Off the Rails

by Hombre

Notes: This is for Jan Opie and Linda Fiskum. Especially Linda, who has kept me going when, on several occasions, I've been on the verge of giving up writing altogether. If you enjoy this then I would love to know 'cause I really need cheering up at the moment. Life sucks would be an appropriate sentiment, I think.

Buck listened to the radio as he drove toward Chris's ranch on a beautiful summer's evening. He had the window wide open with his arm leant along the window frame as he tapped the palm of his hand on the outside of the door in time to the music while singing at the top of his voice. He was very out of tune, it had to be said, but there was no-one to hear him so he continued belting out the words at top volume.

The wind blew gustily through the window all at once and the tall man moved his hand to secure his favorite baseball cap to his head, not wanting to lose it. He knocked his sunglasses off his nose in the process and cursed as he adjusted them back into the correct position while trying to steer in a straight line.

When he'd settled he joined in again with the song that was currently playing but Dolly Parton was unceremoniously interrupted midstream so some important breaking news could be relayed. Buck frowned worriedly as he listened to it while turning onto the track that led to the ranch house. The ladies' man spotted Chris and headed his vehicle toward him; his mood changed from carefree to downright terrified in the space of a minute.

Chris waved as the tall agent pulled up beside him and climbed hurriedly out of the truck. The black-clad man reached out a hand and laid it on Buck's arm. "Bucklin? Yer lookin' thoughtful. What's up?"

"What train was Ez comin' in on?"

The blond looked down at his watch and said, "Should be arriving any time now. He was catching the three-fifty, I think. Why? Don't tell me you agreed to pick him up and you've forgotten?" Chris raised his eyes as he smiled broadly but saw that the color had totally drained out of Buck's face in the short time that his gaze had been elsewhere. The man resembled someone who had fallen in a vat of chalk. "Buck? Whatever's wrong?" the slender man asked as he stepped forward in concern, his smile fading quickly.

Buck made eye contact as he gulped and said shakily, "I just heard on the radio that two trains collided outside town about a half hour ago. After what you've just said, I think one of them musta been the train Ezra was on."

"Shit! Did they give details of how many were injured?"

"No. Think the emergency services had only just arrived but they said it was carnage, pard," the mustached agent informed his friend worriedly as he removed his sunglasses and rubbed his eyes to get rid of the sudden tears that had appeared.

"Dammit! I'm going to Denver."

"I'll take ya, pard," Buck said as he opened the passenger door for Chris. "I've got a knot in my guts that tells me Ez is hurt bad."

The two men climbed into the truck and headed back to town while listening to the radio for any more news. Chris also used the time to call the rest of his team to tell them what he suspected had happened to their traveling friend. He arranged for them all to meet him at the office so that they could begin to co-ordinate a plan to track Ezra down. He then began calling all the hospitals in Denver to see if Ezra had been admitted. Inevitably chaos reigned and he couldn't get an answer to his question, which increased his tension levels tenfold. He then tried Ezra's cell and house phones but the first number was unobtainable and the second went unanswered.

"Godammit! Were you on the train or not, Ezra?" the blond asked as he raked his fingers fiercely through his hair before slamming his fist against the dash.

Buck winced and looked to see if Chris had damaged his precious truck in any way. As far as he could tell it was still in one piece so he tried his best to placate his oldest friend. "Keep calm, pard. If it's as bad as they say, it's gonna take time for them to get things sorted. You can't expect instant answers, no matter how much you want them."

"I know, but that don't stop friends and family worrying, does it?"

"No, I know it don't but just imagine what they're being faced with, Chris. You know from experience how long it takes to put rescue operations into practice," the mustached agent replied reasonably, trying to get his explosive friend to see sense.

"I know, Bucklin, all right? Just shut up and drive, will ya?" Chris snapped unintentionally.

After a minute or two of silence had passed, the slender man reached out a hand and patted Buck's knee in apology. "Sorry, Buck. Why do you put up with the way I treat you sometimes?"

"Can't break a habit of a lifetime can I, pard? I know you inside out, remember, and I ain't offended anymore when you yell at me. It's just the way you are and I accept that, Chris."

"That don't excuse my behavior, Bucklin. Just want you to know that I really appreciate you standing by me."

"No problem, pard."

The two men were silent for the rest of the very tense journey and arrived at the office to find the rest of their friends already there.

Vin stood up as soon as he saw them and said, "I just called all the hospitals and Ez ain't amongst those they've received so far, either dead or alive."

