Buck Wilmington stood in the middle of the slush covered dirt road. Ice lay hidden beneath the crusty exterior. It was a clear brisk night. His breath crystallized on the air. The ankle deep slush made walking difficult and down right treacherous at times. Chris and Nathan wandered up head. Each man held a halogen light. Occasionally a beam of light would be jarred haphazardly as someone slipped in the slick footing. Buck watched as the beams cut paths through the crisp evening air. The dirt mountain road was wide enough for one and a half cars....if someone took the ditch. The revamped logging route had become a common short cut for those who knew the way over the pass. It could save time skirting the mountains but on nights like these it did not seem worth the risk.
It had rained down in Denver earlier this afternoon. It had been the rain that had started the embers of anxiety with in Chris to slowly blossom over the course of the day. Vin and Ezra were over due. Those two together were enough to make a seasoned drill sergeant sweat with apprehension. They had a habit have making 'innocent' trouble. When the rain had hit in thunderous sheets Larabee had paced nervously behind a closed office door. The cell phones were in a 'no service' zone. Not unusual in places as remote as this. Heck it made Chris's ranch look down right cosmopolitan. Buck had known Chris was worried and had even offered to take JD in Josiah's Suburban and check out this route.
Larabee declined. Tanner and Standish were adults. They could take care of themselves.
The afternoon hours had worn on and still there was no word from either Tracker or Undercover agent. Buck had begun to worry. Vin and Ezra may play fast and loose with authority figures and even go so far as to bend a few rules but they knew the importance of checking in with the team on time. It was one thing none of the seven delayed. They checked in. You were either dead or physically incapable of getting word to the others at the appointed time. It was the one rule no one dared mock. Team seven had a history of attracting trouble. When ever they worked a case who ever was out running around checked in. It was a very simple rule that kept people safe.
Though team seven was in the midst of a case they were not near the point of infiltrating their new target. Standish and Tanner had decided to get a 'lay of the land' and 'investigate' their new territory. Lawrence Hughes and company enjoyed the back woods solitude offered by Colorado's high country. Hughes had unbeknowingly attracted the attention of the ATF. Vin wanted to get familiar with the rustic back roads. Tanner knew some time soon he would have to chauffeur Standish through these tangled unmarked routes, all in the name of undercover work.
Buck smirked. Truth be told. Ezra got it in his conniving head to sweet talk the local Chevy dealer into letting Vin test drive the new SUV....A sleek shiny onyx Tahoe 2000. The sharpshooter was not interested in purchasing a new vehicle. His beat up rust covered jeep was his 'winter' truck. The Harley sat like an alter in his Purgatorio apartment waiting for spring. Tanner, however, could not resist the temptation of driving a new rig. With an innocent smile and shrug the Texan followed the Southern agent down to the dealership. Vin did not have to feigned his interest in the shiny, new, fully loaded, leather interior, heated seat, automatic 4-WD, truck. No he did not have to pretend at all. He just had to have an air of money about himself. That, Tanner had left up to Standish. The gambler could be flat broke and exude the aura of self wealth.
Chris had watched the budding plan from the door way of his office. The two scheming agents had sat huddled together over a desk and road atlas planning their day. Larabee had noticed that the other four agents were watching as well. Nothing good ever came to fruit when Tanner and Standish schemed quietly amongst themselves. Buck had merely shaken his head elbowing JD. Dunne had shrugged...he had know idea what they were up to. Josiah and Nathan spied on the twosome from across the room. Neither man had been privy to the 'secret plans' but whatever Vin and Ezra were devising it would somehow ensnare the whole team...or so Jackson thought. Looking back now Nathan wished he had stepped in and intervened.
The leader of team seven held his amusement in check as he waited for the conman's diatribe to direct itself toward Chris. They did, of course, need Larabee's blessing to leave work obscenely early.
