Ride the River

by Armaita

Crossover "Walker, Texas Ranger"

Main Characters - Seven, Orin Travis; Characters from Walker Texas Ranger

Author's Note: I know nothing about Oklahoma's geography, so the portrayal of the Oklahoma panhandle as a deserted, sparsely populated area is strictly a figment of my imagination, and not meant as an accurate depiction. For those who do not know the tv show Walker: Texas Ranger, the characters in this crossover are Rangers Walker and Trivette. Walker is renowned for his martial arts skills while Trivette is a no-nonsense cop from Baltimore who transferred to the Texas Rangers and is partnered with Walker. Since it is the Rangers' job to enforce the law in Texas and Vin has a troubled past in the Texas town of Tascosa, I thought it would be interesting to see whether Walker and Trivette would value the law over Vin's freedom.

P.S.--the title is in reference to Texas Ranger lore...When a new Ranger proves himself to other Rangers, they claim that he'll "do to ride the river with". In other words, they will be proud to work with him.

Oklahoma Panhandle...

Vin studied the two men who literally held his life in their hands. They were Texas Rangers--Vin's worst nightmare ever since he had returned to the States after his military service. They, more than the local law enforcement officers, had been the reason he had stayed away from Texas.

"Tell us what happened," the Caucasian one ordered gently.

The African-American one snorted in disgust. "Why even ask him? It isn't our place to judge...only to arrest. Besides, we know he'll say whatever it takes to keep us from arresting him."

Vin laughed softly and then clutched his side as the ribs poked at soft tissue. The African-American Ranger fixed Vin with a stare that would have given Chris a run for his money. "What's so funny?"

Vin shook his head. "Even if you arrest me...I reckon ya won't get very far."

The Caucasian Ranger sighed. "He's right, Trivette. You saw how protective Larabee and the rest were. Still, I'd like to hear your side of the case, Agent Tanner."

Vin took as deep a breath as his cracked--and possibly broken--ribs would allow and began the tale of how the fugitive Eli Joe had tricked and framed him. "I'd only been with the U.S. Marshall Service for a few months when my partner and I were put on the trail of a dangerous convicted murderer named Eli Joe who had escaped from prison. One time, we thought we had Eli cornered, but he managed to shoot his way out, putting my partner in the hospital. My superiors offered to put someone else on the case, but I refused. I knew Eli better, and besides...now, it was personal."

The Caucasian Ranger nodded his understanding while the one called Trivette simply paced to the door of the structure they were currently occupying--a barn--and waited for the story to end.

"Unless he's trying to tell us that he was trying to murder Eli Joe to avenge his partner, I don't see how his actions could possibly be justified, Walker," Trivette said to his the older Ranger.

Vin grimaced. "He is right here, you know, and iffen I wasn't so busy trying not to choke on my own blood, your sarcasm might jist do me in." Then, in a softer tone, Vin remarked, "Aw hell, now I'm soundin' like Ez. Anyway, I tracked Eli Joe all across Texas, not making many friends in the local PDs whose jurisdiction I passed through. Finally, I thought I had him. I found the area he was most likely to be hiding in, but couldn't search all of it in one day. I was going ta come back the next day, but some local police officers showed up and arrested me for the murder of Jess Kincaid on the second morning."

"I remember the file," the Ranger called Walker commented. "He lived in the area you had been searching. The police seemed to think that you had mistaken this Jess Kincaid for Eli Joe and shot him when he ran. There was video footage from a security camera in the nearby supermarket that showed you heading for his house, and Forensics placed you in the house by finding some fibers on the sole of your boots."

Vin frowned. "I never did get that pair of boots back...and I'd barely gotten them broken in right." Sobering because Trivette had just shot him a dirty look, Vin explained. "Eli Joe broke in to my hotel room, drugged me, and took my boots. I'm always up before the sun, but that morning, the police broke down the door around noon and still had to shake me awake. Eli Joe put on a disguise so that it would look like I'd been in the area. The local PD didn't want to hear any of this--I reckon they were satisfied to find something wrong with a member of the federal level of law enforcement. I didn't intend to hang around for a trial I'd lose, so I escaped and made my way out of the country."

Now, it was Walker's turn to grimace. Law enforcement officials were supposed to work together seamlessly, regardless of rank or level, but disgruntlement had been known to develop. Whether that competition could have possibly devolved into suspicion enough to denounce a fellow lawman over a convicted murderer, Walker was not sure. "Do you have any proof of your innocence?" Walker asked. Sometimes he hated that this was necessary...he was a good judge of character, and Vin Tanner seemed to be telling the truth.

Sounds of a scuffle suddenly came from the doorway. Walker spun to face the new threat and saw that Trivette had been disarmed. The agent named Ezra Standish was standing guard over a glowering and embarrassed Trivette while ATF Team Seven leader Chris Larabee glared at Walker with unadulterated fury.

"I shot Eli Joe about a year ago in order to save Vin's life," Chris stated, his voice conveying an arctic calm that threatened to break into separate icebergs and chase Walker into the depths of oblivion if he did not believe the ATF team leader. "Unfortunately, Eli Joe took the truth about Jess Kincaid's death to his grave, which is why we try to stay away from Texas."

"I would advise both of you to eradicate this incident from your collective memories and return to your jurisdiction, Rangers," Ezra Standish spoke up. "We do not take kindly to one of our own being threatened with incarceration or death."

While Ezra had been speaking, Nathan Jackson had hurried into the barn. Moving to Vin's side, Nate checked Vin's vital signs and then inspected his wounds. Nate's face fell with every moment his examination continued. "Chris, Vin needs to be in a hospital."

The worry in Nate's voice could not be mistaken. Chris looked to Ranger Walker for help. "Where is the nearest hospital, Walker?"

Walker hesitated a moment before replying, because he knew the conflict his statement would cause. Finally, he said, "There's an emergency room in Stratford, Texas."

Almost too quickly for the eye to see, Chris drew his weapon and aimed it at Walker's chest. Ezra followed suit, but took aim at Trivette instead.

Five hours ago...

"You don't have jurisdiction, Walker!"

Texas Ranger Cordell Walker was an even-tempered man, but his patience was wearing thin, given the current situation. Taking an aggressive stance, Walker faced down the capable Assistant District Attorney he had come to call a friend, and perhaps something more. "Parker's men are dangerous, Alex, even more so now that Parker is behind bars. They'll do anything to get him out of prison, even if it means taking drugs across state lines to get the weapons they need."

"How's that for irony?" Walker's partner Jimmy Trivette stated from where he leaned on the doorframe of Alex's office door. "We've done such a good job of keeping the heavy artillery off the streets that the perpetrators have to go out of state, making it impossible for us to stop them until they come back wielding enough firepower to make the Alamo look like a slight misunderstanding."

Walker deigned not to comment about the Alamo. His Native American heritage, combined with his oath to uphold law and order made that era of history more than a little vague ethically. "It's not impossible..." Walker asserted as he placed his gun on Alex's desk. "I'm taking a few of my vacation days."

"Walker," Alex pleaded, her tone more desperate than demanding, "This isn't like that time in Mexico. You can't just become a vigilante inside the United States. I won't be able to protect you if the authorities find out about what you're planning."