Chris nodded gratefully. "Thanks, Vin. I checked a while ago too but keep ringin' them periodically to check, will ya? Nathan? I want you to come with me to the wreck site. Buck, contact the police and see what you can learn from them and Josiah speak to the railroad company and get confirmation of the trains involved."

The profiler nodded after receiving his orders and immediately reached for his phone.

Chris watched the man punch in a number and then switched his gaze to the youngest agent in his team. The youngster looked anxious and was flicking his eyes between his colleagues continuously. "JD? Keep trying Ezra's home in case he wasn't on the train and has got home by other means."

"Sure, Chris." JD was glad to have something to do as well and he prayed that he would get an answer to his calls.

"Vin? Did you get a feel for the number of people killed or injured?" the blond asked as he turned to face his best friend once more.

Vin looked up from his notebook and shook his head, his blue eyes for once dull and lifeless. "Not exact numbers for the injured, Chris. So far from what I've heard, there's twenty dead but they expect a whole lot more, cowboy," the sharpshooter replied somberly.

"Shit!" Chris looked round the room and saw the rest of his men already on their phones so the blond turned to Nathan and put a hand on his arm. "Come on, Nate. Let's get goin'."

+ + + + + + +

The two men finally arrived in the vicinity of the wreck site but couldn't get anywhere near because the roads had been blocked to allow the emergency services' access. Nathan was forced to park a fair distance away and then he and Chris ran toward the nearest police line to gain access.

"Officer?" Chris said as he showed his ID and then looked over the man's shoulder to see if he could spot his missing friend amongst the many walking-wounded.

"Sir? What's this got to do with the ATF?" the policeman on duty asked as he looked at Chris and then Nathan warily.

"Nothing. We think one of our friends may have been involved in the wreck. Can we come through?" Chris asked as he moved a step nearer, expecting to be allowed through immediately.

The policeman looked unsettled as he eyed both men but finally nodded and raised the tape to let them in. Chris and Nathan ducked under it quickly and ran onwards until the wrecked trains finally came into view. Chris saw the devastation and realized what a mammoth task the rescue crews were being faced with.

"Jesus Christ," Chris whispered in awe as he came to a standstill when his legs began trembling. Everywhere he looked there seemed to be scattered bits of train and uprooted vegetation.

"Chris? I don't think we should be here. There's nothing we can do but get in the way. Let's go back to the office," Nathan suggested quietly as he put a hand on the blond's arm and tried to pull him away.

"He's here, Nate. I can feel him. I can't just walk away when he need us," Chris disagreed vehemently as he winced at the noises and smells that assaulted his senses continuously.

The medic nodded but warned his friend about his behavior. "Okay, but if we stay we keep outta the emergency service's hair. We just sit and watch for Ezra. Can you do that, Chris? I know what you're like when yer upset and I need yer word that you'll do as I say."

The blond looked at the medic and scowled angrily at being told how to conduct himself but he knew the warning was well- founded. "Yeah, I can just sit and watch but you could help though, Nate. Why waste yer skills, 'cause Christ knows they'd be welcomed by the look of it. If you treat the injured you might find Ezra in the process."

The medic stared at Chris for a while as he weighed up his options and then nodded in agreement. His conscience was pricking him, knowing that he couldn't just leave when so many people would benefit from his skills. "Okay, I'll meet you here later but make sure you stay put, Chris. I don't wanna lose you too and I want to be able to tell you straightaway if I find Ez."

Nathan patted Chris's back and then hurried away and began treating some of the many casualties after collecting a first aid kit from a nearby ambulance. He walked up and down the line of those requiring help but Ezra wasn't amongst those already freed from the wreckage.

Chris sat down out of the way and kept looking around the area anxiously. It was like a war-zone and he hoped never to have to witness such a scene again. He looked up and down the length of the wreckage and watched the sparks from various forms of cutting equipment flying into the air like fireworks. The blond saw Nathan working but Chris began feeling increasingly uptight as time passed by with no word of Ezra. He pulled out his phone and rang the office to see if they had any news but he was disappointed to receive a negative answer from them too. He stood up and began pacing while keeping an eye on the medical teams and checking all the injured as they were transferred to ambulances to be taken to the hospitals. His stomach started churning continuously and he couldn't escape the smell of hot metal, singed flesh and blood. The moans and screams of the injured played on his nerves like fingernails down a blackboard and he felt shivery and sick.

"Chris?" Nathan yelled from below, appearing out of nowhere.

The blond's heart leapt into his throat as he hurried toward his friend. "What? You find him? Please say you've found him, Nate," Chris pleaded, sounding tearful.

