Summary: Team Seven heads to the woods for a relaxing week. Naturally, things don't go quite as expected.
Acknowledgements: Thanks to my beta, Sevenstars. Thanks also to MOG for creating this wonderful universe for us to play in.
"Ezra, you set up that tent, while Buck and I get a fire going," Chris directed. "Josiah, you and Nate get the other tents. Vin, JD, grab the fishing poles and see if you can catch us some dinner."
Ezra looked at the tent in his hands with dismay. So far, the camping trip was turning out to be an even bigger disaster than he had expected. It was only the first day, and already he had blistered feet and aching muscles. His teammates were annoyed with him, even though he had barely spoken two words all day, and there were still six more days of this to endure. He shook his head and peered hopefully into the nylon sack containing the tent, looking for instructions.
He hadn't wanted to come on this trip. Seven days in the wilderness was not his idea of a good time, but Chris had insisted, turning a deaf ear to all of his arguments and excuses. It was Vin's birthday in two days, and while he didn't begrudge the man the opportunity to indulge in his love of the outdoors, Ezra would just as soon have stayed home and wished him well from the comfort of his apartment. He had never been camping before and dreaded making a fool of himself in front of his teammates, who thought little enough of him already. But they had demanded that he come along, so he had dutifully visited the sporting goods store and purchased everything the Beginner's Guide to Camping had recommended, along with all of the additional items on the list Chris had given him. He had been tempted to reveal the truth to them, but that would mean exposing a weakness – something he couldn't afford to do; not when he was so new to the team.
It wasn't bad enough that they insisted on his presence on this excursion, his associates had also felt the need to drag him from his bed at the uncivilized hour of five o'clock in the morning. They hadn't even allowed him a shower or his morning cup of coffee before bundling him into the car. He had complained loudly at missing his morning dose of caffeine, but had been ignored by his teammates. Except, that is, for Vin, who had smirked and offered him a chocolate-covered doughnut and a can of Mountain Dew – his idea of a good breakfast.
As he snapped the tent poles together, Ezra thought back to the previous week. The other men had been irritated with him even before this trip began. Information he had acquired from an informant had proven to be incorrect, resulting in an embarrassing raid on a toy factory instead of the gunrunning operation they were expecting. The incident had earned them some scathing commentary from A.D. Travis, who had dealt with the debacle by handing them a tedious assignment compiling inventory lists at one of the ATF warehouses. Team Seven had been the butt of jokes at the Denver federal building and had not gone a day all week without finding water pistols, cap guns, and assorted military toys on their desks. Naturally, Ezra's teammates blamed him for the entire thing, despite his warning that they should investigate the information further before acting.
Ezra sighed as he studied the tent lying at his feet, trying to determine why the poles didn't seem to want to stay in the slots provided for them. He thought about asking for assistance, but didn't want to endure any more sarcastic comments about his ineptitude. There had been enough of those already this day. Nothing he did seemed to please the others.
First, it was his gear that wasn't right. "You don't need all this shit," Chris had said, dumping half of the items from his pack into a pile on his living room floor. Next, it was his shoes. "They ain't broken in enough. You'll get blisters," Nathan had chided. He had been right about that, but Ezra hadn't owned any hiking boots prior to this trip, and there had barely been enough time to purchase them, let alone break them in. Of course, the blisters had affected his pace, and since Chris hadn't even let him bring his new hiking pole, he had lagged behind the others on the entire hike. It was hardly his fault that he had never been camping before, but his pride would not allow him to admit it to these men. Better to let them continue in their belief that he was simply trying to aggravate them. He could deal with that better than with the inevitable questions his lack of experience would generate.
"Haven't you finished that yet?" Nathan growled impatiently.
"It doesn't appear to be cooperating with my efforts," Ezra said glibly, shaking himself from his reverie.
Nathan elbowed him aside, reaching for the tangled pile of nylon. "Go get some firewood or something," he muttered. "Try to do something useful."
Ezra frowned, but said nothing. There was no way he was going to win any arguments out here. Anything he said would just make things worse, so he kept his mouth shut. They were doing this for Vin, and he didn't want to be the cause of ruining the man's birthday. He could abide the situation quietly for a few days. He turned away from Nathan's muttering and headed into the woods, circling around the camp toward the river.
Through the trees, he saw Vin and JD standing on the bank with their fishing poles. Ezra smiled ruefully at what was another potential source of embarrassment. There was a brand new, top of the line fishing pole in his backpack, and he had read through a book on fishing that he had purchased at the sporting goods store, but he had never before tried it. He watched his two young teammates quietly, hoping to learn from their actions.
A spate of cursing burst from the campsite and Ezra heard Josiah's deep voice rumble, "Need some help, brother?"
Nathan replied, his voice tinged with frustration. "Ezra made a hell of a mess with this tent. Damn lazy S.O.B. probably did it on purpose so someone else would have to do the work."
"I'm sure we can straighten it out," Josiah said in a placating tone.
Ezra did his best to ignore the rest of the conversation and returned his attention to Vin and JD.
"Looks like Calamity Ez strikes again," Vin said, chuckling in amusement.
JD shook his head. "I don't know why Chris made him come with us. He obviously doesn't want to be here." He tweaked his fishing line a bit. "It wouldn't surprise me if he's pulling all this stuff on purpose, just to make sure we don't have a good time, either."
"Don't know,"" Vin said with a shrug. "He better not push Chris too far, though."
JD snorted. "It's Ezra. Of course he'll push Chris too far."
"At least it'll be entertainin'," Vin said, grinning.
JD agreed. "He sure isn't much use for anything else on this trip, if Nate's complaining is anything to judge by."
The two men shared a laugh and Ezra turned away, stung by the words. He was honestly doing his best, trying not to ruin this trip for the others, but it seemed his efforts weren't enough. He supposed being the source of their amusement wasn't an entirely bad thing, but he refused to take the blame for spoiling a trip he hadn't wanted to take in the first place. Silently, he made his way to the edge of the camp, perching unobtrusively on a fallen log next to his pack. Ignoring the others, he retrieved the book he had brought along – despite Chris's protests – and started to read.
* * * * * * * * * *
The sky was beginning to darken as evening approached. Ezra shivered and moved closer to the fire, adding some wood from the nearby pile. After they had finished setting up the camp, his teammates had joined Vin and JD at the river, trying their luck at catching some fish. Deciding that he had been annoying' enough for one day, Ezra had stayed at the camp with his book. He figured that his absence would be more appreciated than his company.
The sound of voices and laughter heralded the return of his associates and Ezra quickly put his book away and moved away from the fire. He slipped into the woods and hurriedly gathered some more wood to add to the pile he had already collected, determined to show them that he wasn't completely worthless. Emerging from the woods, he dropped the wood onto the pile and returned to his seat, nodding a greeting to the other men.
"It appears you were successful," Ezra said quietly, gesturing toward the pile of fish stacked on the small plastic tarp that lay near the fire.
Buck said, "I caught four of ‘em myself."
"Guess that animal magnetism is good for somethin'," Vin said with a grin.
Buck swatted his baseball cap at Vin, who danced nimbly out of his reach, while JD tossed a pinecone at his roommate, bouncing it off of the tall man's head. Changing targets, Buck dashed off after JD as he ducked into the woods.
Chris shook his head at the antics, then looked at Ezra. "They're all yours." He pointed at the fish.
Ezra looked at the fish and then back at Chris, confused.
"We caught ‘em, so you get to cook," Chris said with a shrug as he headed back toward the river with Nathan, Vin, and Josiah.
Ezra opened his mouth to protest, but changed his mind when he saw the poorly-disguised annoyance on his leader's face. While the rest of the men busied themselves around the camp, Ezra crouched next to the pile of fish, wondering what the hell he was going to do with them. Normally, he was quite a good cook, but that was when he had proper supplies and equipment. Chris had made him leave most of his cooking gear behind, and he found himself at a loss as to how to proceed. He had never cooked on an open fire and hadn't a clue as to where to even start. The frying pans they had brought wouldn't hold all of the fish, and it would take all night if he had to cook them in small batches. His teammates would undoubtedly dislike waiting that long to enjoy the fruits of their labor. Ezra rubbed a hand across his face and sighed, resigned to giving his teammates yet another thing to complain about.
"Come on, kid," Buck said. "Let's go get some more wood. This stuff'’s too green." He pointed to the pile that Ezra had collected.
Ezra's face fell and he forced himself to pretend he hadn't heard the cutting remark, focusing instead on his culinary dilemma. He was concentrating so intently, that he was startled by the touch on his shoulder. He turned quickly, then relaxed at the sight of JD standing next to him. "Mr. Dunne," he greeted the other man.
"Hey, Ez," JD said.
"Can I be of some assistance?"
"I was wondering the same thing," JD said with a smile. "You look like you could use some help with this."
"I thought you were helping Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said doubtfully.
"Nah, I don't feel like running around in the woods anymore," JD snorted. "Besides, Buck always makes me do all the work while he supervises."
"I understand," Ezra said, smiling faintly.
"So, what are you planning to do with the fish?" JD asked, crouching next to Ezra.
Ezra looked at the fish for a moment, then sat back with a defeated sigh. "I haven't the faintest idea," he admitted. "I... have never had the opportunity to cook on a campfire."
JD looked at him, surprised by the revelation.
Ezra said, without looking up. "I... have never participated in the type of excursion that would require such an exercise.""
After deciphering that statement, JD's eyes widened in sudden comprehension. "You've never been camping before?"
Lowering his head in embarrassment, Ezra shook his head. Given his current problem, there was no point in denying it.
Ezra shrugged. "There was never anyone with whom I could enjoy such an activity."
JD said sympathetically. "That's too bad. I only went a few times when I was a kid, in the Cub Scouts, but some of my friends in college were really into it. We used to go all the time, even in the middle of winter."
"I don't suppose they taught you how to cook fish on an open fire?" Ezra said hopefully, forcing a smile onto his face.
"I might know a couple things," JD said with a smile. "Come on." He pulled a roll of aluminum foil and a pair of cooking pots from his backpack and set to work. Once they had finished arranging the foil-wrapped packets and the two pots around the edges of the fire, they sat back, admiring their handiwork.
"Don't worry, Ez," JD assured him. "The guys'll love it." And, he paused for a moment before continuing, "I won't tell them... y'know, about the other part."
Ezra looked at him in surprise. "Thank you."
"Yeah, well, I know how they can be when they think you don't know anything," JD said. "It's real embarrassing sometimes."
"I imagine it is," Ezra said knowingly. "I appreciate your discretion."
"It ain't nothin' for you to be embarrassed about," JD said. "Besides, you're the only one of this bunch who never makes me feel like a stupid kid, so I figure the least I can do is return the favor."
"You aren't a stupid kid," Ezra stated.
"I know," JD said." But sometimes the other guys forget that."
"They mean well."
"Yeah, but their methods aren't too subtle," JD said with a grin.
Ezra chuckled. "That is true."
"Hey, is dinner ready yet?" Buck asked as he dropped an armload of wood on the edge of the camp.
"Soon, Mr. Wilmington," Ezra said, receiving a nod of confirmation from JD.
Vin said, "I'm starving."
Fifteen minutes later, they were all gathered around the fire, enjoying the baked fish and pan biscuits that Ezra and JD had made.