Now, Cordell Walker smiled. "Who said I had a plan? Don't worry, we'll stop Parker's gang before they return with the weapons, and the local authorities won't know a thing."
Alex sighed as Cordell Walker and Jimmy Trivette strode from her office, determined to bend the law and test the limits of their jurisdiction in order to make sure no more innocent people suffered. She could not disagree with their motives...Michael Parker was a monster who thrived on other people's weaknesses. He was a drug dealer who--thanks largely to Walker and Trivette's detective work--had been arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison. Alex had tried to push for the death penalty, but the defense lawyer had played the sympathy card. Michael Parker was a seventy-one year old grandfather of six, and the jury was swayed to pity by the defense lawyer's impassioned pleas, so Michael Parker had been given life in prison rather than death by lethal injection.

+ + + + + + +

"I can't guarantee you jurisdiction," District Attorney 'Judge' Orin Travis cautioned the seven men gathered in his office. "The rate at which they're moving south and east, they'll probably hit the Rio Grand before you catch up with them."

"They wouldn't go that far," JD guessed, "I doubt even Simmons' gang wants to risk drawing the attention of the Texas Rangers."

Buck gave a short laugh, one sound of mirth in the too-tense atmosphere. "The kid's right. Texans like their hardware, but only as long as they're the ones carrying."

"Simmons killed three cops and an undercover FBI agent, Judge," Chris stated in an icily calm voice. Orin Travis almost wished Chris would get angry...this cool, quiet rage was unnerving, and Orin was grateful that he had done nothing to deserve it. "He disappeared, and the only lead we have is to get to him through his gang. Maybe, if we arrest them, someone will turn on him. I don't care if Simmons' gang ran all the way to China; I would still track them down and bring them to justice."

"Amen to that," Josiah intoned, and Orin Travis looked at the usually reserved, serene man suspiciously. If even Josiah was advocating turning this posse loose against the Simmons gang, then Craig Simmons and his friends were in for one hell of a fight.

"I, too, share our young coworker's opinion that it would be an unwise choice to flee to the lone star state, however," Ezra gave a dimpled smirk and then concluded with a drawl, "perhaps Mistah Dunne has forgotten the reputation our fine assemblage has attained in these parts."

Nathan nodded his agreement. "We probably seem more fearsome than the Texas Rangers. After all, they're scattered throughout that state, whereas we are known for sticking together and finishing cases...no matter where they may lead."

Orin Travis looked to the final member of Team Seven, hoping that at least one of them still had a smidgeon of sense. "Tell me you don't agree with this," Travis practically begged of the final member of the Seven, "I mean, you're injured!"

Every man on Team Seven--with the notable exception of Tanner himself--flinched at the observation. Aside from Chris' furtive, worried glances and Nate's occasional fussing, the rest of Team Seven had been trying their best not to draw attention to the tender way Vin had been moving since the failed bust mere hours ago. Vin had fallen out of the rafters when some members of Simmons' gang had started taking potshots at him, and only the crates of merchandise had broken his fall. As a result, Vin had hurt several ribs, and though Nate assured the team that they were only bruised rather than cracked or broken, Vin still would not be at his best for a few weeks.

They knew Vin would be self-conscious and embarrassed until he was completely recovered, and none of them liked drawing attention to his weakness. Vin only smiled. "All the more reason t'go after 'em," he stated softly, but the steely determination in his voice could not be dismissed. "We'll be fine, Judge," Vin continued, "but if you don't let us git going, they'll be in Mexico before we get anywhere near them."

Orin Travis sighed and leaned back in his desk chair. "Fine. I'll make some calls, warn the local departments that you're coming. Hopefully, they will be cooperative. Good luck."

"As an astute guardian of the law and soldier against the less acceptable members of society, I detest taking chances, and as such do not depend upon luck," Ezra stated cheekily."

"I don't know about that," Buck retorted, "What about that bust last month? That frontal attack against most of the buyers seemed like you were counting on luck..."

Ezra and Buck's voices, along with the occasional comment from Josiah, JD or Nate faded as most of Team Seven exited Orin Travis' office and headed for the elevator. Only Chris and Vin stayed behind, and after Chris had conveyed his gratitude for the allowances Travis was making, Chris and Vin also left--Chris holding the door open for Vin so that the injured sharpshooter did not have to strain himself further.

Orin Travis stared after Team Seven, hoping that they were up to the task of taking down Simmons' gang and returning safely.

+ + + + + + +

Michael Parker's most loyal men were the only ones left. Thanks to Rangers Walker and Trivette, their numbers had been cut nearly in half; however, the remaining members were even more determined to teach the capable Texas Rangers a lesson.

"I knew I should have stayed in California," Kevin Richards complained loudly from the third-row seat of the station wagon the gang had stolen for their ride up to the area between Texas and Colorado known as the panhandle. Parker still had a few out-of- state connections, and he had directed the men to head north in search of quality weaponry. "The state police out there have nothing on these Rangers. Have you heard about Walker? He's part Indian...they say he can track a man through anything."

Robert Jefferson glared at the squat, powerfully built man who now quivered in the back seat. "Shut up, Richards. Walker isn't perfect. Besides, even Indians can't track across more than a hundred miles of blacktop and gravel. Are the rest of you still with me on this?"

Several reluctant affirmatives came back to him from the other seats, and Robert Jefferson rolled his dark green eyes exasperatedly before focusing again on the road ahead. Checking the rearview mirror briefly, Robert Jefferson noted that even his unnaturally pale white skin looked slightly off-color, meaning that his own fears about this plan were not as well-hidden as he had hoped. "Come on, guys," Robert Jefferson continued reassuringly. "There's seven of us and only two of them. Mr. Parker said he just got word that a gang by the name of Simmons will meet up with us and trade with us--guns for the drugs we have in back. You all do want to get Mr. Parker back, right? Then we can return to the good old days...patrolmen afraid of us, taking anything we want, doing whatever we want..."

"You're right, Rob," a stocky man named Eugene Kinsey replied. "This will be easy. Those two Rangers just got lucky. They took us by surprise is all."

Outwardly, Robert Jefferson agreed, but only to keep his brothers in crime from becoming uneasy. The truth was that Michael Parker's gang had become careless, but the Rangers were also very good. The black one held his own in a fight and Walker was unmatched in any combat, be it with guns, blades, or bare hands. It was for that reason that Robert was comforted by the exchange they were trying to make. No matter how good Walker and his partner were, Robert Jefferson was reasonably certain that they would not be able to stand up to infinitely superior firepower.

That sliver of a doubt made Robert Jefferson push the car to the speed limit, hoping to reach the weapons-for-guns exchange before the talented Ranger and his capable partner caught up with the already diminished gang.

+ + + + + + +

"You do realize that this constitutes a felony?" Edward Duarte inquired as he helped to load the last of the automatic weapons into the back of the van the Simmons gang would use to travel to Oklahoma.

"What, transporting stolen weapons across state lines?" Gerard Owen snapped as he placed a box of cartridges next to a pile of M16s. "Of course it is, but would you rather wait around here and have those seven ATF agents arrest us? Mr. Simmons said this deal is a sure thing. He knows Parker from when they served some time together, so all we have to do is make it to Oklahoma, unload this, and sell off the drugs in New Mexico before anyone catches up with us. Then, it's just a short trip to Mexico, where ATF Team Seven can't follow."

"You've got to love jurisdiction issues," a third man joked as they finished loading the van, and then all five men piled in and burned rubber, heading south.

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Vin, Nathan and Ezra tailed the Simmons gang in Chris' black truck while Buck, JD and Josiah followed Chris in Buck's car. With every passing mile, Chris noticed Vin become increasingly restless.