"Not yet, Chris, but they've found his wallet in the part that they're searching now so at least we know he was definitely on the train. I know that ain't much comfort 'cause we'd rather he was anywhere but here." The medic handed over the wallet and Chris saw it was torn and covered in blood. He cleaned it on his pant leg and stowed it carefully in his pocket.

"Jackson? Need yer help, pal. Found someone alive in here," a voice called from inside the train.

The medic patted Chris's back as he kept eye contact with the man. He could tell Chris was on the verge of exploding with the stress of the situation so he didn't dare tell the man that so far every person they had found in that particular section of train was dead. That statistic didn't bode well for their missing friend at all.

"Go on, Nate. I'll be fine," the blond urged as he pushed the man away.

Nathan turned immediately and crawled through the small gap into the twisted wreckage of the train where the casualty had been found. He knelt down beside the injured person and reached out a hand to check for a pulse. He then turned the man's blood-covered head toward him and gasped as he came out in goose bumps. "Shit! Ezra, oh thank God. It's Nathan. Can you squeeze my hand, Ezra?"

Nathan was certainly very relieved at finding their missing colleague but also worried when he saw how the man looked. Ezra was pale, sweaty and covered in blood. The undercover agent didn't react at all to Nathan's previous request so the medic concentrated on checking his friend for injuries.

A firefighter, who was hovering nearby, said, "We've gotta cut him out. His leg's trapped under the seat."

"Let me check him first before you do anything else. He's bleeding and I definitely need to stabilize him." Nathan moved his hand to try and examine Ezra's lower limbs after what the firefighter had just told him but he grimaced in frustration when he couldn't get his hand through the small space available to him. He gave up and reached for the medical kit that he had with him and started Ezra on high-concentration oxygen and two IV lines before hanging the bags of clear liquid on a piece of metal overhead. He checked the man's pulse and breathing again and wasn't pleased with what he learnt. He covered his friend with an aluminized blanket to help keep him warm and then sat beside him with a finger on his pulse.

"Need to replace the blood yer losing, Ez." He knew by Ezra's condition that the man needed emergency treatment to restore his blood volume so he reached for another intravenous line and attached the bag of plasma to it. When he'd inserted the line in Ezra's arm and made sure the plasma was flowing properly, he hung the bag next to the other ones above his head.

"Can we start yet, fella?" the firefighter asked impatiently.

Nathan looked up at the man and nodded in confirmation. "In a minute but do it quick as ya can. He's bleeding badly and I can't reach in to stop it properly. He's fairly stable but that could change any minute 'cause he's in shock."

"Move outside while we do it then. We ain't got much room to work with you in here too," the man said as he stepped forward.

"I can't. As far as I can tell, the metal has actually punctured his leg and when you cut it he's gonna feel it. I've given him a painkiller but I need to be here in case of complications. The metal could move while you cut it and he'd bleed out."

"Okay, but it's gonna take more time with you in the way," the man replied sullenly.

"Better that than something going wrong," Nathan said forcefully. "Let the pain meds get in his system first. I'll be back in a minute so don't do anything until then." Nathan checked Ezra's pulse quickly before stepping outside into the open air to arrange for a stretcher and an ambulance to be ready.

"Nate?" Chris shouted and grabbed the man's arm when he saw him. He held onto the medic for dear life and fixed him with a penetrating stare. "Is it Ez?"

The medic looked at the blond and nodded as he said, "Yeah, he's in there but they gotta cut him out."

"Is he alright?"

"He's bleeding a lot and he ain't all that stable." The medic patted Chris's back encouragingly. "Look, I need to get back in there. He'll be out soon, Chris, so don't fret." Nathan saw that a stretcher had been delivered so he turned and went back to check on his patient again.

+ + + + + + +

Back in the office, Buck was pacing up and down in agitation. He walked the length of the room and kicked the wall before turning round and heading back the other way to hit the punch-bag that Chris had installed in the far corner of the office for just such occasions. "Jeez, I don't how much more of this I can take, guys. This is pure torture. Surely they've found him by now."

The rest of the men were equally tense having done all they could to trace Ezra from their end. They'd all tried to keep themselves occupied in different ways but they'd given up in frustration, unable to concentrate on anything else other than their friend's welfare. When the phone began ringing they all lunged for their extensions but Vin managed to grab his first.

"Yeah?" he said eagerly.

"Vin, we've found him. They're trying to get him out," Chris informed the man breathlessly.

Vin looked round his group of friends and mouthed to them that Ezra had been found. The sharpshooter then switched the phone to speaker so that the others could hear what was said next. "How bad is he?" Vin asked, anticipating a negative answer.