"This isn't bad," Nathan declared, eliciting murmurs of agreement from the others.
Ezra smiled. "I received some very capable assistance from Mr. Dunne."
Buck shot him a glare, then muttered under his breath to Chris, "Probably conned the kid into doin' all the work."
JD had also overheard the comment and was about to respond, but Ezra stopped him with an almost imperceptible shake of his head. The young agent didn't like it, but he understood Ezra's reluctance to argue and remained silent. It was a testament to the men's weariness that none of them noticed the odd exchange between two of their number.
After eating, the men lounged languidly around the fire, chatting amongst themselves. Ezra pulled out a deck of cards. "Would anyone care for a game?"
Vin answered. "I'm gonna turn in."
"Me too," Buck said stifling a yawn.
"We're getting an early start tomorrow," Chris said, looking pointedly at Ezra. "Why don't you clean up here and hit the sack?"
Ezra sighed and put his cards away. He started collecting the cookware and utensils they had used during dinner. JD stood and joined him, reaching for the pots they had used in their dinner preparations.
"He doesn't need any help, JD," Chris said sternly.
"Go on, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, smiling reassuringly. "I can handle this."
"All right," JD agreed reluctantly.
Ezra carried the dirty dishes down to the river without comment. This, at least, was something he couldn't screw up. By the time he had finished, the rest of the men had retired to their tents and the only sounds disturbing the night were the deep rumbling of Josiah and Buck's snores. Ezra sat by the fire, enjoying the silence and contemplating the day. While it wasn't the worst he had ever experienced, it certainly wasn't one of the best, and it would have been even less so, if JD had not assisted him with dinner. He was going to have to thank him properly after this ordeal was over.
Ezra glanced over at the tents, knowing he was delaying the inevitable. By virtue of their being the smallest of the group, he, Vin, and JD had been relegated to one tent, while the others had paired up to share the remaining two. He wasn't looking forward to spending the night in such close quarters, but he could at least consider himself fortunate that his two temporary roommates didn't snore.
* * * * * * * * * *
A loud clanging sound worked its way into his consciousness and Ezra draped his arm over his head in an attempt to muffle the cacophony. It didn't work, however, and the noise was soon joined by a blast of sunlight and cool air flooding his tent. Buck's smiling face followed.
"Hey, Ez!" he shouted, banging on a pot for emphasis. "Time to get up!"
Ezra glared at him, wishing he had one of his guns nearby.
Buck rolled his eyes. "You better hurry, if you want some of Josiah's pancakes."
Ezra groaned and sat up. The only thing he wanted was his comfortable bed. Unfortunately, that was not forthcoming, so he eased himself out of his sleeping bag, shivering at the chill in the air. His two tent partners were already up, so Ezra took his time getting dressed. He didn't see any need to rush out of bed just so he could abuse his body further by dragging it through the wilderness.
Crawling out of his tent, Ezra detected the welcome scent of coffee and smiled. At least he would get to have his usual morning cup, even if it wasn't Starbuck's. He ambled toward the fire, rubbing his hand over his face. Grabbing a cup, he reached for the pot, frowning when he realized it was empty. He moved to the side, rifling through their supplies.
"What are you looking for?" Vin asked.
Ezra replied without looking up.
"We don't have time for another pot," Chris said shortly. "Get up earlier next time."
Ezra glared at him, but Chris simply ignored him as he started packing his gear.
"Here you go, son," Josiah said, handing Ezra a plate laden with pancakes. "Eat up. We've got to get going."
Ezra stared bleakly at the pancakes, most of which were cold and burnt. "Thank you, Mr. Sanchez," he said with forced politeness.
Josiah clapped him on the shoulder as he moved off to gather his own gear. Ezra sighed and carried the unappetizing food down to the river, where he promptly fed it to the fish. While at the water's edge, he took the opportunity to shave and give his hair a quick wash. The others might not want to bother with bathing on this trip, but he was going to take advantage of any opportunity afforded him. After finishing, he hurried back to the camp to find that the others had already packed up his things.
"Here ya go, Ez," Vin said, handing Ezra his backpack.
Ezra frowned, but accepted his pack without comment, aware that his associates were waiting for him to complain, but he was determined not to give them any further opportunities to criticize him. After taking his customary place behind them, he reached into a side pocket of his pack and pulled out one of the granola bars he had brought. They weren't his favorite form of sustenance, but they were edible. Shouldering the heavy backpack, he followed the rest of his team as they hiked along the rough terrain.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was Vin's birthday, the third day of the camping trip, and Ezra was exhausted. They had continued the grueling pace of the first day as Vin and Chris led them along the rugged backcountry trail. He barely spoke to any of the others, preferring to reserve his energy for the arduous daily hike. The pain in his blistered feet hadn't abated and the awkward gait that resulted made hiking that much more strenuous. He was simply too tired to engage in any of the verbal sparring that was likely to erupt if he attempted to have a conversation with any of his teammates.
Their attitude toward him had also deteriorated further, when he had continued to add to his tally of mishaps. He had consistently lagged behind the others on the trail, and had suffered endless criticism and complaints as a result, none of which had helped him to move any faster. His outdoor skills had not improved much, either. After making camp the previous day, he had inadvertently lost the string of fish that his associates had caught when he allowed himself to be coerced into trying out his fishing pole. Nathan had remarked snidely that he should contribute toward catching dinner for a change. Ezra could find no plausible excuses to avoid it, and had joined them on the riverbank with his pole, praying that he could get through this without incident. His wish was not granted. His first attempt to cast fell short and his line became entangled with the anchored string of already-caught fish. Unfortunately, in trying to free it, he had accidentally pulled the string loose. All he could do was watch helplessly as their dinner was swept away down the river.
Things became even worse when the dehydrated packaged dinners he had prepared as a substitute ended up a burnt and sticky mess in the bottom of the pot as a result of being placed too close to the fire. JD, who would have assisted him in his dinner preparations, had been kept occupied by Buck and Chris, ostensibly to prevent Ezra from conning' the young man further. In the end, Josiah had prepared some packaged macaroni and cheese and beef jerky, but Ezra had been too humiliated by all of his unfamiliar bumbling to share in the meal and had gone to bed early. He was used to being competent and capable, to having the ability to adapt to any situation – his survival often depended on it – but here, in this foreign environment, he was completely at a loss. His self-confidence had eroded, and he was reduced to merely keeping his blunders to a minimum.
"We'll have to cross the river," Vin announced from the front of the group, rousing Ezra from his gloomy thoughts.
Ezra looked at the fast-flowing rapids and grimaced.
Buck looked dubiously at the scattering of stones they were supposed to use to cross the river.
Vin said, "I'll check it out first, find the best way across." He took off his pack and handed it to Ezra, who had moved closer to get a better look at the path they were expected to traverse. "Hold this for me."
Ezra nodded and moved to the side, resting his weight on a boulder, while Vin worked his way down the embankment and across the river, testing each rock with his foot before standing on it fully. Finally, he made it across, giving them a thumbs-up as he stood on the opposite bank. The trip back was executed much more quickly and Vin was again on their side of the river.
"Piece of cake," Vin said with a grin.
"That's cause you're part mountain goat," Buck said.
Vin laughed, then looked up at Ezra. "Bring my pack on down here, Ez."
Ezra stood and carefully made his way down the riverbank. He had almost reached the bottom when his ankle twisted on a loose rock and his leg went out from under him. He struggled to regain his footing, but his balance was thrown off by the heavy pack he was carrying, and he tumbled gracelessly toward the river. The pack flew from his grasp, sailing into the raging torrent as Ezra fought to slow his fall. He hit the shallow water at the edge of the river and slammed into a large rock that instantly halted his progress. He lay there for a moment, catching his breath, while the others scrambled down the embankment after him.
"You okay, Ez?" JD asked.
"I believe so," Ezra answered, ignoring the throbbing pain in his ankle.
Ezra looked up at Vin's curse, noting that the sharpshooter and the rest of the team were staring at something behind him. He turned in time to see Vin's backpack disappearing around a bend in the river.
"Good job, Ez," Buck said sarcastically. "You just lost one of the tents."
"And all of Vin's stuff," Chris added, tossing a glare at his undercover agent.
Ezra hung his head and sighed. Yet another fuck-up to add to the list. This was turning out to be the camping trip from hell. Leaning on JD's arm, he awkwardly climbed to his feet, ignoring the frosty looks being sent in his direction.
"Nothin' we can do about it now," Vin said resignedly. "Come on, we still have to cross the river."
Ezra followed behind his teammates as Vin led them across the river, retracing his path across the rocks. His ankle was killing him, but he kept silent, not wanting to irk the other men any more. JD stayed close, making sure he didn't fall too far behind as they continued their hike.
"It wasn't your fault, Ez," JD said quietly as they hiked up a steep incline. "It could've happened to any of us."
"I'm afraid the others would disagree, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said wearily.
"Well, they're wrong," JD stated firmly.
Ezra had to smile at the show of support from his young teammate. It felt good to have someone stick up for him, even if he didn't really deserve it.
They finally stopped for the night at their chosen camp site. Ezra was given firewood duty and a firm request to stay the hell out of the way while the others set up camp. After depositing his third armload of firewood, he found a quiet spot to sit until his associates broke out the fishing gear and headed for the river. Like he had done on his first night, Ezra took out his book and settled against a tree to read, trying to ignore the laughter that drifted up from the river's edge.
Later, when the others returned to camp with their catch, he retreated to the river, taking comfort in the soothing sound of water flowing past. The moon was bright this night, illuminating his surroundings with an almost eerie silvery light and reflecting off of the water in ever-shifting patterns. Ezra removed his shoes and socks and dipped his tired feet into the river, sighing with pleasure as the icy water subdued the ache in his ankle.
"Hey, Ez," JD said from behind him.
"Mr. Dunne," Ezra answered.
"I brought you some dinner." He handed Ezra a plastic plate with some of the fish they had caught that day.
"Thank you," Ezra said quietly, accepting the food graciously.
"You comin' back up to the fire?"
"Not yet," Ezra replied." I don't think my presence is very welcome right now."
"Aw, they'll get over it," JD said dismissively.
"I prefer not to test that theory as of yet," Ezra said dryly.
JD chuckled softly and sat next to Ezra while he ate. "Well, you're gonna have to go back there sooner or later. Chris has you on cleanup detail again."
"Oh joy," Ezra said with a groan.
After finishing his dinner, Ezra cleaned up his plate and put his shoes back on before heading back to the camp with JD. His other teammates had finished eating and were discussing the sleeping arrangements, trying to figure out how to fit seven men into two tents. Ezra listened for a minute, then picked up his sleeping bag and dropped it wordlessly at Vin's feet before collecting the dirty dishes and carrying them down to the river. When he returned, the other men were bedding down for the night.
"Ez, you're in here with us," JD called from the doorway of the tent. Behind him, Ezra could make out the forms of Vin and Chris crawling into their respective sleeping bags.
"I believe I'll spend the night out here, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said, removing a fleece blanket from his backpack. "There is little enough room for the three of you in there as it is."
"Aw, c'mon, Ez," JD protested. "It ain't that bad."
Ezra waited for the others to voice similar sentiments, but he was disappointed. It wasn't unexpected, but it hurt just the same. He forced a smile onto his face. "I will be just fine out here, Mr. Dunne. Don't concern yourself."