At a rest stop, Chris pulled Vin aside and asked what was wrong. Vin tried to avoid the question, but finally caved at Chris' insistence.

"The area we're headin' toward..." Vin confessed, "is a mite too close to Tascosa for my liking."

Chris' eyes narrowed in confusion. "It's a few hours away, sure, but you don't think anyone would try to take you in, do you?" Eli Joe was a convicted murderer. Because Vin had gotten too close to catching him, Eli Joe had framed Vin for murder.

Since he had not committed the crime, Vin didn't hang around to be tried for it. Instead, he had changed his appearance but kept his name, and joined an elite, top-secret unit of the covert ops. In those circles, rumors that he was a cold-blooded killer served only to increase his value to the unit, and the case had been buried as a favor upon his release from service to that unit. However, the case was still open, merely sidelined, so Vin's worry might be warranted.

Vin shrugged and then had to hide a wince at the pain that the motion caused. "Texas is a beautiful place, pard, but they look after their own."

Chris shook his head in disbelief, but acknowledged Vin's concern. "We have a justice system in this country...people don't get lynched anymore. Besides, you know the boys won't let anything happen to you."

Vin looked away, slightly embarrassed that Chris thought he was calling the team's loyalty into question. "I ain't talkin' about the locals, Chris."

Comprehension brightened Chris' eyes as he realized what Vin actually feared. "We'll guard against the Rangers too, then. If we cross paths with any Texas Rangers, they'll only take you into custody over my dead body."

Pain flashed briefly in Vin's eyes before his self-control reasserted itself, but he nodded and accepted Chris' comforting words. Only when Chris had turned away and headed back toward the truck did Vin whisper--too quietly for Chris to hear--"That's what I'm afraid of, cowboy."

+ + + + + + +

"I know where they're headed," Cordell Walker claimed as he climbed into his metallic blue truck. His partner, Jimmy Trivette, had barely taken his own seat when Walker sent the vehicle into a skidding U-turn and took off down a gravel highway.

Ranger Trivette tried not to look too annoyed as he fastened his seat belt. "You mind telling me where, or maybe even how you know this? Are we working with witness statements or is this another vision?"

Sending a harsh look that was not entirely joking, Walker cautioned, "Don't mock the spirits, Trivette. The waitress at that truck stop remembered the group we're looking for."

"You still haven't answered my question about where they're going," Jimmy Trivette noted to no avail. Walker simply stayed silent and drove faster.

+ + + + + + +

"There's nothing out here but an abandoned barn and a burnt-out old farmhouse," JD complained. "Why hasn't this area been bought up for development, anyway? It's definitely not in use."

Josiah started to treat JD to a lecture on how certain areas of Oklahoma had been over-used for farming and as such were of little agricultural value, and Nathan contributed the view that, since this was the infamous Tornado Alley, perhaps no one wanted to be constantly rebuilding their properties.

All that chatter stopped instantly when Vin stated quietly, "It ain't abandoned."

Chris borrowed the binoculars Vin had been using and noticed what Vin meant. "We'll need a closer look, but there's very little cover between here and there. We should send the smallest of us, who are also the fastest runners."

Buck immediately protested as he saw the other team members' collective gazes settle on Vin and JD as the logical choices. "No, we should send the most experienced," Buck countered, knowing that his time as a Navy Seal would put him among the scouts, whereas JD would be safe back here with the others.

"Much as I find Mistah Wilmington's concern for our more slightly built compatriots touching," Ezra drawled, "his self-sacrifice would not be a tactically sound maneuver, and as such ought to be avoided."

Chris grimaced. "Ez is right. Buck, we need you here in case anything goes wrong. You're the next best shot with a rife. Here...Vin, JD, take these headsets, and report when you discover anything about the Simmons gang. Also, try to find out who the other players are...I don't recognize that station wagon. We may be looking at an exchange, rather than a hideout." Vin and JD both accepted the headsets. Chris told JD to be careful, gave Vin a look that said much the same thing, and then settled in to wait while two of his men went into a danger from which he could not protect them.

+ + + + + + +

"We're splitting up, aren't we?" Ranger Trivette asked as Walker pulled the blue truck to a stop almost a mile away from the dilapidated barn, outside which the Parker gang's station wagon, along with an unknown party's van were parked.

Cordell Walker considered their options. As far as he was concerned, there were three possibilities. They could stay together, and charge the barn on foot. However, if there was a lookout posted, that option would be tantamount to suicide. They could drive the truck straight into the barn, trying to take the Parker gang and whatever company they might have by surprise. However, not knowing exactly how many they were going up against, combined with the state of the barn's structural integrity, also made that plan unacceptably risky. The third option was to split up, go in on foot, and hope that the sparse cover between here and there allowed them to infiltrate the barn successfully.

Walker nodded, "Looks like it. Let's go."

+ + + + + + +

Ranger Jimmy Trivette was crouched behind some scrub brush fifty yards from the barn when he felt a presence behind him. He had barely started to raise his weapon when a young, male voice called out quietly, "Don't move. I'm Agent Dunne, ATF. Identify yourself."

Trivette did not relax entirely--after all, he and Walker had handled cases were the bad guys either were cops or were pretending to be law enforcement officials--but he did comply with the voice's demands slowly, turning to face the man who had somehow gotten the drop on him. He saw a young man with dark brown hair, who appeared to be a teenager--certainly too young to be in federal law enforcement. Nervous about the implications of this observation, Trivette raised his hands in front of him, trying to seem non- threatening while actually preparing for an assault that might be necessary. "How did you do that? I thought my partner was the only one who moved without making noise."

The young man grinned; obviously he was proud of his achievement. "My friend Vin taught me. Who are you?"

Trivette decided to take a chance. "My name is Jimmy Trivette. I'm a Texas Ranger."

Unfortunately, that response only served to raise the young man's suspicions. "Texas? Aren't you out of your jurisdiction?"

"Yeah," Trivette admitted, "a bit." He moved his hands to emphasize what he was saying as he inched his foot closer to the young man. "See, what happened was--" Trivette stopped talking, instead performing the maneuver Walker had showed him. Seconds later, the young man who had given the name of Dunne was disarmed and flat on the ground. "Walker finally taught me something useful. Put your hands behind your back."

JD obeyed, but at the same time he sighed and muttered. "They guys will never let me live this one down." In a slightly louder voice, JD informed Ranger Trivette, "My credentials are in my wallet, in my right pants pocket."

Trivette checked, found that the young man was telling the truth, and released him from the handcuffs. "You're one to talk about jurisdiction. Shouldn't you work only in Colorado?"

JD explained why they had pursued this gang across state lines, and Trivette returned the favor by telling of his and Walker's motivations to exceed their authority.

"Is this Walker guy as nervous as you?" JD asked in trepidation.

"Walker? Nervous?" Trivette laughed. "Nah, Walker doesn't get nervous, but he's more skilled in hand-to- hand than me. What's wrong?" Trivette asked as he saw Agent Dunne's face go a few shades paler.

"I'm not the only one out here," JD confessed. "If your partner finds Vin and doesn't give him a chance to explain himself..."

With their primary shared emotion one of fear, Agent Dunne and Ranger Trivette started searching the perimeter, hoping to find either Vin Tanner or Cordell Walker before the other two met face to face.

