," Nathan replied.
"Mr. Dunne, Mr. Wilmington and I are secure in the barn, though I believe both of my compatriots will require medical assistance as soon as possible," Ezra communicated.
"On its way by now," Larabee assured. "The sniper in the back?" he asked, remembering what Nathan had told him earlier.
There was a momentary hesitation before Ezra replied, "He is no longer a threat on this plane of existence."
Chris could only nod his approval as a sudden wave of weakness swept over and through him. His eyes blinked slowly, opening less and less each time as the world began to turn black around the edges of his sight and narrow to a pinpoint of light.
He just had time to realize he was falling unconscious and be left with the impression of distant hoof beats following him into the nothingness.
+ + + + + + +
Josiah sat, head in his hands, utterly empty and lost. He didn't know what to do, couldn't think to function.
Somewhere he knew this was just a numbness before the intense pain he had just felt came back as an all-consuming loss. He had walked this road before and knew it far too well.
The words startled Josiah from his reverie and brought into focus the world around him once more.
Looking around, he saw Orin Travis standing before him. Sanchez could read the compassionate understanding in the other man's eyes and made an effort to pull himself together. Unable to say anything in response to the apology for the deception, which freshly brought to mind and heart the pain of his greatest loss, Josiah allowed his eyes to continue a survey of the room.
He recognized that he was in Chris Larabee's den, that there were bullet holes in the walls, guns on the ground and captive on the floor. He took a moment to identify the curtain pulls that bound the stranger's wrists and feet.
Fear shot through the profiler as fear for his friends washed over him. "The others?" he demanded.
"Nathan was talking to Chris just a few moments ago," he assured. "He sounded relieved, so I'm sure everyone is safe."
"Everyone is safe, if not sound," Jackson said from the doorway. He knew he was taking a chance coming back into the room so soon after Josiah regained his memories and was struggling through the emotions that went along with it, but he also knew Travis would want an update. "Buck took care of the one in barn, JD the sniper in the back. I guess Chris and Vin took care of MacDougherty together and then Vin went to the neighbor's for help," he informed as he sank to the floor, his injured leg extended before him. "Chris is hurt, but won't say how bad. Buck's hurt, too. Again, I don't know how bad." Resting his head against the wall, he took a deep breath and released it.
Guilt flared in Josiah as he realized what his friends had gone through while he was lost in his own world.
"Don't go there," Nathan commanded, his voice harsh. He had seen the guilt on his friend's face and wanted to put a stop to it before it only added to the mess he was sure was Josiah's emotions. "Just because you aren't bleeding blood doesn't make your wound any less," he instructed, waiting for Josiah to nod his agreement before closing his eyes.
Sanchez watched as Nathan closed his eyes.
+ + + + + + +
Vin approached Chris' location going as quickly as he could. He had been able to reach emergency services at the neighbor's house. They would be out soon. He had explained the different locations and that there were several injured. He was assured that all necessary help would be sent and more requested as needed.
As he slowed his horse to a stop, he saw the blond's eyes close. From the pale translucence of Larabee's skin, he could only assume that the blond was about to pass out.
Jumping from the horse to the ground, he barely registered the pain that went shooting through his injuries. In one, swift move, he removed the gun from Larabee's hand and rested Chris' head in his lap. "Stay awake, Cowboy," Vin admonished. "Help's on the way, but we still got a bit to wait."
Not receiving any response, Vin set the gun down and quickly checked the bandage on Chris' arm. It was soaked through with blood. Uttering a curse, he placed his friend's head on the ground and forced himself up to his feet, staggering slightly at the pain that lanced through him.
In a few strides he was standing beside his mount and extracted the first aid kit he had borrowed from the neighbors.
A low hiss escaped him as he knelt beside the apparently unconscious blond. Opening the kit, he found a bottle of hydrogen peroxide. "Should clean it out and wake you up all at once," he advised, taking the top off the bottle.
"Pour it straight on me and you'll have paperwork for a year," Chris threatened in a weak, raspy whisper.
Vin let out a chuckle at the threat. "You could do that, Cowboy," Vin replied. "But why put yourself through that sort of pain?"
Larabee just barely cracked his eyes open and offered a ghost of a smile. "Good point," he agreed, remembering just how awful a cooped-up Texan named Tanner could be.
Still, since his friend was now awake, Vin reached into the first aid kit again and pulled out a large gauze pad, wetting it with the peroxide. "This might still sting a bit," he informed as he began to swab the area and removed blood. Once enough blood was removed for him to more clearly see the wound, he opened another sterile pad and pressed it against the injury, eliciting a groan of protest from the blond.
In the distance he could just hear the sound of a siren approaching.
Reaching down, he winced at the pull on his back, but managed to grab the headset. "Calvary's here," he said into the device before tossing it aside to better apply pressure to the knife wound.
Vin shifted and looked at the men in the hospital room.