JD began to say something, but was pulled back into the tent.
"He made his decision, kid," said Vin's muffled voice. "Leave ‘im be."
Ezra sighed and leaned back against a tree as the tent was hastily zipped. He didn't belong here. All he had done since the start of this trip was bring about one disaster after another. In one overheard conversation, Buck had called him a menace, and he was right. He had single-handedly ruined Vin's birthday by losing all of his gear. The sharpshooter went hiking and camping often, so Ezra knew how important those things were to him. As he sat there berating himself, an idea began to form in the back of his mind, and the more he thought about it, the better he liked it. Smiling faintly, Ezra stood and gathered his gear silently, stopping only to pen a note before disappearing into the moonlit woods.
Vin stretched and smiled into the early morning sunlight as he climbed out of the tent. There was nothing like dawn in the wilderness to make him feel truly at home. Enjoying the quiet, he crouched by the fire ring and set about brewing their morning coffee. The smell of the coffee was enough to rouse Chris, and by the time the pot was done, the rest of the team was awake and sitting around the fire.
"So, what's our destination today, Vin?" asked Nathan.
"Blue Falls," Vin said, pulling out his map. "It's a real pretty spot and there's a nice campsite right next to it. We should be able to make it there by mid-afternoon."
"Yeah, as long as Ez don't slow us down too much," Buck grumbled.
"Hey, where is he, anyway?" JD asked, looking around the campsite.
"Maybe he's down by the river," Josiah suggested.
"I'll go look for him," JD said, jumping to his feet.
"No need to rush, kid," Vin said. "He's probably still sleepin'."
JD ignored him and headed for the river, stopping short at the spot where their backpacks lay in a pile.
"What's up, JD?" Buck asked. "You forget something?"
JD turned around and walked slowly back to the fire. "Ezra ain't at the river. He left."
Chris frowned. "What do you mean, he left'?"
JD thrust the paper he was holding at Chris. "I mean, he's gone," JD said angrily. He went back. He looked around at his friends. "I hope you guys are happy now."
"What are you talkin' about?" Vin asked.
Chris sighed and handed the note to Vin. "He apologized for ruining the trip and said he was going back to avoid causing any more catastrophes."
"Damn fool," Nathan growled.
Josiah groaned. "Our brother can be a bit impulsive at times."
"What are you doing, JD?" Chris suddenly asked.
Without looking up from what he was doing, JD answered, "Goin' after him."
"What for?" Buck inquired. "He can take care of himself."
JD opened his mouth to deny that claim, but remembered his promise to Ezra and said, "I don't care, Buck. It ain't good to be out here by yourself. "
Vin narrowed his eyes in suspicion. JD had wanted to say something else – he could tell by the look on the younger man's face.
Buck snorted. "Ezra likes being alone. Why the hell d'you think he's been such a pain all week? He don't want our company."
JD glared at him. "You can be a real ass sometimes, Buck." He clipped the waist belt of his backpack and started toward the trail.
"Hold it, JD," Chris called. "Buck's right. Ez doesn't need you going after him."
"It's bad enough we got one fool taking off by himself," Nathan added, nodding in agreement. "We don't need another one with no sense."
"Too late," JD said. "I'm going." He kept walking, ignoring the protests of the others.
Vin had watched the proceedings quietly, and found himself agreeing with JD. It wasn't smart for anybody to hike alone, especially if you weren't comfortable in the woods. Vin frowned and turned his thoughts back to the previous three days. Ezra obviously did not want to be here, but he usually complained when he was subjected to any form of discomfort. Instead, he had been quiet – more than quiet, he had been positively silent, avoiding conversations and sitting by himself most of the time. The only time he had ever witnessed that type of behavior from the southerner was right after his mother had visited and embarrassed the hell out of him by telling stories of his childhood. But what could Ezra possibly have to be embarrassed about out here?
His eyes widened suddenly as it hit him. JD helping Ezra cook the fish; the disaster with his attempt at fishing and the mess he had made when trying to cook the camp dinner; the brand new hiking boots... it all made sense. Ezra wasn't only uncomfortable in the woods, he was clueless. When he thought about it, there were plenty of clues indicating Ezra's inexperience in the woods, but he, like the others, had assumed that the man had at least some familiarity with hiking and camping. Vin had believed the southerner was just being difficult and had completely missed the obvious signs that contradicted that assumption. Some crack team of agents they were. Of all people, they should have known better than to assume anything when it came to Ezra Standish.
While Ezra had only been with the team for six months, they should have been able to recognize when the man was putting on an act. Vin sighed, disgusted with his own lack of awareness. He considered himself to be fairly observant, but he had really dropped the ball this time. Worse still was the way he and the others had been treating Ezra, believing that at least some of his clumsiness had been contrived. Vin cringed when he remembered the look on the southerner's face after he had lost the backpack in the river. There was nothing false about the embarrassment and defeat he had seen there. he muttered. No wonder he left.
"Hey, JD!" Vin shouted. "Wait up!"
"What are you doing?" Chris asked as Vin hurriedly finished his coffee.
"I'm goin' with him," Vin said, stuffing Ezra's sleeping bag back in its sack. "You guys can follow the map. We'll meet up with you later."
Chris was rapidly growing exasperated with his three youngest agents.
"Save it, cowboy," Vin said. "The kid's right."
"Why don't we all go?" Josiah suggested, uncomfortable with the idea of splitting up the group.
Vin said, shaking his head. "I don't think Ez'll take it too well. He's feelin' bad enough already. Me and the kid can handle it."
Chris sighed, knowing that Vin spoke the truth. Of the whole group, he and JD were the closest to the reticent undercover agent and would have the best chance at getting through to him.
"All right," Chris conceded. "Any idea when we'll see you?"
Vin shrugged. "Depends on whether we can get Ez to cooperate. We may not see you til you get back."
"You got enough gear?" Chris asked.
Vin nodded and strapped the sleeping bag on his back like a backpack. "JD's got plenty of stuff, and I know Ez has extra blankets. We'll manage."
"Watch out for those two," Nathan said.
Vin smiled and gave a brief salute as he jogged into the woods.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra yawned and tried to shake off his weariness as he trudged along the trail. His ankle hurt, making him move more slowly than he would like, but he wanted to get as much distance as possible between himself and his associates. He spotted a faded trail marker and smiled. He might be a novice in the woods, but he had an excellent memory and was a fast learner. During their trek, he had paid close attention to his more experienced teammates, eager to absorb what knowledge he could, in order to decrease the number of embarrassing incidents that had plagued him the entire trip.
It had not been easy reining in his emotions and constantly ignoring the barbs being thrown by his teammates. Now that he was alone, the quiet sounds of the forest were starting to soothe away the tension of the previous days, and Ezra was starting to understand why Vin chose to spend so much time in the outdoors. For the first time in days, he felt like smiling. Too bad it wouldn't last, though. His teammates were going to be furious with him for leaving them, even though they were probably glad to be rid of Calamity Ez. Larabee had all but ordered him to come on this trip, and didn't take kindly to disobedience. The others, as always, would follow his lead. Ezra knew they didn't like him much, anyway, and needed no further proof of that fact. Still, it felt good to be free of their constant criticism and scorn, even if it was only temporary.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin cursed as he squatted close to the ground.
"What's wrong?" JD asked.
"Ez went the wrong way," Vin answered with a sigh.
"How can you tell?"
Vin pointed to a patch of pine needles. "See that? You can tell where he kicked some of the pine needles aside when he turned onto the other trail."
"I was afraid something like this would happen," JD said. "He's got a map, but he's never done this before." He stopped suddenly and turned to Vin guiltily. "I mean, he doesn't do this as much as the rest of us."
"It's okay, kid," Vin said. "I figured it out. He ain't been camping before."
"I promised him I wouldn't tell anyone, "JD said, chagrined." He's real embarrassed about it."
Vin shook his head. "Stubborn fool. He should'a told us."
"It's not his way," JD observed with a shrug.
"Yep. And the rest of us hotshot agents never even noticed."
"I knew something was wrong when I saw him staring at that pile of fish the first night," JD explained." He looked at it like it was an alien or something."
"I'm just glad you figured it out," Vin said. "Ain't safe to be on your own out here, specially if you ain't done it before."
"It's easy to get turned around," JD agreed.
"'Specially when the trail markers are old," Vin said. "Look at that." He gestured to the faded stripes painted on the large boulder. "This marker's so faded you can barely see the third stripe."
JD squinted at it, then nodded. "I see what you mean. It'd be easy to miss that, even if you did know what you were doing."
"We'd better get after him," Vin said. "This trail's not used much anymore. There were some rock slides a number of years ago and they stopped maintainin' it. Most of the markers are probably gone by now, too."
"Is it dangerous?"
Vin shrugged. "Could be. I'm more worried about Ez gettin' lost, though."
"Maybe he'll figure it out and turn around," JD said.
Vin agreed. "Come on, let's go. We can probably catch up to ‘im before too much longer."
* * * * * * * * * *
It was mid-afternoon before Ezra realized that something wasn't right. The trail was supposed to run more or less parallel with the river, but he had yet to catch sight of any water. Heaving a weary sigh, he pulled out his map and tried to determine if he was truly following the right path. Chris had insisted that each of them carry a copy of the map, with the route they were taking marked in red pencil, just in case they needed to separate for any reason. Tracing along the map with his finger, Ezra quickly found his error. Another trail branched off of the one he was supposed to be following, heading deeper into the forest and away from the river. Worse yet was the fact that this trail was marked closed' on the map. He groaned aloud. He certainly was becoming an expert at screwing up. He had wasted almost the entire day heading in the wrong direction. The others would probably find this hilarious.
Ezra rubbed a tired hand over his face. After a night of hiking in the moonlight, and the better part of a day following the wrong trail, he was exhausted. Rather than make any more mistakes due to his weariness, he decided to find a nearby spot to rest for the night. The map showed a designated campsite near a sharp bend in the trail that he had passed a short time ago, so he turned around and trudged back down the path he had so recently traversed.
* * * * * * * * * *
"It's getting dark," JD commented.
Vin replied with a frown." Clouds are gonna hide the moon. We're gonna need to stop for the night."
"I thought we would've caught up with him by now," JD said.
"He must have kept goin' all day," Vin said. "We can't be too far behind him."
JD nodded. "So where do you want to stop?"
Vin stopped and took out the map, studying it for a few minutes. "We're too far from any of the marked campsites, so we'll just have to make do around here somewhere."
"It looks pretty good over there." JD pointed to a relatively flat clearing a short distance ahead of them.
"Works for me," Vin agreed.
The two men quickly set up a small camp in the clearing, building a small fire to heat some water to rehydrate their dinner.
"I was hopin' to catch some dinner in the river," Vin said as he stirred the stew mixture in the pot.
"Guess we'll have to wait until we get back on the other trail. "
"I hope Ez thought to bring some food with him. "
He had some stuff in his pack.
Vin said." I'd hate to think of him trying to forage for his dinner out here."
"He'll be fine for tonight, I think, "JD said, leaning back against a tree. "Maybe we can show him a few things on the way back."
"If he lets us," Vin said. "He's probably gonna be a little touchy about us comin' after im. Might think we're makin' fun of him."