+ + + + + + +

Vin crouched next to a twisted, rusty piece of scrap metal that jutted out of the ground at an angle. He studied the barn and the two vehicles outside it, straining to hear anything that might be transpiring inside the barn. The more he could find out, the safer his friends would be when they did finally storm the place. That was why he had risked coming so close to the barn; even now, he was barely forty feet away. His hand clenched tighter around the grip of his handgun as he heard the wind rustle behind him, and the sixth sense that had made him so valuable to Team Seven screamed out that he was not alone.

"Freeze," someone said, and Vin knew instantly that he could not obey. If the voice belonged to a criminal, then Vin would most likely be shot for being a witness to whatever was going on in the barn. If the voice was that of a legitimate lawman, then Vin's history with Texas meant that he could not risk being arrested.

Keeping low to the ground, Vin swung his right foot out in a sweeping kick that would have sent most men flying. His opponent only caught the leg and threw Vin to the ground, grappling for a solid hold.

Vin noticed that his opponent also had a gun, but that neither he nor his opponent had tried to use the weapons. Vin regained control of his leg by catching his opponent's right arm in a lock that would break the elbow if enough pressure was applied.

Rather than succumbing to the excruciatingly painful hold, Vin's opponent placed a powerful blow directly into the nerve center concentrated under Vin's jaw. Involuntarily, Vin released his hold on the other man's arm and backed into the piece of rusted metal, leaning against it for support.

Vin placed a hand to his ribcage. Though he had not yet taken any blows to that area, the strain of fighting his opponent had reawakened the ache he had acquired by falling from the rafters of the warehouse where Team Seven had tried to bus the Simmons gang.

For the first time, Vin actually stopped and observed his opponent, sizing him up in full, rather than merely evaluating on a blow-by- blow basis how much trouble he was in. The observations nearly made Vin groan in defeat.

Vin's opponent was older than him by more than a decade, but age was a deceptive thing. From the man's stance--the easy yet tense body language that told Vin this man was ready for any blow Vin would try to deliver--Vin knew that his opponent was adept at the martial arts. The man had shoulder-length reddish-brown hair, blue eyes, and features that hinted at Native American ancestry. Vin's gaze travelled to the rest of his opponent's figure, taking in the cowboy boots, denim pants, fitted shirt, leather jacket, and then his gaze stuck temporarily on the small badge decorating the left side of his opponent's chest. The star in a circle denoted only one law enforcement group...and it was one that Vin would have preferred to avoid.

Meeting his opponent's steady, piercing gaze, Vin said, "Sorry, Ranger. I didn't realize your patrols took you this far north." Vin picked up his gun from where it had fallen on the ground during the fight and holstered it. "The name's Vin Tanner, ATF out of Denver."

"Cordell Walker," the Texas Ranger replied, shaking Vin's hand. "Where did you learn to fight like that?"

Vin noted the approval in Ranger Walker's voice, but also knew that the question might be a test. "I picked up bits and pieces along the way. When you grow up unpopular, ya learn fast how to hit back hard and accurate. Sorry if I hurt you, but you surprised me."

Ranger Walker's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Do I know you from somewhere?" he asked. "Your name sounds familiar, and I'm usually good at remembering faces."

Vin thought instantly of the various records of his name and face that must be available to a man with Walker's resources. Incident reports, bench warrants, and other documents...all were provided, compliments of his pseudo-fugitive status. "I don't think we've ever met, Ranger Walker."

"Please, it's just Walker," the Texas Ranger told Vin. "What is the Denver ATF doing in Oklahoma?"

Vin nodded toward the barn and explained that they had chased a gang out of the state. When he identified the van as belonging to the Simmons gang, Walker responded by telling Vin that the Parker gang had escaped in the station wagon.

"We ought to regroup...tell the rest of the guys what's going on here," Vin suggested. "I'm here with six other ATF agents, how about you?"

Walker gave a modest smile. "It's only my partner and me, but we can usually handle anything that comes our way."

Vin turned and lead the way back to where Team Seven was waiting. "With skills like that, somehow I'm not surprised."

+ + + + + + +

JD and Ranger Trivette caught up with Vin and Walker moments before they returned to where Team Seven was planning its assault against the barn and its unknown number of temporary inhabitants.

Chris was the first to realize that his men had returned with company, and the least happy about it. "Who are you?" he said, trying to keep his tone neutral but failing. It was never pleasant to be surprised by armed men...and even less so in the current situation.

Vin lead the way, eager to keep Walker from noticing too much. Maybe if this entire incident went down like any other bust, then Walker would not think too hard on exactly where he recalled seeing Vin before. "Chris, this is Cordell Walker, and that's Jimmy Trivette. They're Texas Rangers, trying to track down a seven- man gang from the Dallas area."

Chris' face set stubbornly, and he ground out, "We're from Denver, Rangers, not Dallas."

Walker gave a small smile as he noted that this ATF team had seven members, and Trivette stepped in to play peacemaker. "We weren't trying to insinuate anything. Vin told us all about you, Agent Larabee..." Trivette grinned, "and JD told us about everyone else on your team."

"I certainly hope not," Buck complained jokingly. "Some of those stories were just for your education, JD, not for every stranger's enjoyment."

JD did his best to glare at Buck, but since he knew it was a joke, the glare got caught somewhere between a look and a laugh.

Vin nodded to Walker and indicated Buck Wilmington. "That would be Bucklin, our ladies man."

Walker smiled gently, well aware that though these men appeared to be ATF agents, it would still be best not to agitate them. Given the odds they were facing if the two gangs had joined forces, Walker preferred ATF Team Seven's cooperation. "I guessed as much."

"If I may direct the Rangers to the more pertinent subject of criminal apprehension, our combined efforts might be best utilized in overcoming the unseemly conglomeration of miscreants in the derelict structure located nearby."

"And you must be Ez," Cordell Walker guessed, his smile widening.

"Yeah, JD told us you had a vocabulary that would make Merriam- Webster blush," Trivette added.

Ezra gave a long-suffering sigh. "Ez-ra. My first name has two syllables, a fact my coworkers--it pains me to say--seem too dense to grasp."

Trivette ignored Ezra's rant, instead focusing on the other black man in their group. "You must be Nathan Jackson."

Nate smiled. "You can call me Nate, and he's Josiah. You've already met Chris."

Chris was trying not to immediately call out the pair of Texas Rangers. It seemed far too convenient that two law enforcement officers would be out here in the middle of nowhere, right where Team Seven ended up. Chris whispered an instruction to Vin and handed him his cell phone. The leader of Team Seven couldn't help but notice that the Ranger named Walker was doing the same with his partner, except that Trivette used his own cell phone rather than borrowing Walker's. "Can I talk to you alone, Ranger Walker?" Chris asked in a tone that implied anything except an affirmative answer would result in loss of limb.

"Sure," Walker replied non-threateningly, but his gaze said otherwise.

Chris was reminded of Vin when Walker did that. Vin could be extremely polite with his voice and mannerisms, but still manage to intimidate, offend, or anger a suspect with a single, knowing look. Chris and Walker moved away from Team Seven, and Chris stated pointedly, "Let's get one thing straight, Walker. I protect my team. I don't care which of us leads this bust, as long as it's the person who will keep my men safe."