Standish had merely explained it to Chris as a 'preliminary venture in the up coming investigation.' They would need a reliable mode of transportation in the wilds of the Colorado mountains. Larabee did not bother pointing out to the sweet talking undercover agent that the ATF car pool did indeed have such trucks in its lots. Larabee was no idiot. Chris was well aware what his agents were plotting. Those two 'innocent' fools were going to go over the pass and go skiing in some remote, mountain, ski town.
Larabee let them go. In a few short weeks Standish would be immersed in the shifting deadly world of gun running. In all likelihood Vin would be at his side, more times than not, trying to ensure both their safety.
They wanted time away running innocent tricks on truck dealers...fine Larabee would humor them.
The humor quickly dissipated when the twosome did not check in that afternoon liked planned. Chris and the others were more than willing to make excuses and look the other way on some indiscretions but not on this. A simple call put minds at ease.
As the afternoon had worn on people had become increasingly alarmed. Silently.
Josiah had flipped on the radio in the break room. He had tinkered with the Coffee maker even though late afternoon had begun to encroach on the day. Jackson had hovered about the door frame trying to read a memo he was not interested in while listening to the news report.
Weather above 3500 feet had high winds and spitting snow.
Still no word.
JD had ignored his computer monitor as he jury rigged Josiah's cell phone. Dunne figured Sanchez to be the most forgiving of the group. Even with the electronic boost the young computer whiz could not raise their friends.
Under the guise of indifference and apparent light heartiness everyone waited....intensely.
Chris fiddled with the decorative spur that sat on his desk. He could see the matching one on Vin's...a gift from Buck. Larabee used a pencil to make the rawl spin on its axle. The harsh rolling noise did nothing to distract his eye from staring at the non ringing telephone.
Damn those two.
Five PM, the city had been cast into a black winter night. The rain had stopped long ago but a sharp bite hung on the wind.
Without a word Larabee whipped his coat from the closet. He had waited long enough. The phone had not rung. Chris tossed open his office door and found his other four team members sitting on the corners of desks or loitering against the wall....waiting on him. They all wore their heavy winter coats and grim expressions.
The five men piled into Josiah's suburban. Of all the vehicles it was the only one that could hold all five agents and it was the only one other than Chris's Dodge that had walnut studded tires. Denver weather just did not demand such heavy winter treads.
JD checked the back compartment one more time. Three halogen spotting lights, two wool blankets..extra clothes and boots sat next to the newly acquired flares. Nathan's medical back pack lay in the corner.
Buck handed Chris a map. Nathan had marked in pencil the route Vin would have taken. The dirt road was not on the map when the atlas was purchased over lunch.
Larabee did not bother asking his team if they had everything. He knew Buck spear headed the gathering of supplies over the afternoon. Between Wilmington and Sanchez they would be better prepared than most armies on the move.
Sanchez pulled out of the parking garage into the early evening traffic. He merged into the heavy slow moving line of commuting cars all the while flicking the turn signal rapidly, multiple times, indicating he wished to turn.
In less than an hour they were out of Denver and heading toward the mountains. Five sets of eyes searched the on coming traffic,hoping to pass their friends on the way.
Two hours later they hit the 'short cut' over the pass. The tertiary road had been marked as closed. At first the others could not understand why...until Josiah touched the brakes. 'Black ice' except it was not 'black', just invisible, under the mounds of slush.
The ancient heavy vehicle slid to a stop. The walnut studs bit into the ice and scraped the truck to a halt as the forward momentum was slowly eaten away by friction. The thick, heavy, slush wrestled control of the front tires from Sanchez. The suburban sat diagonally in the road. Josiah coaxed and urged the three quarter ton vehicle to the side of the road. With wheels cut sharply he killed the engine. Chris held his gaze out the windshield focusing on the light green foliage that was highlighted by the head lights.
Did the SUV that Vin and Ezra take have studs on the tires? Gawd Chris hoped so.
JD in his haste to exit the truck slipped and fell on the ice.
"Easy kid it's slick," Buck warned with a half smile.