"We'll have to convince him we're not." JD looked at him earnestly. "It won't be easy. I think we really hurt his feelings."
Vin agreed with a sigh. "I can't believe I didn't see it before. I just figured he was bein' a pain in the ass cause Chris made him come."
"He's good at hiding stuff," JD shrugged. "It's his job, after all."
"He shouldn't have to hide from us," Vin said quietly.
JD nodded and stared into the fire. He could understand why Ezra was so reluctant to admit his inexperience to the rest of them. The aloof southerner hadn't had an easy transition from the FBI, and JD knew from personal experience how difficult it was to be the new guy', especially with the baggage Ezra carried with him. Other agents, sometimes including his fellow teammates, often treated JD like he was stupid, making it more difficult for him to earn their respect. It also made it harder for him to ask for help when he actually needed it. Pride was a complicated emotion. He just hoped that Ezra would be receptive to them once they found him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra opened his eyes, blinking against the early morning sunlight. Something had disturbed his slumber and he lay quietly, listening to see what it might be. He was ready to chalk it up to the unfamiliar sounds of the forest, when a whisper broke the silence.
"You know," the voice said.
A second voice answered, just as softly. "Ain't one of Sammy's boys."
"What should we do?"
"Find out who he is," the second voice said after a pause.
Ezra tensed as soft footsteps drew closer. He was at a distinct disadvantage. He was alone, against two potentially hostile parties, with his weapon several feet away, tucked discreetly into a pocket of his backpack. There was no reason he could discern for these men to see him as a threat, unless they were up to no good. Sifting quickly through his options, he decided to play along until he had more information. It took all of his skills to feign sleep as the two men approached.
A hand grabbed his shoulder and Ezra opened his eyes, blinking sleepily at the two men while he studied them. The man on his left was tall, with shaggy brown hair, brown eyes, and a face that was red with sunburn. He was wearing a tan jacket that had seen better days and dirty blue jeans with holes in the knees. His companion was shorter and stockier, having dark hair and sporting an unkempt mustache and beard. His clothing consisted of a grubby blue plaid jacket and olive green fatigues. Both men had the look about them that said they were no strangers to violence.
Ezra smiled. "Good morning, gentlemen. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Who are you?" Tan Jacket demanded gruffly.
"Ed Stern," Ezra replied, affecting a confused expression. "Is there something wrong?"
"What are you doing out here?" asked Blue Jacket. "This trail is closed."
"I know," Ezra said sheepishly. "I took a wrong turn yesterday and didn't figure it out until it was already dark."
Blue Jacket looked unconvinced and reached out to grab Ezra's pack. Inspecting it quickly, he opened the pocket containing Ezra's handgun and looked up in surprise. The two men exchanged a look, then Tan Jacket nodded. The men turned back to him and pulled him roughly to his feet. "You're comin' with us, Eddie."
Instinctively, Ezra began to fight them, throwing off the hands that held him and landing rapid blows on the unsuspecting men. They regrouped quickly, however, and began attacking in earnest. Ezra was beginning to make some headway, when Blue Jacket landed a lucky punch, knocking him off his feet. He rolled to the side, trying to regain his equilibrium, but he wasn't fast enough. Something solid slammed into the back of his head and his world faded to black.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin ran his hand lightly over the dirt and frowned. Stretching up from his crouch, he silently scanned the area, searching for anything out of place.
"Something wrong?" JD asked, concerned by the sudden pensive look on his friend's face.
Vin pointed to the ground in front of him. "There was some kind of scuffle here. Someone was dragged away."
"How can you tell?"
Vin pointed to two parallel impressions in the dirt. "Somebody's feet made those."
"Are you sure this was Ezra's camp site?" JD asked, his voice heavy with concern.
Vin nodded. "I recognize his boot prints."
JD muttered. "What now?"
Vin contemplated the question, then sighed. "It'll take too long to get the other guys here. We have to go after ‘em ourselves." He turned to JD and asked seriously, "You up for this?"
"Hell, yeah," JD answered determinedly.
"Come on," Vin said, clapping the younger agent on the shoulder." Let's go see what trouble Ez got himself into this time."
* * * * * * * * * *
Cracking an eye open, Ezra found himself staring at a weathered wooden surface. He tried to move, wiggling his fingers experimentally and finding them capable of movement, despite being restrained behind him. Awkwardly, he rolled himself to a sitting position, closing his eyes as the room spun around him. Swallowing against the bile that was rising in his throat, he slowly opened his eyes and scanned his surroundings.
He was in a small, empty room in what appeared to be a cabin or shed of some kind that was lit only by the muted daylight streaming through a grimy window. There was nothing in the room to give him a clue as to where he was, so Ezra climbed unsteadily to his feet, using the wall for support, and moved to the window. Outside, he could see a clearing to his left, where three men stood talking. He recognized two of them as the men who had abducted him. They had been joined by another man, dressed in a leather jacket, whose features Ezra couldn't make out through the filthy glass.
Turning away from the window, Ezra sighed and chastised himself, "You're taking screwups to a whole new level here, Standish." Indeed, he was in a less-than-promising situation. He was alone, facing three adversaries, and nobody knew where he was. He had taken the wrong trail, and even if his teammates came looking for him, they would be looking in the wrong place. It couldn't get much worse.
The door to his gloomy prison banged open suddenly. Ezra backed away to the opposite wall as the three men entered.
"Well, hello there, Mr. Stern," the man in leather said. "Or should I say, Mr. Standish, agent with the ATF?" He dropped Ezra's federal ID on the floor.
Ezra sighed inwardly, cursing Chris once again for making him come on this trip.
The man moved closer until his face was inches away from Ezra's. "So, Mr. Agent, you want to tell me what you're doing out here?"
Ezra looked him in the eye calmly, despite the knots in his stomach. "I'm on vacation."
His captor snorted derisively. "Sure you are. On a closed trail the day before our drop." He drew back and planted his fist firmly into Ezra's midsection.
Ezra doubled over, gasping for breath. "I... am on... vacation."
"How many others are out there?" the leather-clad man demanded.
Ezra wheezed. "I'm here by myself."
The man shook his head and sighed. "Now why don't I believe you?"
Ezra shrugged. "Think what you like. I'm telling you the truth."
"Jimmy, you and Reggie see if you can't get our friend here to tell us something useful," the man said to his two associates.
"Sure thing, Sammy," the blue-jacketed man, now identified as Jimmy, replied, a gleam of anticipation in his eyes.
As the blows began to rain down on him, Ezra decided that he had been wrong. Things could always get worse.
* * * * * * * * * *
"I count three of them," Vin said quietly. All armed. He and JD were crouched in the bushes on one side of a clearing. On the other side, they could see a small log cabin at the very edge of the trees. Next to it sat a helicopter painted military green. From the camouflage netting that covered both it and the cabin, Vin deduced that, whoever these men were, they didn't want to be found.
"You figure Ez is in there?" JD asked. "How are we gonna get him out? "
"You have your gun?" Vin asked.
JD said, nodding his head vigorously. Buck thought it would be a good idea, considering what happened on our last vacation.
Vin smiled, remembering how their group vacation to Harvey Lake had ended with the capture of a group of bank robbers attempting to escape the police by boating across the water. Ezra hadn't yet joined the team when that incident occurred, but it seemed the southerner had the same propensity for finding trouble as the rest of them.
"We should probably wait for dark," JD said thoughtfully. "It'll be easier to sneak up on them that way."
"Good idea," Vin agreed. "We can circle around this clearing and come up behind the cabin. We need to take ‘em out quietly, so's they can't hurt Ez before we get to him." He removed a large hunting knife from a sheath strapped to his ankle.
"Let's go." Vin gestured toward the woods, creeping silently into the forest with JD close on his heels.
A half-hour later, the two men were sitting, concealed in the bushes, behind the cabin. From inside, they could hear muffled voices, punctuated by dull thuds. Grimly, they stared at one another, recognizing the sound of flesh hitting flesh. It didn't bode well for their friend.
Ezra's head lolled on his chest and he watched with dazed fascination as a thin string of bloody spittle dropped from his chin to the floor, landing with a wet splat. A calloused hand grabbed his chin, forcing his head up. He stared uncomprehendingly at the blurry face in front of him.
"He's out of it," Reggie said, releasing Ezra's face. "Get Sammy."
Jimmy opened the door and waved the other man inside.
"Did you get anything?" Sammy asked.
Jimmy, shaking his head for emphasis, said, "Kept insisting he was on vacation."
Sammy said, "I don't like this. Who knows how many other Feds might be up here?"
"Maybe the guy really is on vacation?" Reggie suggested." I mean, what does the ATF care about us? It's the DEA we should be worried about, right?"
"He's still a Fed," Sammy pointed out.
"Should we call off the drop?" Reggie asked.
Sammy replied, "It's too late. The drop will go as scheduled."
"What do we do?" asked Jimmy.
"We get the stuff and get the hell out of here." Sammy looked at his men. "We'll need to make sure this place is cleaned out, just in case."
"What about him?" Jimmy jerked a thumb toward Ezra, who lay in a crumpled heap on the floor.
"He knows too much," Sammy said. "We gotta take care of him."
Reggie pulled out his gun and smiled. "I'll do it."
"Not like that," Sammy said. "Gunfire might draw us some unwanted attention. No, I got a better idea." He outlined the plan to his men.
* * * * * * * * * *
JD sat on a small boulder, stifling a yawn as he watched the clearing from the bushes. Vin sat beside him, silent and unmoving. It amazed JD that his friend, who normally could not sit still for two minutes at a time, was able to maintain such a motionless pose for so long. He himself was getting antsy and was having an increasingly difficult time keeping still. His gaze drifted to the helicopter and he frowned.
He whispered, "What do we do if they decide to take Ez away in the helicopter?"
Vin looked over at the helicopter thoughtfully. There was no way they could alert anyone if it left, since Chris was the only one who had brought a cell phone on this trip. Even if they had a phone with them, it was unlikely that it would do them any good, since Chris had not been able to get a clear signal after their first day. That left them with one option.
"Stay here," Vin whispered to JD. Climbing to his feet, he crept into the bushes.
JD watched curiously as Vin stealthily made his way toward the camouflaged aircraft. A grin spread across his face when he realized what his friend was up to.
Silently, Vin made his way around the helicopter, keeping in the shadows to avoid being seen. Once he was behind it, he carefully opened the engine compartment and began disabling the engine. The cabin door opened suddenly and Vin froze, waiting for the men to emerge. One man exited the building and headed to the middle of the clearing, pulling out a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. Vin waited until the man was comfortably enjoying his smoke before he quietly latched the door that covered the engine and faded back into the trees.
"They won't be goin' anywhere in that bird," Vin whispered, flashing a triumphant smile.
JD matched his smile then nodded toward the cabin. "They moving out?"
Vin whispered, "Just have to sit tight and wait."
They didn't have to wait long. Several minutes after their hushed conversation, the two men inside the cabin came outside, dragging a limp Ezra between them. The third man quickly joined them, and the men made their way into the woods. Vin and JD looked at one another worriedly.
Vin brandished his knife. "Let's go get Ez," he said, his eyes glittering with anger.
JD nodded firmly and followed Vin, gun in hand and a determined look on his face.