Walker stared at Chris for a moment, assessing the man before he said anything foolish. The Texas Ranger had dealt with men like this many times during his life (he had even been such a man at one time)--honorable about certain subjects, and willing to compromise all other goals to uphold what he held most dear. That was not to say that this ATF team leader was a bad man...quite the opposite, in fact. Larabee most likely did not consider how brazen or offensive he appeared because he had suffered a deep loss in the not too distant past. In his best commiserating tone, Walker asked, "Who did you lose, Agent Larabee? The only time I've seen someone as angry and afraid as you are now was in the mirror, and that was after I killed the men responsible for my fiancée's death."

Chris could not hide the pain in his eyes. It was clear that this Ranger Walker was a man much like himself...dedicated to his own code of ethics and willing to commit any act in the name of that code. "My wife and son died in a fire that was meant to kill me," Chris replied, and explained the entire sordid affair with Ella. "I'm sorry if I offended you earlier," Chris concluded, "It's just that, where Team Seven is concerned..."

Walker nodded. "They're family. I understand. Don't worry, I wouldn't plan anything that would put my partner in danger either. That being said, I think you have the ultimate authority. You are a member of a federal law enforcement agency, whereas Rangers can only supersede law agencies within Texas' territory. I'll follow your lead. What did you have in mind?"

+ + + + + + +

"No, Alex, I'm not telling you that we've actually found Vin Tanner," Jimmy Trivette stated with waning patience. The lie Walker had asked him to tell was becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. At some level he had known that going up against an assistant district attorney would be just as difficult as taking the witness stand, if not worse. "This is a name Walker wanted you to look into. For all I know, it's something he remembered from a case that was closed long ago. Please, we're in the middle of nowhere, and Walker got frustrated with me putting those laptops on his expense account every time we got into a high- speed chase, so I didn't bring one with me this time...Thanks...yeah, I'll wait."

Trivette held the phone close to his ear and glanced around the immediate area, trying to make sure that no one overheard his conversation. This ATF Team Seven seemed like an almost rabidly loyal group--it was much like the Texas Rangers in that regard--and he doubted they would appreciate either Trivette or Walker checking up on any of its members.

Alex Cahill returned to the phone with disturbing news. Trivette had to mentally restrain himself from drawing his sidearm and going after this Vin Tanner personally. The case file seemed to suggest that Vin Tanner had been with the U.S. Marshalls for only a short time, when he had taken the law into his own hands, and murdered an innocent man. Moreover, Vin had had the nerve to skip town before he could be tried, and had not resurfaced since. There were rumors about a dirty- blond-haired ghost who terrorized the criminal element and saved the innocent, but those stories were several years old, occurred overseas, and might not even be the same man.

"That's all I have for now," Alex Cahill's voice could be heard over the line. "I'll keep digging, and call you back as soon if I discover anything else. Jimmy?"

"Yes?" Trivette wasn't really listening at this point...he was more concerned with finding Walker and warning him about how dangerous Vin Tanner was. How Tanner had managed to fool the other six men of this team was a mystery to Trivette.

"Tell me you aren't planning anything dangerous," Alex Cahill begged.

Trivette grimaced. Alex Cahill was a strong woman, but when she worried about Walker, a completely different side of her asserted itself. "This is Cordell we're talking about, Alex...but I'll do my best to keep him safe."

Trivette closed the cell phone and went to find Walker, not seeing Ezra Standish hiding in the shadows of twilight nearby.

+ + + + + + +

"We have a problem," Ezra stated shortly, knowing that if he spoke more simply it would grab Chris' attention better than a lengthy speech.

Sure enough, Chris quickly excused himself from looking over a rough sketch of the barn's layout and turned to Ezra. "What is it?"

Ezra explained what he had overheard Ranger Trivette discovering. "I fear that our able sharpshooter will be unjustly convicted by these righteous but misguided lone star state law enforcement officials," Ezra concluded when he had given Chris the details of Trivette's phone conversation.

Chris grimaced. It was his fault that Vin could not clear his name. After all, it had been Chris who shot Eli Joe. Granted, Eli Joe had been attempting to kill Vin at the time, but now Vin was forced to lead a careful, quiet life, staying below the radar and out of the media, all because Eli Joe could no longer be forced to testify as to Vin's innocence.

Since it was Chris' fault, Chris accepted full responsibility for the consequences. "I'll take care of it," Chris told Ezra and then walked away, leaving Ezra bewildered and not reassured in the least.

Ezra resolved to inform his other coworkers after Chris told them the plan for attacking the barn, but before the actual deployment occurred. That way, he could be certain that neither Texas Ranger would overhear him requesting the rest of Team Seven's help in case this came to weapons being drawn against their resident sharpshooter.

+ + + + + + +

"Could you please check on their identities, Judge?" Vin asked when the secretary finally patched him through to Orin Travis. "Chris thinks it's mighty convenient, these Texas Rangers showing up just when we wouldn't mind a little extra backup, and I agree with him. Cordell Walker and Jimmy Trivette were the names they gave. Sure, I can wait."

Vin looked around him as he stayed on the line. His instincts were screaming that he was in danger, though beyond the usual, Vin couldn't imagine what might be waiting for him...unless this fear had something to do with the Rangers. When Orin Travis came back on the line, Vin's fears were confirmed.

"Trivette was originally a cop from Baltimore who transferred to the Rangers a few years ago," Travis informed Vin. "Since they teamed up, Walker and Trivette have cut a sizeable swath through organized crime in and around Dallas, even going undercover several times each, at great personal risk to themselves. Walker assumed the identity of a known hit man and went to prison in order to get evidence against mob boss Joey Galloway. Both Walker and Trivette work with various support groups around the city...anti- drug programs, self-confidence building seminars, karate classes..."

"They're boy scouts," Vin whispered, and Orin Travis protested.

"I don't see that in either of their files," Orin Travis claimed. "Although, Walker did receive some rather unconventional training in his life. He learned the martial arts while recovering from wounds after fighting in Korea and can survive in the wilderness indefinitely due to his heritage."

"His heritage?" Vin asked, his interest piqued.

"Yes, Walker isn't his real name," Orin Travis continued. "It's Firewalker...or at least that was his father's Cherokee surname. His mother was white. From what I've been able to find, he had a tough time of it; both his parents were killed when he was six, and he was raised by his father's brother after that. My guess is that he shortened his name when he was trying to get into law enforcement. People are more accepting now than they were fifteen years ago."

"I take it, that's when he joined the Rangers," Vin asked, though his thoughts were elsewhere. Orin Travis confirmed his guess, Vin thanked him and hung up, but he was thinking about his discussion with Chris earlier. If Walker or Trivette connected him to that mess with Eli Joe several years ago, they might act without listening to his side of the story.

Vin sighed and went to find Chris. Though he was, by habit, a private man, Vin had learned to accept help from the men of ATF Team Seven...and this was beginning to look like one of those times when all of his friends would be needed in order to arrest the criminals while simultaneously keeping himself from being arrested by self-righteous Texas Rangers.

+ + + + + + +

When Trivette told Walker what Alex had uncovered about Vin, Walker's reaction was one of moderate surprise.

"So, when do we arrest this guy?" Trivette asked quietly. "Before or after the raid? I don't know if I trust him to have my back, much less turning my back to him."

Walker shook his head. "The other six seem to trust him. You know how many times we've questioned people who were frightened of someone close to them...abuse cases, extortion, things like that. Are you getting that impression in this case?"

"Well, no," Trivette admitted, "but the man was as good as guilty. He ran away after shooting an innocent man."