Somehow the powers that be had gotten four beds into the room and they were currently occupied by JD, Chris, Nathan and Buck. Since no one was there to protest, Ezra had returned to his apartment to get some sleep and Josiah refused to speak to any of them just yet.
Travis had stopped by when they were all finally settled in the room and explained that Josiah was currently talking to a psychologist friend of Travis'. Though Josiah had initially resisted the suggestion, he had, eventually, given in and visited when Travis threatened to make his suggestion an order. Both Josiah and the psychologist thought it best to wait for Josiah to begin to get over his loss and confusion before reintroducing everyone.
The A. D. had also informed the men that the forensics teams were already going over Chris' ranch, but that it would be a while before they could go back there. In the meantime, Evie, having heard what happened, had been in touch with some friends of hers and had a house ready and waiting.
It was a nice thought, but none of them wanted to impose on a stranger that way and all had refused the offer. Orin just smiled at them and said he'd let Evie know.
Now Vin was sitting quietly in the room as his friends slept.
This whole thing had been a horrible nightmare from the start. Of course, it started with Ezra and that last case, but MacDougherty was enough nightmare to keep them all sleepless for days. Thankfully, the man was in custody. One of Buck's friends from the police force had informed them that MacDougherty had been denied bail.
As far as Vin was concerned, the man could spend the rest of his life behind bars. The poison the man brewed was more than enough reason for him to stay forever imprisoned, in Vin's opinion, but the fool had actually attacked Team Seven at Chris' ranch, the one safe haven they had.
A portion of his mind couldn't help but wonder if any of them would ever be able to relax there as they once had.
His musings were cut off, however, when the door to the room opened and Ezra entered.
He watched as Standish didn't say a word, but silently took the seat opposite Vin.
At least, Vin thought, he wouldn't have to watch alone.
Ezra wandered through the silent house to the back door. Unsurprisingly, he found Vin sitting on the porch watching the night.
Letting himself out, he wandered over to his young friend and settled in a chair beside him.
The two men sat in silence as Ezra contemplated the past weeks.
So much had happened, so much pain had been revealed and some joy given. Though it had been uncomfortable, both Vin and Ezra had been given the chance to find out what it was like to have a loving father.
Of course, the mess at the ranch they could have done without, but, at least, they managed to destroy the heart of MacDougherty's organization. And Josiah got his memory back.
The first few days in the hospital had not been easy, however. In fact, they had been remarkably difficult and strained the bonds that tied the Seven together.
Josiah hadn't spoken to anyone and it had taken the threat of a direct order from Travis to convince the Profiler to speak to another professional. Eventually, Josiah had taken that gone and, whatever the psychologist was doing, was working. Josiah was getting past the pain and had forgiven the team. The biggest stumbling block he seemed to have was forgiving himself.
Buck had been treated quickly and was on his way to a full recovery. He was very happy since his physical therapist was a buxom blond about thirty years of age.
Vin and JD had their stitches repaired and were more or less ready for battle at this point in time, as was Ezra.
Chris would be wearing the sling for a little while longer, but was also expected to make a full recovery. His worst medical problem was blood loss, from which he was quickly recovering.
Nathan's diagnosis was a little more up in the air, but everything looked hopeful. The medic would be on desk duty for a while and then have to have some physical therapy in hopes of avoiding re-damaging the ligaments.
The seven men were currently staying at the home of one of Evie Travis' friends. When she found out about the damage to Chris' house and that the men were all recovering, she had insisted. The men had resisted, though, until Nettie Wells stepped in and backed her up. Raine had moved into the house as well to take care of any medical problems.
Slowly, things were working out and getting back to normal. Or, at least, what passed for normal for Team Seven.
"Late for you to be up," Ezra commented.
Vin simply nodded and continued to stare at the stars.
Ezra let the silence wrap around them for several minutes before speaking again. "Picking out constellations?" he asked his friend.
A grin lit Vin's face, his white teeth flashing in the silver light. "Pondering," he replied.
A smile curved Ezra's lips as he stared up at the stars. "Anything in particular you're 'pondering'?" he inquired.
The sounds of the night were audible for several minutes before Vin replied. "You ever heard the saying, 'born under a lucky star'?" he asked, glancing at Ezra.
Staring up at the night sky, Ezra nodded in response.
Vin turned his attention back to the night sky as well. "I was just wondering what type of star all of us were born under," he admitted.
"One named trouble," Josiah's voice replied.
Vin chuckled softly at Ezra's startled reaction as the large man stepped out to join them. "Ma used to say that, too," the sharpshooter admitted, the longing and sadness of that loss still audible in his voice.
"A wise woman," Ezra commented, appreciating the laugh he received from his friends.
"As if you have room to talk, Ezra," Josiah admonished, his gentle laughter easing the sting of the words.
"Touché," Ezra agreed as the men relaxed into silence once more. Unaware of how much time had passed, he started as Josiah began to speak once more.