"Ahh no shit Buck," Dunne grumbled out pulling himself up using the door handle for support.
+ + + + + + +
Now, another hour later Buck stood in the middle of the road. His toes were cold and he could feel his nose running. Slight winds buffeted him bringing tears to his eyes. At least the afternoon storm had let up its grip. A clear night sat in its wake. Countless stars dotted the sky. Wilmington raised his gaze heavenward idly searching out familiar constellations through the black silhouettes of the over hanging bull pine trees. They had not passed house lights for the last three miles of their drive. No one lived up here but hoot owls and buzzards. Buck smiled....his grandpa used to say things like that when Buck was just a boy. Wilmington sighed and shook his head. Ezra and Vin were going to be in a heap of trouble when they found them. Chris was going to kill them....if they weren't dead already. Wilmington shut his eyes. He did not truly believe something that horrendous had happened. Those two knuckle heads could fall from a building and land in an unexpected air mattress. They had uncanny luck....for finding trouble...and escaping it.
Then he heard it.
"Boat drinks...boys in the band ordered boat drinks....Visitors scored on the home rink..."
Jimmy Buffet? Buck stood silently in the middle of the road ignoring his teammates. He strained listening intently. He could hear JD and Josiah behind him and Nathan and Chris in front of him. Their lights played over the edge of the road and up the slope searching in vain for any sign of their friends.
"Boat drinks...boys in the band..."
"Guys do you hear that?" Buck asked quickly.
"Hear what Buck?" JD asked suddenly.
"Shh...listen," Buck's urgency had everyone converging on his spot. The sound of sliding shuffling boots on the dirt road drowned out the fleeting lyrics.
"What...I don't hear anything?" JD said again as he and Josiah closed in on the Ladies man.
"JD shut up and listen," Wilmington uttered quickly waving his hand in a downward motion indicating the kid should be quiet. "I hear something," He whispered. He strained trying to grasp onto the elusive sound again. He knew he heard something.
"What'd ya hear Buck?" Chris asked. He had not detected anything.
"Buffet," Buck whispered again walking away from the group. They were to distracting.
"Ahh Buck ya got Buffet on the brain," JD joked half heartily. He really thought they might have been on to something. Then again Dunne surmised Buck would not pull a dumb prank in this kind of situation. This was not the time for jokes.
"Shhh JD," Nathan intoned softly. He stood with his eyes closed squinting slightly as he concentrated.
"Visitors scored on the home rink...everything seems to be wrong..."
"I hear it too." Nathan exclaimed. The healer unconsciously gripped the handle of the lantern tighter.
"Where's it coming from?" Chris tried to pinpoint the faint voice the wafted up to them on the breeze. No one moved. The subtle shifting of feet abruptly ended. Silence filled the winter evening. With watering eyes and running noses the five men strained to catch an auditory glimpse of the elusive song.
"Over here," Buck yelled. He had walked a few yards up the road and toward the ledge.
The other four jogged over. No one spoke. They stood on the edge of the dirt embankment staring down the dark incline listening. Silence greeted them for an eternal minute and then...
"Boys in the band ordered boat drinks..."
"It's a radio," JD whispered. He finally heard the words to one of Buck's favorite songs.
"More like a CD...sounds like it's stuck on a tract," Josiah said. The lyrics kept repeating themselves.
"Oh my God," Nathan whispered out when the realization of what Sanchez said finally settled home.
Everyone bailed over the side of the embankment careless of what dangers may lay in wait below them. As a group the five men started slipping and sliding down the slope. As a living struggling beast with five independent minds, the small determined group crashed through the underbrush, over windfalls, between bent and scratched saplings, in hopes of locating the source of the song.
Buck tried to slow his wild decent by grabbing onto passing saplings or brambles. He grasped anything that would keep him from tumbling head over heels. The halogen lights lanced through the terrain as the others slipped and slid behind him. In what seemed an eternity he came in sight of headlights. His relief soared as his heart fell.