"Exactly," Walker replied and turned to walk back toward the ATF agents.

"Walker, don't do this to me," Trivette complained in a slightly louder voice. "You're figuring things out again, and not telling me how you got to that conclusion, or even what the conclusion is."

Walker only smiled. "Follow my lead, and don't try to arrest anyone until we have the full story." What he did not tell Trivette was that for six lawmen to trust a cold-blooded killer, either those six men were all fools or the cold-blooded killer was not what he seemed to be. Walker had a few ideas for how to find out if indeed the other six men knew Tanner's alleged wrongdoings.

+ + + + + + +

Walker listened to Chris Larabee's plan for busting the two gangs and had to acknowledge the tactical prowess of the ATF team leader. In fact, it was similar to a plan Walker might have come up with; just the right mixture of distraction, panic and force should turn the odds in their favor. At nine law enforcement officers to the twelve criminals, Walker was willing to take any advantage he could get.

After Chris had finished outlining the plan, Walker drew JD aside and asked about Vin. "I was wondering," Walker started, "your friend, Vin Tanner...he looks like he's moving gingerly. It seems like he hurt his ribs recently. Is he up to this?"

"Vin's always ready for action," JD affirmed, and then reconsidered. "Well, there was that one time he caught the plague, but he got over that after Ez had the best doctors flown in at his own expense. Vin will be fine. He fell thirty feet from the rafters of the warehouse earlier today when we were trying to bust the Simmons gang. He did manage to take out four before they got him, though."

Walker noted JD's use of the phrase 'take out' and wondered how one caught the plague these days, but only asked, "What is he, then...your sniper?"

"He's great in hand-to-hand too," JD replied, "but yeah, usually, he watches our backs from the rafters. It drives him crazy when there isn't a good position to shoot from...I guess he worries about being able to protect us. Last month, at this bust, he--"

Agent Dunne continued talking, but Walker had stopped listening. Not only was he shocked by the degree of trust this agent put in an alleged killer, but also, Vin had looked up from where he stood, fifty feet away, and fixed an intense gaze on Walker. Realistically, Walker knew that there was no way Vin Tanner could have overheard his interrogation of JD Dunne, but still, that gaze was unnerving.

He could only assume that the young agent was too naïve to see the darker side of Vin Tanner, and hoped that Trivette was having more success in questioning the seemingly honest, open, and friendly ladies man.

+ + + + + + +

Vin talked to Chris about the possible danger to himself after Chris gave a detailed description of how they would arrest the Simmons and Parker gangs. "We might have some trouble after the bust, Chris," Vin stated quietly, trying not to draw the attention of the other men, who were all moving slowly away, making their preparations for the assault on the barn.

"The Texas Rangers?" Chris asked, though he seemed fairly certain of the answer. A moment later, Vin understood. "Ezra overheard Trivette checking your history. I noticed that Ez is warning the others...those Rangers won't surprise us after the raid, and I doubt before will be an issue."

"That's the impression I got from talking to the Judge," Vin confirmed. "They're a great crime- fighting team down in Dallas. They're smart, but I don't think they're reckless."

Chris smiled without humor. "Which means, they aren't below using you during the bust and then arresting you afterwards. We won't let that happen. Now, do you think you'll be able to take the stragglers from out here?"

Vin restrained a sigh. "I still don't like that part of the plan. It puts the team in more danger than if I could somehow get into the hayloft."

Chris' expression softened. "You know that wouldn't work. The distraction will draw the gangs out, but it will also make them more alert. No, the best way is for you to cover us from farther out. Think of it like every other bust we've done, just farther away."

Vin looked like he was about to reply, but then cocked his head sideways, as though listening for something that Chris had not heard. "Ya hear anything interesting, Ranger Walker?"

Chris started as he realized that Walker had been observing them for some time. Just when Walker had come into hearing range, Chris could not be sure, and that fact frightened him.

However, Walker made no accusations about collaborating with a known fugitive. Instead, he politely suggested that he and Vin might work together. Walker smiled. "I can make some pretty convincing diversions. While I'm drawing their fire, Vin could reach the barn with no problem, and have a better position to cover us from. JD tells me that Vin is a good shot."

Chris had to hold back a chuckle. Knowing JD, Vin's accomplishments had probably been exaggerated into Herculean myths...which would still make them not too far from being the truth. Clearly this Cordell Walker was another man who--like Vin--specialized in understatements. Unfortunately, Walker was also a Ranger, and suspected to be hostile toward Vin, so allowing Vin to work with Walker would be unwise. However, refusing such a reasonable suggestion would make Vin look even guiltier than the Ranger undoubtedly already assumed, so all Team Seven could do was play it cool, and hope that Walker wasn't the kind to shoot first and ask questions later.

"That sounds like a good idea, as long as Vin agrees," Chris replied, not wanting to force his friend into any situation with which the sniper did not feel comfortable.

Vin gave a barely perceptible shrug of his shoulders. "It's where I'd rather be, cowboy," Vin told Chris quietly.

Walker looked confused by the use of the term 'cowboy', but decided not to press his luck. He had Vin right where he wanted him...in a place where he could take Tanner out if the fugitive became a danger to Trivette. Walker excused himself and went to tell Trivette the good news.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin? He should probably be in the hospital, but none of us like hospital stays. Don't you worry, he'll be fine for this bust." Buck laughed. "But I think Nate will probably try to slip him some sedatives for the ride back to Denver. Otherwise, Vin and JD will be causing too much trouble."

"Trouble?" Trivette asked in concern. He did not know how Walker's talk with Agent JD Dunne was going, but from what Trivette could gather, he was about to make a break in this case. "Do you mean Vin would become violent?"

Buck threw a disbelieving look in Trivette's direction. "Only if one of us was dumb enough to come between Tanner and his chocolate candy. Chris is the only one who could get away with that, and he wouldn't even try.

Trivette was nearly ready to give up on this investigation when he saw Walker breaking away from Agents Larabee and Tanner. Meeting Walker halfway, Trivette reported, "I can't get anything on this guy. His teammates--the ones I talked to, anyway--all seem to think he's loyal, good, and kind. Please tell me you got something."

Walker smiled. "Sure...I'm his backup for the bust." Before Trivette could protest, Walker continued, "I will draw the gangs' attention and their fire so that Vin Tanner can get into a better position for using his sharpshooting skills."

Trivette stared at Walker for a moment before the sheer audacity of the plan--or perhaps stupidity was the better word--finally penetrated his awareness. "Are you crazy? How do you know he won't shoot you the first chance he gets? Clearly, the out-of- state law enforcement all thinks he's great, but he knows we're Texas Rangers. If he even suspects we know what he's done..."

"It will be fine, Trivette," Walker reassured his partner. "Don't forget how good of a shot I am. At the first sign of trouble, I'll take him down."

Trivette sighed. "I just hope that's soon enough." Nathan called for them to start the attack on the barn that still housed the gangs, and the pair of Texas Rangers split up, Jimmy Trivette crouching between JD and Buck in the knee-height grass west of the barn, Josiah and Nate approaching the gangs' vehicles on the east side, Chris and Ezra approaching stealthily from the south, and Walker and Vin sneaking closer to the barn's main entrance on the north side, almost invisible, even to the men of Team Seven and Trivette, who knew where they were headed.

Moments later, Josiah and Nathan reached their goal. Setting the makeshift fuses, they backed away and waited for the explosions to occur.