* * * * * * * * * *
He was moving. Ezra lifted his head, squinting through swollen eyes at his surroundings as he was dragged from the cabin. He tried to pull away from their grasp, but his attempts were feeble at best, as his battered body refused to cooperate. His captors ignored his groans as they hauled him roughly into the woods. Ezra swiveled his head clumsily as he tried to discern his captors' intentions, but all he saw was trees. They had strapped his backpack on him and sounded far too pleased with themselves back at the cabin for his comfort. From what he had heard of their conversation, he knew these men were not planning something he would enjoy.
"Almost there, Mr. Agent," Sammy said with a chuckle.
"Yeah, you're gonna like this spot," Reggie said, snickering. "The view is great."
"But you gotta watch out for that first step," warned Jimmy. "It's a killer."
The three men laughed loudly at their own cleverness while Ezra listened in horror. He had no doubt that they were planning for him to have a long fall with a very hard landing. Frantic, he began to struggle weakly against the strong hands that held him.
"Shit, he's fightin' me!" Jimmy said as he tightened his grip on Ezra's arm.
"Hurry up! We're almost there," Sammy said, reaching out to help his two men.
Ezra felt his little remaining strength fading and realized that it was unlikely that he would be able to prevent what the three men had in store for him. Still, he resisted and struggled for all he was worth; he wasn't going to give in without a fight.
"Get him over here!" Sammy ordered his men.
He dug in his heels, but his efforts were in vain. The hands released their grip on his arms and Ezra swayed on unsteady legs for a moment before he was shoved from behind. Time seemed to pause and an eerie silence enveloped him, broken only by the roaring in his ears. He imagined he could even hear his heart hammering in his chest as he found himself suddenly airborne. The sensation of falling through the air might have been pleasant if he hadn't known what awaited him when he landed.
His fall was violently interrupted when his body suddenly crashed into an outcropping of rock. Ezra instinctively reached out to slow his fall, tangling his right arm in the branches of a small bush growing from the ledge. Wrapping his other arm around the rocky protrusion, he breathed a sigh of relief that he was no longer falling. His relief was short-lived, though, when he realized that his situation had not improved by much. Instead of lying dead at the bottom of a ravine, he was dangling from the side of a cliff and no one but the bad guys knew he was there.
"Aw hell," he muttered, tightening his grip on the rough surface of the rock.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Where are they taking him?" JD whispered as he and Vin slipped behind a clump of bushes.
Vin shrugged. "Don't know, but I don't think they intend on bringin' him back."
They shared a grim look and then continued trailing the men. There was no trail here, but the men seemed to know where they were going as they dragged Ezra through the underbrush like so much baggage. They disappeared from view suddenly, forcing Vin and JD to increase their pace. What they saw when they again caught sight of the men made them freeze in their tracks. They stood at the edge of a precipice, obviously intending to push their friend to his death. Ezra was fighting them, but he was in no condition to take on three men.
JD cried when Ezra disappeared over the edge. His face was a mask of horror and his eyes burned with an angry fire as he bolted from the bushes, intent on avenging his friend.
Vin felt as though he had been kicked in the stomach and allowed his rage to take over. He joined JD, and together, the two of them charged into the three unsuspecting men, who were still staring over the edge, admiring their handiwork.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Have a nice flight," Reggie said with a grin, waving as the agent sailed over the edge of the steep ravine.
An unknown voice crying out startled them, and Sammy whirled around in time to see two men bearing down on him. He attempted to duck away, but was unable to move in time to avoid being bowled over. He pulled himself to his feet and watched for a moment as Jimmy and Reggie began fighting in earnest with the two strangers, who he could only assume were friends of the newly deceased agent. The interlopers were smaller than his men, but fought with greater speed and agility, and he had a sinking feeling that they would prevail. The outrage that seemed to spur them on didn't bode well for his men, and Sammy decided that retreat was his best option. Throwing one last look at the brawling men, he slunk quietly into the woods and headed back to the clearing and the helicopter that would assure his freedom.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin fought with a ferocity born of wrath. These men had killed his friend and he was not about to let them go unpunished. He and JD used every trick and technique at their disposal to defeat the murdering bastards and were beginning to turn the tide in their favor, when one of the men tired of the fisticuffs and drew his gun, pointing it firmly at Vin's head. Vin froze, letting his arms fall to his sides as he gazed calmly at the large man.
"Move and you're dead," Jimmy said, breathing heavily.
Vin merely gave him a cold, silent stare, which seemed to unnerve the man.
Behind them, JD had taken notice of Vin's predicament, and with a burst of speed, he spun and planted a solid roundhouse kick to the side of his opponent's head.
Reggie, who had bent down in preparation to charge the young agent, was caught off guard by the blow. Staggering backwards, he found himself teetering on the edge of the ravine. His arms windmilled wildly as he struggled to regain his balance. he screamed as his foot slipped and he toppled over the edge.
Jimmy turned in time to see his friend fall. The distraction was all that Vin needed. He lashed out with lightning speed, kicking the gun out of the thug's hand, breaking his arm in the process. Not to be defeated so easily, Jimmy dove for the gun, reaching it at the same time as Vin. The two men struggled for the weapon, rolling around on the ground as each fought for dominance. The sudden report of the gun echoed through the wilderness.
JD stopped short, shakily aiming his own weapon at the two still forms in the dirt. He called Vin, his voice laced with fear as the silence dragged on.
"'M okay, kid," Vin finally gasped, pushing the dead body off of his chest.
"Thank God," JD breathed, lowering his gun and dropping to the ground.
Vin crawled over to sit with him. ‘Good job on that other guy," he complimented.
JD nodded wearily. ‘The third guy got away."
"He can't get anywhere in the chopper,’ Vin said. I pulled the spark plugs. "He's gonna have to walk out of here."
"What are we going to do about Ez?" JD asked quietly." I don't want to leave him out here."
"Maybe we can use the radio in the chopper to get some help," Vin suggested.
JD slowly picked himself up from the ground and walked to the edge of the ravine. Steeling himself for what he was going to see, he leaned forward and looked down.
Vin, scrambling after his friend, said, "You don't have to look."
JD didn't answer, instead movrd further along the edge.
"I don't see Ez anywhere,’ JD said with a frown.
Vin joined him, scanning the rocky ground below. The body of the goon who had fallen lay sprawled awkwardly among the rocks, but there was no sign of Ezra. Vin headed in the opposite direction, while JD continued his search along the edge, hoping to catch sight of their friend. A flash of movement caught his attention, and Vin narrowed his eyes, scanning the area closely for its source. He took several more steps and was rewarded with a glimpse of a blue-clad leg dangling in the air about thirty feet from the top. The leg moved suddenly, trying to gain purchase on the nearby rocks, and Vin sucked in a stunned breath.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra was unaware of the battle being waged above him. His world had narrowed to the small ledge and scraggly bush that had kept him from meeting an early demise among the sharp rocks at the bottom of the ravine. Climbing out of here was his only hope for survival, but thus far, he had had little success. His legs hung too far away from the face of the cliff to get any kind of foot hold, and the beating he had endured had left him too weak to compensate with his arms. All in all, his situation sucked.
He rested his head wearily against the rock, wishing there was a way to drop his backpack. The weight of it was sapping his strength and he didn't know how much longer he would be able to maintain his hold. His eyes were closed when Reggie fell past him and he never heard the man's panicked screams over the sound of his heart pounding in his ears. The gunshot from above did break through the fog, however, and Ezra groaned aloud, assuming that his tenuous perch had been discovered. He just hoped that they were bad shots, since there was no way to avoid their bullets without falling to his death.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin shouted excitedly. "Get over here, quick!"
The younger man didn't question him and rushed over to where Vin stood, a grin splitting his face.
JD looked to where Vin had indicated and gaped at the sight.
"That lucky sonofabitch," Vin commented. "I don't know how he did it, but he's alive."
‘Maybe not for long," JD said, his forehead creasing with concern. ‘We better get down there and help him."
"I'll go get the pack," Vin said, turning on his heel and darting into the woods.
JD yelled," Ez, we're here! Hang on!"
Ezra didn't respond, but gamely continued to hang on to the ledge. Vin returned after a few minutes and hastily unfastened the coil of rope from the backpack. JD smiled, glad that he had brought some of his climbing gear, despite Buck's assertion that he wouldn't get a chance to use it. Vin had also brought gear, but it was lost in the river, along with his backpack. They hadn't planned to do any rock climbing, but thought it would be useful to have ropes and harnesses with them in case of an accident. Lifting his pack, JD unzipped one of the side pockets and removed a harness, handing it to Vin. He was a good climber, but Vin was better and more experienced.
"How do you want to do this?" JD asked. The tiny ledge from which Ezra was dangling was located below a crumbling section of the cliff face, and it would be difficult to get to him without dislodging some of the rock.
Vin studied the rock face, cataloguing all of its features and plotting the best path toward his beleaguered friend. "You'll have to start over here and move over to him."
JD looked at him, confused.
"You're smaller than me," Vin said as he expertly rigged the harness. "It'll be easier for me to pull you and Ez up than the other way around, and you'll fit better on that ledge."
JD nodded in agreement.
Minutes later, JD stood at the edge. Mimicking Ezra's two-fingered salute, he started his journey down the cliff. The surface of the rock was rough and jagged, giving him plenty of handholds. It didn't take him long to bring himself nearly level with Ezra. He began to make his way sideways along the rock face toward the southerner.
When he was only a few feet away, he said quietly, "Ez, it's me, JD."
The southerner showed no sign that he had heard him, so JD moved closer, speaking softly so as not to startle him. "Ez, we're here. Me and Vin are gonna get you out of here. Can you hear me?" He reached out and touched his friend's head gently. He was unprepared for the reaction he got. The startled man lashed out at him with his foot, kicking him solidly in the chest. JD lost his grip on the handholds and fell several feet before the rope abruptly stopped him. The sudden change in velocity sent him crashing into the cliff, his head bouncing off of the rock with a sickening thud.
* * * * * * * * * *
There was an odd hum intruding on his world, distracting his focus from the task at hand. Ezra paid no heed to the voices trying to get through the haze. He couldn't afford to lose his concentration. That would delight his tormentors far too much, and he was not going to allow them that pleasure. Concentrating on his goal, Ezra again swung his leg upward in yet another futile attempt to climb into a better position.
He closed his eyes and rested, trying to ignore the pain shooting through his body. His arms were growing numb and Ezra knew he had little time left. Again, the voices tried to break through his wall of concentration. They were closer this time and almost... familiar. It was getting harder to ignore them. He kept his eyes closed, not wanting to see the gloating faces of the men who had caused his current predicament. Something touched him and Ezra reacted without thought, striking out at the person who was after him. He smiled in satisfaction as his foot solidly connected with flesh.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin cried out as he was nearly knocked off his feet by the sudden force on the rope. Bracing himself against a tree, he slowly pulled on the rope, hauling his friend up a foot at a time. His muscles burned with the effort, but JD's head finally appeared at the top of the precipice. Securing the rope, Vin rushed over and pulled him the rest of the way up.
"JD, are you all right?" Vin checked him for injuries, finding only a large, bleeding bump on his head. He muttered as he sat back on his heels. He didn't want to leave JD unattended, but Ezra was not going to be able to hold out for much longer. Working quickly, Vin undid the harness, putting it on himself. After testing the knots on the rope, he made his way to the edge of the cliff and started climbing down toward Ezra. It wasn't the safest thing to do without having someone on top to man the rope, but given the circumstances, he had little choice.