The music rang loudly in the small, flat clearing. "Boat drinks..boys in the band ordered boat drinks, visitors scored on the home rink, everything seems to be wrong..."
The angle of the lights confused him at first. When the beam from JD's light hit the undercarriage of the truck Buck figured out what was wrong.
The SUV rested on its side.
"Shit, shit shit," Wilmington spit out. He let go of the small tendrils of vegetation he used to control his descent. With long unsteady strides he made it to the truck. The engine was cold. The truck had sat for a while at least.
Buck quickly shuffled around to the front of the vehicle, ignoring the dealer plate. He hoped in vain to find the truck empty. He silently prayed his friends had wrecked the truck and walked away in search of a phone.
Wilmington cupped his hands around his face and the spider cracked windshield and peered inside.
He shut his eyes.
Then Chris was beside him with a light. The beam cut through the darkness and lit up the interior of the truck from the outside.
Vin lay sprawled face down over the passenger seat his legs folded on the interior of the passenger door. His head rested against what should have been the side of the seat. His right arm had wedged itself between the drivers seat and the consul at an awkward angle, bending after the elbow. The distorted limb was the only thing preventing his body from completely crashing to the passenger door. As it was he appeared to be dangling somewhat by that one arm while the rest of his body was crammed between the door and dashboard. The remnants of the seat belt were wrapped haphazardly around him.
Underneath him with his head resting against the shattered glass of the passenger window lay Standish. His shoulders down were hidden from view by Tanner's crumpled body and the front of the truck. The air bag had not deployed.
When the splash of light cut to his features, Standish furrowed his brow with his eyes closed.
"Ezra?!, Ezra?!" Chris yelled from outside trying to be heard over the music. The other team members watched as the undercover agent slowly opened his eyes.
"Come on Ez," Nathan encouraged, "that's it open yer eyes Ez."
"Josiah see if ya can't get up through the driver's door." Larabee directed. He quickly switched his gaze from his trapped men to the preacher. Without a word Josiah and JD hurried to comply.
"Ez," Buck shouted, "jist hold on we'll git you out in a bit."
If Standish understood what was being said he gave no indication. Instead his half hooded eyes began to flutter close.
"Noo," Nathan yelled tapping on the windshield, "Ezra don't go to sleep. Come on Ezra open your eyes." Jackson banged on the streak lined glass. "Gawd damn it Ezra open your lazy good fer nuthin' eyes!"
Buck and Chris both turned and stared at the medic somewhat shocked.
Nathan shrugged and grimaced.
All three watched as the southern agent peeled his eyes open again.
"Chris the door 's jammed." Josiah was suddenly beside them. "Truck must've rolled down the hill. Glass is still in though."
Larabee merely nodded. He remained quiet for a few moments and then stated, "We go through the windshield."
Buck, Chris, and Josiah held forearms as they lifted their legs and struck out at the windshield. They hit the Plexiglas as one. The existing cracks stretched and grew. With another concerted effort they pounded the windshield again. The sound of crackling glass and splintering bonds filled the area. On the third strike the plexi bent inward peeling painfully from its molding.
The three then grabbed the loosened end and began to pull the protective glass from its molding. JD hung back circling around the three straining men.
Dunne slipped into the slight opening kneeling on the ground and resting his hand on the crumpled ill used dashboard.
"Ez?" JD put a hand on Tanner's leg. It felt strangely warm in the cold breeze.
Dunne watched as the undercover agent just blinked at him.
"Ez can ya hear me?" Dunne tried to stretch in and touch the southern man to assure both himself and his friend that they were both very real. Tanner blocked his reach and JD was afraid to move or joust him. Dunne settled back on his knees. JD did not register the cold and wet that seeped through his jeans onto his skin from the ground. The damp chill of the evening was suddenly forgotten.
"JD?" The question was tentative at best. Almost as if trying to fathom if the voice and form before him was real or just another apparition.