When the van and station wagon blew up, most of the criminals ran out to see what the commotion was. Only the most cunning, dangerous ones stayed inside, recognizing the explosions for what they were, a diversionary tactic.

Cries of 'Freeze, ATF' and 'Texas Ranger, drop your weapons' filled the night as everyone but Vin started firing. Vin, with some assistance from Walker, grabbed the sill of a high window and pulled himself up. Once in position, Vin opened the window, climbed inside, found solid footing, and accepted the rifle Walker tossed up after him.

As soon as his fingers closed around the stock of the weapon, Vin immediately brought it to bear on the threats closest to his friends. Walker found cover nearby and also joined in the fight, but he was amazed by the heavy, loud sound of the rifle above him. Not only was this Vin Tanner fast...he was also incredibly accurate. Walker noticed that Vin did not take a kill shot unless he absolutely had to; when one of the criminals was about to kill Chris Larabee, Cordell Walker aimed his handgun at the criminal in question, but knew that it was at the edge of his range for accuracy with that type of weapon. Before he could fire, the criminal dropped to the ground, a bullet hole between his eyes blossoming bright red as he disappeared from view. Walker was grateful that Vin did not have reason to attack the Rangers.

The shooting died down quickly, and most of ATF Team Seven started the process of arresting the criminals and reading them their Miranda rights. JD and Buck marched the survivors over to Chris' truck, where Josiah stood guard over them, and Nathan tended to the more serious wounds. Ezra, Chris, and Trivette started toward the barn and Walker went inside, to see what was keeping Tanner from joining his friends. What he saw, made Walker stop in his tracks.

The Texas Rangers and ATF team had been so concerned with their odds against the combined forces of Parker's men and the Simmons gang that no one had considered the possibility that the gang members might turn on each other at the first sign of violence. A man Walker did not recognize was bleeding on the dirt floor of the abandoned barn. Walker cleared the immediate area with his sidearm and then moved to help the disarmed and fatally wounded man. Though the injured man was not yet dead, Walker could tell it was only a matter of time.

"Serves me right for telling him," the wounded man muttered darkly, and then gasped in pain.

Walker crouched beside the dying man and covered his wound. Though it was a hopeless attempt, it was instinct. Walker had seen too many of his fellow soldiers die in Korea from wounds similar to this one, and no matter which side of the law someone found themselves on, Walker had a difficult time watching any human endure that sort of pain. "Who are you talking about? What did you tell him?"

The injured man glanced at Walker's chest, saw the star-shaped badge identifying him as a Texas Ranger, and laughed weakly. "Rob Jefferson...he and I both stayed back while the fools rushed out. He asked if our shared enemy had any weaknesses, and I mentioned that Larabee and Tanner are close. Hell, the whole team is close, but those two especially."

Walker's eyes narrowed as he made the deduction. "You helped him overpower Agent Tanner?"

The dying criminal nodded. "After I'd helped him, though, Jefferson gave me this," with a look, the man indicated his abdomen.

Walker sighed. He did not like leaving the man to die alone, but neither did he wish to endanger Vin Tanner's life. If Agent Tanner was guilty, then his punishment should come from the courts, not from other criminals. If Vin was innocent, then Walker had an obligation to protect him. Compromising, Walker sat the wounded criminal against the barn's wall, and pressed a strip torn from his own shirt to the man's injury. Helping the man place his rapidly cooling hands over the makeshift bandage, Walker stood and headed deeper into the barn, his weapon drawn and senses probing the area ahead.

"Stand up, damn you!" said a frustrated voice from inside one of the stalls.

Walker turned the corner and found himself face-to-face with Robert Jefferson, who was holding a beaten and bloodied Vin close to his own body, clearly intending to use the sniper as a shield. Jefferson held a knife to Vin's throat, occasionally drawing blood when Vin was unable to respond quickly or efficiently enough to orders.

Vin had been weakened. From the looks of it, Walker thought that Vin had probably fallen or been pulled down from the window and then most likely beaten into submission. Given Agent Dunne's description of Vin's recent injury, Walker would not be surprised if Vin's ribs had been broken.

At any rate, he was not fit to travel, especially not with the purpose Robert Jefferson, who was Michael Parker's right-hand man and most loyal lieutenant, had in mind.

"Jefferson," Walker called gently yet authoritatively to the criminal who held Vin hostage, "let him go."

Robert Jefferson looked up from his weakly struggling captive at the sound of Walker's voice. "No, my goal was to free Mr. Parker from prison with the weapons we would get here. Since you've ruined that, the most I can do is escape. This man," Robert Jefferson shook Vin, eliciting a soft groan in response, "is my ticket out of here. Get out of my way."

Walker held his position but lowered his weapon. "I can't do that, but I'll make you a deal. You know how the Assistant District Attorney in Dallas feels about me. She would trade me for your boss any day. Him, on the other hand," Walker gave a slight nod to indicate Vin Tanner, "she doesn't know from Adam. Take me instead."

Robert Jefferson considered the offer for a few interminable seconds and then snapped, "Drop your weapon and back out of the stall, slowly. No tricks, Ranger, or he dies."

Walker complied hesitantly. Hostage situations he had dealt with previously had gone horribly wrong, nearly resulting in the death of one of the hostages, and he silently prayed that this time would be different.

Robert Jefferson dropped Vin Tanner unceremoniously to the straw- covered dirt floor. Vin made no attempt to break his fall, and Walker saw blood begin to seep from where his forehead had hit the packed dirt. Robert Jefferson moved past Vin Tanner without a backward glance, and raised the gun to threaten Walker.

As soon as Vin was out of danger and Robert Jefferson had moved into range, Walker hit Jefferson with a series of crescent kicks, spinning kicks, and punches. The gun went flying and landed in the dirt and Robert Jefferson also fell to the ground. Walker cuffed Jefferson and handed him off for Trivette to guard.

Since Jefferson was still unconscious, Trivette joined Walker, who was crouched next to Vin Tanner, gently trying to wake the ATF agent. Vin groaned and opened his eyes, then froze, calculating his chances against two armed, hostile Texas Rangers in his current condition.

"Take it easy," Walker said reassuringly as he saw the fear rise in Vin Tanner's gaze. "I just have a few questions. You're either the most talented sociopath I've ever met, or you're an innocent man. This murder charge you're facing...tell us about it."

By the time Chris, Ezra and Nathan made their arrival known and Ranger Walker informed them that the nearest hospital was within his and Trivette's jurisdiction, Walker was convinced that Vin Tanner was guilty only of falling into the wrong circumstances, and that he had finally found a place where the right circumstances would be guaranteed for him by the six men he worked with. In fact, Walker was certain Vin would do the same for each of the six as well.

Giving Trivette a look that told his partner to stand down, Walker said easily, "It would constitute cruel and unusual punishment to leave the prisoners out here while Vin is brought to the hospital."

Chris' eyes narrowed in suspicion. He sensed that Walker was not only a man of principle, but also a man with honor, so he suspected that any offer Walker might make would probably be in Vin's best interest. However, until he was certain, he would not let his guard down. "What are you suggesting, Walker?"

Cordell Walker smiled. "What's left of the Parker and Simmons gangs should fit in the back of my truck. Trivette and I could transport them back to Denver while your team takes Vin to the hospital. If the state of Texas wants to extradite Parker's men, that's not my call to make."

Chris lowered the hammer on his gun and put it back in the holster. "Why are you helping us?"