It took him longer than he expected, but finally he was within reach of Ezra. He approached cautiously, noting the lines of strain on the southerner's bruised and bloody face.
He said softly, "It's Vin. I need you to look at me."
* * * * * * * * * *
The voices were back. He sighed inwardly at their persistence and tried to ignore them, but the voices continued their insistent urging, forcing him to pay attention. Ezra was confused. Something about this voice made him feel safe. His curiosity got the best of him and he turned his head toward the soft voice calling his name.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra recognized him. Vin breathed a sigh of relief. "Yeah, pard. It's me." He reached out and touched Ezra's shoulder, feeling the tremors in the muscles there. ‘Got yourself in quite a spot."
"You might say that," Ezra said softly.
"Hang on for a couple more minutes and I'll get you out of here." Vin pulled himself onto the small protrusion of rock and unfastened the rope. There was no way he was going to be able to get Ezra into the harness quickly enough, so he had to make do with tying the rope around his chest. The backpack made it more difficult, but he couldn't remove it without risking Ezra's tentative grip on the ledge. Carefully, he threaded the rope through the shoulder straps and under his shoulders, whispering calm reassurances to the other man.
Once the rope was secure, Vin let it drop. He had left himself plenty of slack, which now looped down below Ezra and back toward the top. Calmly, he said, "Ez, I need you to hold on for a few more minutes, okay?"
‘I'm not going anywhere," Ezra said, his damaged lips curling slightly into a faint smile.
Vin smiled, then turned around and started free climbing back toward the rope. Once he reached it, he quickly made his way to the top, where he rested briefly and checked on the still-unconscious JD before picking up the rope again. He took up most of the slack and called down to Ezra. ‘Okay, Ez. I'm gonna start pullin' you up now."
After Ezra's faint acknowledgement drifted upward, Vin braced himself and started hauling the other man up. It didn't take him long to realize that it wasn't going to work. He could have handled Ezra alone, but the added weight of thirty pounds of gear was just too much for his tired muscles. The other man was in no condition to assist him, so the only option was to go down.
He yelled, "It ain't gonna work. I'm gonna have to lower you down." A light tug on the rope confirmed that Ezra had heard him. Keeping his hold on the rope, Vin untied the end, taking his best guess as to how far it was to the bottom. He retied it securely and began lowering Ezra downward, his arms straining with the effort. Finally, the rope went slack, and Ezra signaled he was down with two tugs.
Vin sat back, exhausted, but his work wasn't finished yet. He still had to get Ezra out of the ravine. He wasn't up to pulling both him and his backpack up at the same time, but he could manage them separately. Sighing wearily, he moved to the edge and told Ezra what he had planned.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra leaned his aching head against a boulder and watched as his backpack was hauled up the craggy rock face. It had been a shock to find the sharpshooter clinging to the cliff next to him, and an even greater surprise to discover that JD was with him. He hadn't seen or heard the other man, though, and assumed he was up top, helping Vin. Chris had probably sent them after him to bring him back. The man hated when anyone defied him. Glancing over at the mangled body of one of his captors, he had to admit that he was grateful for the intervention.
The rope, now with a harness attached, suddenly landed next to him, startling him from his musings. Pain flared in his midsection as he reached for it, but he gritted his teeth and pulled it toward him. Sliding it awkwardly over his legs, Ezra secured it around his waist and tugged on the rope to signal his readiness to Vin. The tension on the rope gradually increased and he struggled to his feet, determined to assist Vin as much as possible.
* * * * * * * * * *
Vin sighed with relief when Ezra's hands came into view and the stubborn southerner dragged himself weakly over the edge. After tying off the rope, Vin hurried to pull him the rest of the way up, dropping into the dirt beside him when he was safely on solid ground.
"Good job, Ez," Vin said.
"Likewise, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said, still breathing heavily from the exertion.
"Come on," Vin said, tugging on Ezra's sleeve." Let's get you fixed up."
Slowly, Ezra levered himself to his hands and knees, pausing for a moment before accepting Vin's help to get him on his feet. As they shuffled toward a tree, Ezra spotted JD lying nearby and turned his questioning gaze to Vin, who waited until he had the southerner settled on the ground before responding.
"He hit his head," Vin said with a shrug.
Ezra looked worried.
"He went down after you," Vin said, meeting Ezra's concerned gaze. "Lost his footing and banged his head on the rocks."
A hazy memory flickered in Ezra's mind and he said softly, "I kicked him."
"It's okay, Ez," Vin said earnestly. "You couldn't have known it was him."
Ezra didn't reply, refusing to meet his eyes.
Vin shook his head and picked up JD's first aid kit. "You look a little ragged there, pard. Let me check you out."
Ezra nodded, allowing Vin to tend his injuries.
"Probably got a few cracked ribs here, but it don't look like anything else's broke," Vin said finally, after carefully inspecting Ezra's face and ribs. "You're gonna be showin' lots of colors for a while." He finished taping some gauze in place on Ezra's scraped hands. "Any idea what those assholes wanted with you?"
"They were rather upset at my intrusion upon this trail," Ezra said tiredly. "They were questioning me as to the presence of other federal agents in the area." He grimaced slightly as he shifted position. "I believe they are smugglers of some sort – probably drugs, as they kept referring to a drop' that is supposed to occur tomorrow."
"Well, there's only one of ‘em left," Vin said. "Me and JD took care of the other two."
As if reacting to his name, JD groaned and moved his head.
"JD? Hey kid, you awake?" Vin shook the younger man's shoulder gently.
JD opened his eyes, blinking owlishly at the two faces looking down at him.
"How's the head?" Vin asked.
JD replied, "Oh man," then turned away suddenly and vomited.
"He ain't the only one", Vin said, giving Ezra a knowing look. "I saw that bump on your head."
Ezra shrugged, "I have recovered somewhat."
Vin rolled his eyes, and returned his attention to JD." Just lay still for a bit, kid. I'll get you some water." Ezra handed him a canteen.
"It's getting dark," Vin said after giving JD a drink. "You guys think you can walk for a bit?"
"I believe I can manage," Ezra assured him.
"Me too," JD said.
"I think our best bet is the cabin," Vin said. "We might be able to use the radio in the chopper to call for help."
"What about the other miscreant?" Ezra queried. "Suppose he is their pilot?"
Vin flashed a mischievous grin and reached into his pocket. He won't get far without these. He opened his hand to show Ezra the spark plugs he had removed from the helicopter.
"You are quite a devious man, Mr. Tanner", Ezra said with a grin. ‘A man after my own heart."
JD chuckled, "Vin's almost as sneaky as you, Ez."
Vin slapped him playfully on the shoulder, then started gathering their gear. "We better get going." He shouldered Ezra's pack, ignoring the other man's protests. JD took his own pack, and the three men supported each other as they hiked into the woods.
* * * * * * * * * *
The night passed without incident inside the rustic cabin. The criminals had furnished the two-room structure with three collapsible cots and a beat-up table and chairs, providing the agents a comfortable place to stay the night. After a quick dinner prepared on the small wood stove, Ezra and JD had immediately retired to the cots, wrapped snugly in their sleeping bags. Vin had stayed awake for a while longer, keeping watch over his friends and waking them periodically to check on their conditions. He had attempted to use the helicopter radio to summon help, but found that it had been sabotaged. It was too dark to attempt repairs, so he returned to the cabin. After creating a rudimentary alarm by stacking empty cans at the door and windows, he stretched out on the third cot and allowed himself to sleep.
Despite being the last to fall asleep, Vin was the first to awake in the morning, albeit a bit later than usual. His makeshift alarms were all intact, so he turned his attention to his two friends, who lay sleeping on either side of him. JD slept peacefully, looking none the worse for wear. Ezra, though, looked terrible. His face was a collection of mottled bruises and, even in sleep, Vin could detect faint lines of pain marring his countenance. He sighed and moved to the stove to brew some coffee, wishing there was more he could do to ease his friend's discomfort.
The coffee was almost ready when JD began to stir, blinking sleepily in the daylight.
"Hey, kid," Vin said, crouching next to the young agent's cot. "How're you feelin'?"
JD said, yawning as he wriggled his way out of his sleeping bag, "Head hurts a little."
Vin handed him some aspirin and a cup of water.
JD said, accepting the pills gratefully. "Need some help with breakfast?"
"Nah, I got it."" Vin turned back to the stove. Figured I'd whip up some flapjacks."
"Think we should wake Ez?"
Vin shook his head." Let ‘im sleep a while longer."
JD looked at the sleeping man and grimaced. "Yeah, he's gonna need it."
The welcome odor of cooking food tickled his nose, dragging Ezra from the depths of sleep. Rolling over slowly, he groaned aloud at the chorus of aches and pains that played along his body.
JD leaned over, concerned, ""You okay, Ez?
"I'm fine," Ezra said automatically.
Ezra glared at him, hiding a grimace as he eased himself from the confines of his sleeping bag.
"Hell, pard, I can hear them bones of yours creakin' all the way over here," Vin continued, expertly flipping a pancake into the air.
"Here, Ez," JD took pity on his friend and handed him a handful of aspirin and some water.
"Thank you," Ezra said, gratefully downing the pills.
Vin finished making the pancakes and brought them to the table, along with the coffee. "Eat up, boys."
JD and Vin dug into their breakfasts eagerly, while Ezra took his time, ensuring his stomach would tolerate the food. Vin finished first and immediately jumped up from his seat and headed for the door.
"I'm gonna see if I can fix the radio in the chopper," he said over his shoulder as he stepped out the door. He was only gone for a few minutes before he came back inside, slamming the door behind him in frustration.
"What's wrong?" JD asked through a mouthful of pancakes.
"Radio's wrecked," Vin said tersely. "That third guy..."
"Sammy," Ezra offered. "That's what his associates called him."
"Well, Sammy did a job on it," Vin said. "There's no way we're gonna be able to call out on that thing."
"Guess that means we're walkin' out of here," JD said with a shrug.
"It'll take us a couple extra days to get back," Vin grinned broadly. "Chris is gonna have a cow."
Ezra groaned and dropped his head to the table.
"Ain't your fault, Ez," Vin said. "You couldn't have known there were drug dealers hangin' out in these woods."
"Yes, but if I hadn't left the group, this would not have occurred and our esteemed leader would not have sent you after me", Ezra said glumly.
"Chris didn't send us," Vin retorted. "We came on our own cause we were worried about you."
Ezra looked up sharply, a dubious expression on his face.
JD added, "We wanted to make sure you got back in one piece."
‘I'm very glad you did," Ezra said sincerely. "I would be in dire straits had you not arrived when you did."
Vin slapped him companionably on the back. "Come on. We got lots of ground to cover today."
The three men finished their breakfast and gathered their things in preparation to leave. They had found two fully loaded backpacks, presumably belonging to the two dead drug runners, in the corner of the room. A third, they surmised, had been taken by the other man after he had escaped from them the day before. Vin had appropriated one of them, along with some of the food, gear and weapons he found in the packs.
"Wonder why they brought those?" JD mused. "They didn't exactly need all that stuff if they were flying in by helicopter and staying in this cabin."