"I know we've spoken about it, but I just wanted to let you both know that you are among the finest men I know." Josiah turned to watch the two young men as he continued. "My sons meant the world to me, and for years I thought that I might have children once more. The two of you do remind me of them in many ways, but I'm glad that you're my friends and my brothers. That you've chosen to be my family means more to me to me now than if you'd been born to me."
The three men sat in silence after that pronouncement, the younger two uncomfortable with the revelation and the older staring at the sky, relieved to have said what he needed to say.
"You're just saying that so you don't have to be accountable for us," Ezra accused, trying to lighten the mood. He saw Josiah smile at the accusation.
"Or answer to Chris or Travis when we get in trouble," Vin added. This comment earned him a bark of laughter from the Profiler.
"Now that, brothers, is a truth," Sanchez confirmed, chuckling softly.
Relaxed once more, the three men enjoyed the night together.
A few minutes later, the door to the house opened once more and Buck stepped out, settling in another chair.
"Quietest party I've ever been to," he teased.
"Won't be for long with you here," Vin responded dryly.
"I can be quiet, too," Buck retorted, doing his best to sound wounded.
"When?" Ezra asked before he could stop himself.
"Hey!" Buck protested before the men settled back to take in the night, proving that he could, indeed, be quiet.
JD and Nathan stepped outside next, joining the ever growing group as they stared at the night sky.
The newest arrivals had just settled into their seats when the door opened one last time and Chris stepped outside to join the rest.
With the seven men all present and accounted for, a warmth and peace that had nothing to do with the nighttime seemed to flow around them, soothing any residual hurts, healing still raw emotional wounds.
They had only been sitting there for a few minutes when JD pointed to the sky. "A shooting star," he murmured.
"Do you think it's your wish?" Josiah asked.
"My wish?" JD asked.
Josiah's smile was audible in his words as he spoke. "When Peter and Kyle were little, we used to bundle them up and take them outside at night to look at the stars. Rose taught them the rhyme about wishing on a star. You know, 'Star light / star bright / first star I see tonight / I wish I may / I wish I might / Have the wish I wish tonight'. Well, the boys thought that was all well and good until they saw their first shooting star. They were so excited," he related. "They didn't even ask us what they were, they made up their own story. Right up until they discovered that shooting stars were meteors, they believed that a shooting star was a wish come true coming to Earth. They used to hope and hope that it would be their wishes coming true."
"Adam thought they were angels racing," Chris murmured into the stillness.
Five men looked over at the two oldest who were sitting side by side on the porch before looking at each other and smiling. It was good to see Chris and Josiah willingly share stories of their children's lives. Both of them deserved to heal and remember the good times.
After that revelation, they sat in silence for, perhaps, a quarter of an hour longer before Chris rose. "We have a meeting with the District Attorney tomorrow afternoon as a group and individual sessions as well. Best we all get some sleep before then," he commanded.
A few grumbles escaped, but the seven men moved together into the house once more, teasing and talking among themselves.
Several Months Later
Team Seven sat in one of the rows behind the prosecution's table. They had all testified and were now awaiting the verdict.
Franklin MacDougherty was sitting at his table in an expensive suit next to his legal team, his family sitting behind him. The defense they had put on had been vigorous and the cross examinations brutal.
With truth and right on their side, however, each member of Team Seven felt positive that the man would be contemplating the walls of his cell for many years to come.
The door to the jury box opened and the jury stepped into the courtroom.
Eleven of the members sat, the foreman remained standing.
"Have you come to a verdict?" the judge inquired.
"We have, your Honor," the foreman replied.
"Please inform the court of your decision."
Glancing at the paper in his hand, the foreman cleared his throat and announced, "We, the jury, find the defendant guilty on all counts."
A roar of outrage drown out the list of charges. The roar from MacDougherty was followed by cries from his wife and daughter, who was only there for the finding.
Team Seven watched the reactions, knowing that they had done their best and Franklin MacDougherty was getting what he deserved.
Two Years Later
Franklin MacDougherty sat in the room, waiting for his wife and daughter to arrive. He stared at the light coming through the barred window on the wall. The previous day he had received the results of the tests the doctors had run. With aggressive therapy, he might have between one and five years left.
His prison sentence had become a death sentence. He would never again be a free man, never again walk in the woods, never have a chance to see his little girl grow up and carry out their plan.
He knew if his wife ever found out about it, she would put a stop to it, but from the moment his cell door had shut behind him, Franklin had been planning his revenge. Seeing how distraught his little girl was, how angry she was that her daddy was in jail, he knew he could use her in his plan.
The irony of it was, before he had arrived in the prison, he never would have thought of involving his daughter in anything. She was the light of his life, his angel and he never wanted to drag her into the darkness where he dwelt. Since coming to prison, however, things had changed for him, he had changed and that portion of him that had longed for his little girl to have a better life had died long ago.
He knew they would have to finish the plans soon just as he knew she wouldn't fail him.
It would be fifteen years or more before she was old enough to act, but his avenging angel wouldn't fail him.
Team Seven would pay.