A relieved smile crossed JD's face, "Yeah Ez it's me....the others are here too...jist hang on a little longer and we'll git ya outa here in no time." The young agent said quickly shooting darting looks to Chris and Buck and the others. Dunne returned his attention to the undercover agent. He watched as Standish blinked a few times trying to clear his vision. The puzzled expression transformed into one of acceptance. Ezra was a firm believer in the 'seeing is believing' theory but only if he held the cards....you can after all manipulate what people perceive.
"Mr. Dunne could you please shut that inferno music off," The voice was hoarse and labored.
Dunne smiled, apparently Ezra was laying odds on what his eyes and ears told him. With fumbling blind fingers JD felt the strange dashboard trying to finagle the radio off. By mistake he hit the volume button. For a brief second Jimmy Buffet's voice vibrated through the night. JD cringed and quickly hit the volume button all the way down.
"Thanks JD," Chris whispered as he shifted past the young agent effectively maneuvering JD out of the truck.
Larabee turned his attention to this two agents.
"Ezra?" Chris asked. He stared at the blood covered features of his undercover agent, "can ya hear me?"
Larabee watched as Standish slowly nodded his head closing his eyes.
"Ya got to stay awake for me Ezra," Larabee softly intoned. Chris moved down toward the passenger door jam as Nathan wiggled in beside him. Larabee kept an eye on Jackson as the EMT quickly ran his hands up each of Tanner's legs and then reachable arm. The medic paused at the wrist. Jackson turned and smiled briefly at Chris, "He's alive."
Chris shut his eyes and composed himself. He had a situation to get under control.
"JD," Larabee bellowed out as he extricated himself from the front of the vehicle.
"Yeah Chris... I know," JD answered climbing back up the slope, "I'm on it," He shouted back over his shoulder without diverting his attention from his slippery ascent up the hill side.
Larabee watched the kid scramble up the mountain side and shook his head smiling quietly. "Josiah help him out...and make sure he gives the fire crew the right directions."
Sanchez smiled and shucked out of his coat just as JD had done. He handed the two winter jackets to Buck and then headed back up the trail.
Buck tossed the two coats to Larabee who in turn gave them to Nathan. Jackson laid them both over Vin and Ezra.
"Hang on Ez we'll have you out in no time," Jackson smiled reassuringly. It was lost on the undercover agent.
Jackson untangled himself from the front of the truck. He stood and faced Chris and Buck.
"What have we got Nathan," Chris asked.
"I'm not to sure Chris," Jackson started, "Vin's taken a bad blow to the left side of his head. I'm pretty sure he's busted up his chest pretty good. That arm looks broke or dislocated...can't quite get close enough to tell." Jackson paused formulating the information he had gleamed in his short observations, "Internal injuries....probably. Jist hard to say...I don't think we should move him though....least not til he comes too."
Buck and Chris frowned. They wanted to get them out of the truck now. Jackson ignored their looks of impatience. "Ezra's either sufferin' from shock or has a concussion..probably both....says his leg hurts but can't tell me which one. With Vin covering him like he is I can't check it out for myself....says his shoulder aches, most likely dislocated it again."
Larabee nodded, "anything we can do for them now?"
"Keep them warm and conscious until help arrives," Nathan said shrugging his shoulders at the helplessness of the situation.
Chris nodded, "Ok, Buck I want you to hang close. Nathan go back to the truck and git your gear. Right now you're their best hope they have until a rescue crew gets here."
Jackson nodded his head and headed up the slope...right after he handed off his coat. Nathan crawled on hands and feet. His hands gripped and pulled at ice ladened roots and branches. His fingers tips had become chilled and then started to ache. Sweat ran down his back between his shoulder blades. His quadriceps burned with steepness of the incline. 'How the devil were they going to get Vin and Ezra up this blasted mountain side?' The chemist wondered as he slipped and clawed for purchase on the slick ground. He reached the top with frozen fingers and sweat drenched body. Ignoring his discomfort he jogged and slid his way back to Josiah's truck.
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