Trivette explained, because in listening to Vin's story and seeing the loyalty the men of ATF Team 7 expressed toward Vin, Trivette had finally understood what Walker had guessed long before. "We think that Vin was falsely accused. No guilty man would return to the States and take up law enforcement only a few states away from where he committed a crime, but we can't be sure that the State of Texas will agree."

Ezra tilted his head and studied Trivette carefully. "Are you suggesting that we trade arrests?"

Walker smiled gently and answered for Trivette. "He seems to be better off in your custody that he would be in ours...even with our good intentions."

Chris considered the offer and then accepted. "Fine. We'll take Vin, and you can have the rest. Walker," Chris added after Trivette and Ezra had helped Nathan carry Vin out to Chris' truck, "thanks."

Walker said nothing, but merely went to collect the remnants of the two gangs. Sometimes justice and the law coincided, but where they did not, a good Texas Ranger realized it was his duty to see that no injustices were committed. Arresting Vin Tanner would have been a great injustice indeed.

One Month Later...

Three weeks after Vin Tanner was released from the hospital (and hustled out of the state by six friends who were still convinced that Trivette or Walker were going to turn them in) Vin was climbing the walls of his small apartment in the neighborhood called Purgatorio.

"I cracked a few ribs, took a tiny bump on the head, and Nate's treatin' me like I'm made of glass," Vin complained to Chris, who had taken time off of work to visit.

Realistically, Chris had taken a vacation day only because Vin had become progressively more restless, and Nathan had told Chris that the ATF team leader was the only man Vin would take orders from. Right now, those orders were 'rest up, and get well'. "It was six broken ribs, a serious concussion, internal bleeding, and a sprained ankle, Vin," Chris chastised, though he could not help the smirk that wormed its way onto his face. "Nate's right. You need to take it easy."

"Easy?" Vin asked in disbelief. "There's a bust coming up sometime soon, but we don't know exactly when because Ez hasn't been able to contact us as often as he usually does. Without me at the office, Josiah and Buck have come to blows because Buck was running interference for the kid while JD was planting a silly-string booby-trap in Nate's medical supplies desk drawer, and you've thrown two IA jerks out of the office. I need to be there."

"Why?" Chris smiled, "Because you wanted to be the one to throw Reinhart through the door?" The guilty shrug that Vin gave in reply confirmed Chris' suggestion.

Before either of them could speak further, a fast-paced rapping came from the apartment door. Instantly, both men were on alert. Simmons had finally resurfaced in another state, and he wasn't happy about ATF Team Seven taking his gang apart. He had been sending threats to the team, both at the office and to each of their homes. Sometimes it was a graphic letter, other times there crooks hired to carry out physical attacks against the members of Team Seven, but so far, none of the agents had been hurt.

Chris drew his sidearm and moved to the side of the door while Vin cautiously opened it.

Instead of a threat, one of the kids from the neighborhood stood in the hallway with an envelope in his hand. "This came for you today, Señor Vin," the boy said. Vin accepted the letter, thanked Jose and shut the door.

Chris snatched the letter away from Vin and moved to the kitchenette's counter to carefully open it.

Vin snorted. "Things must be slow at the office, cowboy, if you're stoopin' ta readin' other folks' mail."

Chris said nothing until he had the suspicious package open. When he found only a hand-written letter and a small badge, Chris explained, "Josiah was looking over the notes Simmons has sent us thus far. It sounds like he's becoming frustrated with us. We haven't shown fear or changed our behavior, so it's only a matter of time until Simmons escalates."

Vin nodded his understanding. "So, you thought that letter might be a bomb." Vin read the note and then took a closer look at the badge. After he had finished, Vin gave both back to Chris.

Chris read the letter. In a neat, steady hand, it said:

This badge belonged to a Texas Ranger named Hayes. He was a lot like you. In difficult times, he always found justice. Please accept the badge...I like to think that if circumstances had been different you might have been a Texas Ranger instead of an ATF agent.

Cordell Walker

P.S. Turn your television on--Trivette and I arrested someone I think you'll be interested in.

Chris looked from the letter to the envelope, which had extra postage in order to guarantee that it arrived by today's date. Then, Chris looked up as he heard the TV come on.

Vin flipped through a few channels before he found a regional news station. A press of reporters all but surrounded Rangers Walker and Trivette, who were escorting a handcuffed Craig Simmons into a police station. Questions rained down on the Rangers, questions like, "What is Mr. Simmons being charged with?" and "What can you tell us about the accused?" but Cordell Walker only answered the last one: "Is it true that the ATF in Denver was unable to apprehend Mr. Simmons?"

Walker stopped in his tracks, handed off Craig Simmons to Trivette and turned to face the crowd. "The ATF team in Denver did an excellent job of apprehending the rest of Mr. Simmons' organization. It was only because Mr. Simmons had no one left to help him that my partner and I were able to track him down here." Walker cast a kind, understanding glance at the cameras, but when the reporters began peppering him with more questions, he warded it off with his usual 'No comment.'

Vin chuckled and turned off the television set. "See, Chris? Glaring doesn't make you a better cop. He was able ta get Simmons when we couldn't."

Chris turned his legendary glare toward Vin. "That was only because we arrested everyone else. Simmons had nowhere left to run to," Chris stated, defending ATF Team Seven's honor. "Besides, my glare scared off some of the thugs who were trying to attack JD in the Federal Building's underground garage earlier this week."

"Idiots," Vin muttered scathingly, "Don't they know that the whole Federal Building is always under surveillance?" Changing the subject, Vin said, "Does this mean I can come back to work? I won't be a liability to ya'll, and you're going ta need my help with the bust--"

"No way, Achilles," Chris said firmly, referring to Vin's still-injured ankle. "Nate said you need at least two more days' rest before--" Chris' cell phone rang, and Chris went into the next room to answer it. Vin listened through the door. "It's going down now? Where? JD, you need to be more specific...do you mean warehouse 15 or 16?" After a pause, Chris continued, "Standish has to give us more to go on in the future...yeah, well, it can't be helped. Just start a search for any warehouses across from bottling plants and dog parks. I'll be there in a few."

Smiling, Vin grabbed his keys from the coffee table, his rifle from under the couch where he had hidden it these past three weeks, and fled down the fire escape. He knew exactly which warehouse Ezra meant, but if he stayed to explain it to Chris, the team leader would make Vin reveal the location and then not allow Vin to come along. This way, at least, Ez would have the backup he needed.

"Vin, I need to go to the office for a while, so just stay--" Chris came back into the apartment's living room only to find it empty. "Damn him," Chris growled as he heard the uncertain coughing noise that only Vin's Jeep made when it was starting up. Resigning himself to following Vin's lead on this bust, Chris opened his cell phone and called JD back. "JD? We have a new plan. Vin took off the moment he overheard Ez's description of the exchange's location, so I want you to activate that homing device we had installed on Vin's Jeep." Chris smiled as JD remarked how lucky it was that Chris and Buck had thought up the plan to bug Vin's car. "It wasn't luck, JD...we just know Vin. See you there."

Chris closed his cell phone and headed for his own car. All across the city, the members of ATF Team Seven were pouring into vehicles, racing to back up one of their own during a dangerous bust, and thanks to Vin's knowledge of the city and Chris' and Buck's awareness of Vin's tendencies, Ezra would have all the backup he needed...and the targeted gangs wouldn't know what had hit them.

The End