"It's their cover, Mr. Dunne," Ezra said. "How better to explain their sojourns into the wilderness than as an innocent hiking trip?"
"This stuff'll come in handy for us, at least," Vin said. "Ain't like they'll be needing it." He opened the door and paused, raising a finger to his lips to silence the other men. Ezra and JD waited, trusting the sharpshooter's instincts. A low droning sound filtered into the cabin, gradually increasing in volume. The three men looked at each other, instantly slipping out of their packs and pulling their guns. JD and Ezra moved to the windows, while Vin manned the door, watching for the unknown intruder.
Vin's attention turned skyward as the source of the noise came into view. Skimming low over the trees, a small airplane flew over the clearing, banked to the left, and circled around for another pass. Vin stepped out the door, staying within the shadow of the cabin, and waved at the plane. The aircraft circled once more, this time swooping low over the clearing. The door on the side of the plane opened and a square crate was pushed out. It fell the short distance to the ground, landing in the center of the grassy area. The plane kept going this time, the sound of its engines slowly fading away.
Vin stepped inside and hastily scrawled something on the table with the stubby pencil they had found in the cabin. Got the plane's registration number.
"Wow, good eyes," JD said.
"There's a reason he's our sharpshooter," Ezra said with a chuckle. "Shall we go investigate the contraband?"
‘After you." Vin grinned and gestured toward the door.
The three agents crossed the clearing, stopping next to the crate. Vin pried off the lid with the crowbar he had found leaning in the corner of the cabin. Inside, wrapped in layers of foam packing material, they discovered bags of white powder.
JD let out a low whistle. "Damn! There must be fifty pounds of it!"
"Just about," Vin agreed.
"These gentlemen were quite the entrepreneurs," Ezra noted. "This amount of cocaine is worth millions on the street."
"What are we going to do with it?" asked JD. We can't just leave it here.
Ezra agreed. "Our friend Sammy might decide to return and recover his merchandise."
‘We'll have to pack it out with us," Vin said. "It'll be heavy, but we can leave some of our food behind, so it shouldn't be too bad.’
‘What are we supposed to eat?" JD inquired.
"We can live off the land," Vin said, grinning.
"Live off the land?’ Ezra looked at him doubtfully.’ Surely you don't expect us to consume tree bark and the like?’
Vin laughed at his friend's horrified expression. "Nah. We'll be near the river most of the way, so we'll be able to catch a lot of fish."
"I'll leave that to your formidable skills, Mr. Tanner," Ezra said. "My previous attempts were somewhat less than successful, if you remember."
"That's just ‘cause the other guys were gettin' in your way," Vin said dismissively. "We'll show you how to fish like a real man, not like those old farts."
JD laughed. "They think they know the best way to do everything."
"We know better, though," Vin said smugly. "Right, kid?’
Ezra rolled his eyes and chuckled at his companions' antics, grateful for their tact. "I'll take your word for it."
"This thing's heavy!" JD panted, struggling to move the crate.
"Might be better to pack it up out here," Vin suggested.
"Good idea," JD said, heading for the cabin. Ezra and Vin followed, retrieving their backpacks from where they had left them in the cabin.
After a lot of shuffling of gear, they finally had all of the drugs divided amongst the three packs. By silent agreement, Vin and JD had taken the heaviest of the gear, leaving Ezra with the lightest pack in order to lessen the strain on his battered body. It was late morning when they finally struck out on the trail, unaware of the eyes watching them from the trees.
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris stared into the fire over the rim of his coffee cup. Tomorrow, they would reach the end of the trail, and he had an odd feeling that he wasn't going to like what he found when he got there. It wasn't anything he could explain. There was just a sensation in the pit of his stomach telling him that all was not well with his three youngest agents.
"They're fine, Chris," Buck said, recognizing the worried frown on the blond's face.
Chris lifted an eyebrow as if to say, "How would you know?"
Josiah caught the look and chuckled. "Our young brothers can take care of themselves."
"Yeah, but they also have a knack for finding more than their share of trouble," said Nathan, always the realist.
Chris sighed. "That's what I'm afraid of. They're bad enough by themselves, but together..."
"Hell, they'll probably be waitin' for us when we get back tomorrow," Buck said with a grin.
"They better be," Chris said softly, "if they know what's good for them."
* * * * * * * * * *
The agents who so worried their leader were at that point attempting to coax their dinner from the river. They had made good time, and had reached the point where the closed trail met the one they would be following for the rest of the trip. Since they still had no tent, setting up camp had been an easy task and they quickly had a fire going. It had taken some convincing, but Vin and JD had finally persuaded Ezra to join them on the riverbank.
"It's all in the wrist, Ez," Vin said, demonstrating with an expert cast into the water.
Ezra watched closely, then duplicated his action, sending his line sailing smoothly out into the river. "Like that?"
"That's it," JD said, grinning broadly.
"Told you it was a piece a cake," Vin said. "You just needed to have a little space to work without them know-it-alls breathin' down your neck."
Ezra smiled, then froze. ‘I think I have one."
‘Well, reel ‘im on in," Vin said enthusiastically.
Ezra did as instructed and pulled in a large trout.
"Now comes the fun part," JD said, as Vin grabbed the fish and removed it from the line.
"It ain't hard," Vin explained. "You just have to get a good grip on em, cause they're slippery." He thrust the squirming fish into Ezra's hands.
"I see," Ezra said dryly.
JD and Vin burst into laughter at the disgusted look on his face.
"Wait til we clean," Vin said with a smirk.
"I can hardly wait," Ezra retorted, the twinkle of humor in his eyes belying the sarcasm in his voice.
"I'm going to check on the vegetables," JD said with a chuckle, then headed back to the fire. Vin had found some edible ferns, watercress, and wild onions, and the mixture was now simmering in a pot by the fire. The green mixture looked disgusting to him, but Vin insisted that it tasted pretty good. JD had just started back toward the river when he heard Ezra's cry of alarm. He raced forward, stopping short at the sight of Ezra with an arm around his neck and a gun to his head.
* * * * * * * * * *
Ezra was feeling rather pleased with himself. He had managed to catch a fish without doing anything stupid, and even had some fun doing it. Turning to cast his line again, he was surprised to find himself looking down the barrel of a gun being wielded by a smirking Sammy. He reacted instinctively and dropped his fishing pole, whirling around to tackle his opponent while he yelled a warning to Vin. His injured ribs slowed his reaction time, however, and Sammy was able to gain the upper hand, wrapping his arm tightly around Ezra's throat.
"Don't move, Fed," Sammy hissed into his ear, "or I'll blow your brains all over your friend there."
Ezra met Vin's gaze, watching the other man closely. Vin flicked his eyes to the left, in the direction JD had gone, and Ezra blinked in response.
"Where's your other pal?" Sammy said, tightening his grip.
JD shouted as he slammed into the drug dealer.
The three men fell to the ground in a tangle and immediately began wrestling for control of the weapon. Vin dove into the fray, determined to subdue the man who had the audacity to attack his friend for a second time. As he was reaching out to help Ezra, the gun suddenly went off. Vin's leg crumpled beneath him as the bullet tore through his thigh.
Ezra saw the Texan fall and renewed his efforts to subdue the struggling gunman. JD had pinned the man's legs and Ezra was fighting to restrain his flailing arms when the gun discharged again, striking him in the side. Ezra fell back, clutching the wound, and rolled to the side. JD took advantage of his opponent's momentary distraction and grabbed for the gun, attempting to wrench it from his grasp. The two men struggled, trading blows as they rolled down the riverbank. The report of the gun once again split the air, and Ezra and Vin turned fearful eyes toward the two men lying motionless by the river.
JD picked himself up off of the ground.
"You all right, kid?" Vin asked anxiously.
JD replied, "Just hit my head again, is all."
"What about that miscreant?" inquired Ezra.
JD nudged him with the toe of his shoe, then checked his neck for a pulse. "He's dead."
"Guess we don't have to worry about him comin' after us no more," Vin said with a sigh.
"How are you guys doing?" JD asked, frowning at the sight of blood on his friends.
"I'm all right," Vin said hoarsely as he looked toward Ezra.
"It doesn't appear too serious," Ezra replied, his voice tight with pain.
Squatting next to them, JD shook his head and grinned. ‘You're both full of shit."
"I beg your pardon?" Ezra said, looking offended.
"You've been shot and you're bleeding," JD said matter-of-factly. "That's serious enough for me... especially out here."
"Kid's got a point," Vin admitted, grimacing as he tried to move his injured leg.
"Stay here. I'll get the first aid kit." JD jumped to his feet and hurried toward the campfire, returning minutes later with the large kit that Nathan had insisted everyone carry.
"Drop your pants, Vin," JD said as he pulled out some antiseptic.
"You ain't my type, kid," Vin replied with a faint smile.
"Just do it," JD prodded, flushing slightly in embarrassment.
Ezra chuckled while Vin awkwardly lowered his pants past the bleeding wound.
"What are you laughin' at?" Vin said, tossing a glare at Ezra. "You're next.’
"Yes, but my injury is in a less revealing part of my anatomy," retorted Ezra.
Vin stuck out his tongue, but rapidly sucked in a pained breath when JD dabbed antiseptic on the wound.
‘Bullet went through,’ JD remarked. "It's not bleeding too bad."
‘Hurts like hell," Vin said through clenched teeth.
JD carefully cleaned and bandaged the wound, then moved on to Ezra, lifting his shirt to reveal the gunshot wound that had torn through his bandaged ribs. Unwrapping the ruined bandages, he remarked, "Damn, Ez! Those bruises look awful."
"Them bastards played quite a tune on his ribs," Vin said.
"Looks like the bullet didn't go too deep," JD said.
Vin craned his neck to look, grimacing at the sight of the shallow channel that the bullet had made along Ezra's bruised ribcage. "That looks like it stings."
"Just a bit," Ezra said, flinching as JD applied the antiseptic.
"You guys are just lucky you didn't get hit any worse," JD said as he finished tending his friends. "We would'a been in deep shit without Nathan here to fix you up."
"We'll be fine," Vin said reassuringly.
"At least until Mr. Larabee sets eyes upon us," Ezra said, cringing at the thought of the older man's reaction to their misadventures.
"Aw hell," Vin moaned. "He's gonna kill us for sure."
* * * * * * * * * *
Chris was fuming. They had finished the hike yesterday and there was still no sign of his remaining agents. He glared at the telephone, wishing it would ring with good news. After he, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan had left the woods, they had been immediately concerned that their three teammates were not there waiting for them. The younger agents had turned back after three days of hiking, while his own group had had a four-day journey to the end of the trail, so they should have already finished by the time his group arrived. He allowed that Ezra might have slowed them down some, but he couldn't shake the nagging suspicion that there was more to their delay.
Though the other men wouldn't admit it, Chris knew they were just as worried about their absent teammates, and would follow him back to the woods the moment he gave the word. He had caught Buck more than once looking at the clock and at JD's empty desk. Nathan had also seemed distracted, flipping absently though some of his medical guides when he thought no one was looking. Even Josiah, usually a calming presence, had seemed restless. They were all well aware of the kind of trouble their wayward friends could get into, even in a short amount of time.
Chris sighed. His men were more than two days overdue, based on the expected timetable, and he was seriously considering going back out to look for them. He had informed the forest rangers of his plans to do just that if his men did not return by the next day, despite their assurances that they would mount an official search and rescue effort themselves at that point. He had wanted to start looking for them immediately, but had allowed himself to be convinced that the delay was not yet a cause for concern. According to the rangers, it was not uncommon for hikers to take longer than expected to traverse a trail, even if they were experienced. The feeling of unease, though, had continued to grow, tightening in his stomach until he could stand it no longer. Chris lifted the phone to call Travis.
* * * * * * * * * *
"How're you doing?" JD asked Ezra worriedly, concerned about the unhealthy pallor on the man's face.
"I'm fine," Ezra replied dismissively.
JD sighed and turned to his other friend, who looked just as bad. "Vin? How’ bout you?"
‘I'm fine, too," Vin answered flatly.
JD rolled his eyes, beginning to understand Nathan's continual frustration with the lot of them. Both of his teammates were exhausted and limping badly, but had stubbornly insisted they were fine every time he asked. Despite his best efforts at first aid, the gunshot wounds they had received had become infected, and both had developed fevers as a result. To make matters worse, he had stumbled and twisted his ankle the day before, forcing him to rely on his injured friends for support as they made their way along the rugged trail.
"Let's stop for a rest," JD suggested. "I need a drink anyway." When neither Ezra nor Vin protested, he realized they were definitely not feeling their best. Settling themselves on a convenient boulder, the three men took out their canteens. Ezra retrieved what was left of his granola bars and shared them with his teammates.
"We're almost there," Vin remarked wearily.
"That is good to hear," Ezra drawled with a half-smile. "I am looking forward to sleeping in my own soft bed instead of this rock-strewn dirt."
"Hate to say it, but I'm with you, pard," Vin said with a smirk.
Ezra smiled, but didn't take the opportunity to tease the sharpshooter – a firm testament to his weariness. "I believe I need to answer Nature's call," he said, standing slowly and limping stiffly into the woods.
"Need a hand?" JD offered.
Ezra sent him a disbelieving look. ‘Not hardly, Mr. Dunne.’
Vin snickered and said, "Ain't too many men gonna take you up on that kind of offer, kid."
JD looked at him, confused, until he gave it some thought; then he blushed deeply.
"How's your ankle?" Vin asked, changing the subject to spare the younger man any further embarrassment.
"It's not too bad," JD replied. "It'll get me to the end of the trail, and that's all that's important right now."
"Did you notice," JD mused softly, "that Ez hasn't complained at all since this trip started. I mean, he complained a lot before we left home, but he hardly said a word after we hit the woods."
Vin replied. "He's out of his element, and I think he just didn't want to draw attention to himself."
JD nodded. "I think he was tryin' not to aggravate us any more than we already were after that whole disaster last week. He's hurting now, though. I figured he would have something to say about that, but he hasn't said a thing."
"Ez don't complain when it's important,’ Vin said.
"You're right," JD agreed after thinking about it for a moment. "He's always cool when it matters, like for work."
‘He's been kind'a quiet ever since that toy factory fiasco,’ Vin added.
"Wasn't his fault," JD said. "I heard him tell Chris that he wasn't convinced about the information from his snitch."
"Yeah, Chris has a tendency to charge into everything," Vin said. "Sometimes he don't think first."
Rustling in the bushes announced Ezra's return. "Well, gentlemen. Shall we continue?"
"Let's go," JD said.
The three of them resumed their slow, shuffling pace, determined to reach the end of the trail by day's end.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Now there is a sight for sore eyes," Ezra said, grinning wide enough to show his gold tooth, as they approached the ranger station that sat near the trailhead.
Vin agreed succinctly.
"We gonna call Chris now?" JD inquired.
"Not unless we have to," Vin said.
"Yes, it would be preferable to delay that eventuality as long as possible," Ezra agreed.
They staggered wearily into the ranger station and slumped onto the benches located in the reception area with sighs of satisfaction.
The tall, mustached ranger behind the desk greeted them. "Can I help you?"
Ezra began, "We are the rest of the Larabee party."
"I figured as much," the ranger said with a smile. "Your boss has been calling here ten times a day since he left."
The three men looked at each other and groaned simultaneously. They were in deep shit.
"Um, we'd like to report some dead bodies out on the trail," JD said hesitantly.
The ranger gaped at them.
Vin stood stiffly and limped toward the large map on the wall. One guy got shot at the top of the ravine here, and another one guy fell over the edge. He moved his finger. The third guy jumped us here and got shot.
"Jumped you? What for?" The ranger's eyes darted between the three men.
"I had the misfortune of stumbling upon their drug running operation," Ezra said.
The ranger's eyes grew even wider as he related the entire tale. He said, running a hand through his hair, "I better get some people up here."
"Good idea," Vin said. "There's no tellin' how many people might be involved with their operation."
"We'll alert the DEA upon our return to Denver," Ezra said. "I'm certain they will be interested in this situation."
"Speakin' of Denver," Vin began." I don't s'pose you have some transportation we can borrow?"
"That won't be necessary," a familiar, gravelly voice announced from the doorway.
"Aw hell," Vin groaned as Chris, Buck, Josiah, and Nathan stalked into the station, crowding the small reception area.
"Damn! You boys sure are a sorry-lookin' bunch," Buck remarked when he got his first look at them.
"What the hell happened?" Chris demanded quietly, taking in the bruised features of his three agents. "You look like you've been in a brawl."
"That's not too far off," JD mumbled.
The ranger said, clearing his throat, "I've got some calls to make. I'll leave you to it." He hurried away into his back office, grinning at the picture the big brothers' made as they glared at the younger ones.
Chris studied his men, noting with concern that Ezra, the most bruised of the three, seemed to be trying to disappear into the corner. He sighed inwardly, knowing they had a hard task ahead of them to get the man to believe they were worried about him as well as the others.
Nathan had immediately moved into medic mode, starting with JD when he noticed his limping gait. "What happened to your foot?"
"Twisted it," JD said reluctantly.
Nathan murmured as he probed the swollen appendage. "Might be sprained."
"I know," JD said tiredly. "That's why I wrapped it."
‘What about your face?" Nathan checked the bruises on the side of his face, along with the partially-healed split lip.
"Ran into some fists," JD said nonchalantly.
Buck said, suddenly concerne, "What the hell did you boys get into?"
The three younger agents looked at one another resignedly, knowing their older colleagues would not cease their interrogation until they had the full story.
"It's my fault," Ezra stated. "I turned on to the wrong trail and came upon some drug dealers waiting for a delivery."
"Ain't your fault," Vin argued. "The trail marker was old and faded. Anyone could'a made that mistake."
Ezra shrugged. "It hardly matters."
"Does to me," Vin sighed. ‘Ain't your fault they grabbed you, neither."
"Those guys grabbed Ez and were beatin' on him when we found their cabin," JD explained.
"They were a bit perturbed to find a federal agent so close to their drop location,’ Ezra continued.
‘I'll say," Vin snorted. "They tossed’ im over a cliff."
"We took care of ‘em, though," JD said proudly.
Chris listened as they took turns telling the story, then rubbed a hand over his eyes tiredly. He shouldn't be surprised. Only these three could find trouble in the middle of nowhere. "All right. Let's go home. We can sort this out tomorrow."
"These two need to go to the hospital," JD piped up, ignoring the betrayed glares of his two friends. "They both got shot taking down that last guy." They needed a doctor's help, even if they were too stubborn to admit it.
‘You neglected to mention that little detail in your narrative, brothers,’ Josiah chided.
Vin shrugged. "Ain't bad. I can hardly feel it anymore."
JD snorted, ignoring the dirty looks Vin and Ezra sent his way.
"All right. We'll hit the hospital first," Chris said.
Vin disagreed. "We have to go by the office first."
"What for?" Buck asked. "You guys ain't in any shape to work."
"We must secure the contraband," Ezra answered. He unzipped his pack and pulled out a bag of cocaine.
"Shit! How much of that stuff you got?" Buck asked.
"Forty or fifty pounds," Vin said wryly.
Nathan whistled appreciatively. "No wonder they went after you."
Chris agreed reluctantly. ‘Office first, then the hospital." He and the others ushered their fellow agents to the vehicles they had brought, glad to have found them safe and relatively sound, if somewhat worse for wear. JD rode with Josiah and Buck in Josiah's Suburban, while Vin and Ezra were herded into Chris's Ram, along with Nathan, who took the opportunity to fuss over the two injured men.
It was late by the time they had locked up the drugs and made it to the hospital. Chris had been surprised at Vin and Ezra's lack of resistance to being kept overnight at the hospital, until he realized that they were simply too tired to argue. While Vin was having his ribs and leg x-rayed, Chris studied the sleeping undercover agent, wondering what was under the complex man's façade.
"Are you going to stare at me all night, Mr. Larabee?" Ezra said softly, without opening his eyes.
Chris chuckled. He should have known his observant agent would be aware of his presence. "I'm just wondering how you managed to survive getting thrown off a cliff."
"Pure, unadulterated luck," Ezra answered, a faint smile gracing his features as he turned to look at Chris.
"Somehow, I believe that," Chris said with an answering smile.
"Mr. Tanner's impeccable timing helped a bit, as well."
"Yes, it was lucky he and JD went after you." Chris looked at him seriously. "That wasn't too smart, going off by yourself like that. You could have gotten yourself killed."
"I did not wish to further burden you with my ineptitude," Ezra said, looking away from his leader's penetrating stare.
"You aren't a burden, Ezra," Chris said with a frustrated sigh. "You could'a just told us you'd never been camping." Vin had imparted that bit of knowledge to him when he had seen the hint of anger toward the southerner in his boss's eyes. Things made much more sense, now that he knew.
"You never asked", Ezra said softly.
Chris was momentarily taken aback by that statement, but then nodded in understanding. "You're right. We should've asked." It wasn't like the rest of them went around admitting their weaknesses – or what they perceived to be a weakness. In their business, they couldn't afford to. There were always plenty of criminals eager to exploit any weaknesses they found.
Ezra simply shrugged and dropped his gaze, embarrassed by the whole conversation.
"I guess we figured you must have done it at some point, what with all the stepfathers you've had over the years." Chris shrugged. "It's just the kind of thing most fathers do with their sons."
Ezra snorted. "I never had any fathers. Most of my stepfathers barely acknowledged my presence, let alone sought my company." He looked Chris in the eye. Besides, the sort of men Maude preferred were not the type to go traipsing through the wilderness. Lying on a beach or skiing in the Alps was as close as they got to the outdoors.
"That explains a lot." Chris blew out a breath. "Too bad. Camping can be a lot of fun."
"Yes, I've discovered that," Ezra admitted self-consciously. "Despite our troublesome encounters with those miscreants, I did rather enjoy the rest of the trip with Mr. Tanner and Mr. Dunne".
Chris's eyebrows lifted in surprise. "Really? Well, we'll just have to do this again sometime."
Ezra groaned. "Remind me to keep my big mouth shut from now on."
"Not a problem."
Ezra glared at him then gave up as the rest of the team trooped into the room. Like it or not, it seemed he was becoming a part of this motley group. A misfit among other misfits. He smiled as he drifted off to sleep. Maybe that wasn't such a bad thing.
* Author is deceased.