"Nate says he's bleeding badly but until he's out I can't say anymore. I ain't seen him myself."

"Stay on the line, won't ya, Chris? We're dying of anxiety, cowboy."

"Sure," Chris replied as he looked at the train and wished he had x-ray eyes so that he could see what was going on inside.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan knelt down next to Ezra again and felt his pulse. "Okay, guys. Get going. Fast as ya can."

The firefighter covered the injured man with a protective blanket and then started up the cutting equipment. Metal bit on metal and Nathan closed his eyes tightly until it almost hurt. The noise was ear-piercing and set his teeth on edge as well as bringing his skin out in goose bumps. Nathan covered Ezra's ears rather than his own but continued to periodically check the man's pulse as he fervently wished that the procedure would be over soon. After what seemed like hours, the grinding noise ceased and the firefighters moved away after retrieving the blanket.

Even though the sound had stopped Nathan's ears continued ringing with the ghostly echoes of the cutting equipment. The medic shook his head to rid his mind of the last of the noise and then turned his full attention to the undercover agent's leg. He finally straightened the limb gently and cut the material surrounding the area where the metal had gone through. He peeled the cloth back and gasped at what he saw.

"Dammit," he cursed as he tried to stop the bleeding.

The metal had either moved while it was being cut, as Nathan had feared, or it had done the massive damage when it had first struck Ezra. Whatever had happened, the wound surrounding the metal was much bigger than the width of the metal itself. It wasn't a clean puncture wound as he'd hoped. The medic put a pressure bandage over part of the wound and called for the stretcher.

"Jesus, Ez. Have you sorted in no time."

The medic ran his fingers up and down the limb again and scowled when he realized it was broken as well as the ankle being dislocated. He then swathed the injured lower limb in bandages to stop the bleeding and protect it from knocks. He tied Ezra's legs together to act as a splint and then sat back slowly while wiping his own brow on his sleeve. Lastly, Nathan treated several other deep wounds to Ezra's body before moving the injured man onto the stretcher that had been forced through the small entrance hole in the train. He raised the man's legs slightly and put another thick blanket over him to keep him warm. Ezra was getting slightly hypothermic and had begun shivering while Nathan had been treating him even though he already had the aluminized blanket over him. Nathan arranged Ezra's arms on top of the blanket and made sure the IV lines weren't tangled up. The medic tucked the top blanket round the sides of his friend's body to keep out any draughts and then wiped the sweat from Ezra's face.

Ezra stirred and opened his eyes as he was touched. "Pleee..dddooo, Nat.," he mumbled quietly as he tried to move under the restricting blanket.

"Easy, Ez. You've been in a real bad accident but you're doin' great. Just relax and we'll have you out in a minute. Can you tell me if you're still in pain?" He got no reply but he gave the injured man another dose of medication through one of the IV ports just to be on the safe side.

The undercover agent groaned softly and closed his eyes once more as the drug took effect.

Nathan looked at the hole that he'd come through earlier and realized he'd never get Ezra out that way. The stretcher on its own had fitted but now it had a patient strapped to it there was no way it was going to get through. "Hey? Is there another way out of here? I can't get out with him through there."

"I'll have a look. We all came in that way but some of the guys were working on another entrance further on, I think. If not, we'll cut a bigger gap through there for you."

Outside, Chris was hopping from foot to foot anxiously. He could hear the muffled voices inside but so far there seemed no sign of Ezra being extricated from the wreckage. He still held the phone to his ear like it was attached with glue but he had no news to pass onto Vin and the others.

"Chris? Stand back. They're gonna make this hole bigger so I can get Ez out." Nathan instructed as the medic poked his head into the open air for a split second.

The blond moved away after putting the phone on his belt and then swiftly covered his ears as the firefighters started cutting the metal. The sound was almost unbearable and Chris turned his back and almost bent double in an attempt to protect his sensitive hearing.

The job was eventually finished and Nathan called Chris's name loudly again. "Chris? Can you get hold of the other end of the stretcher and ease him out gently?"

The blond strode forward and took a firm hold on the stretcher. "I've got it, Nate," he said as he began pulling it out. He did it slowly knowing that Nathan would have to climb over debris while holding the other end of the stretcher, as well as any medical equipment he needed. Ezra was eventually pulled clear, like a cork from a bottle, and the blond looked down at him worriedly.

"Put him down. I want another look at him in the better light," the medic instructed. Nathan knelt down while Chris retrieved his phone and put it back to his ear as he also held the IV bags that Nathan passed up to him.

"Vin? Are ya listening?" the blond asked as he turned away to try and find some quiet so he could hear if Vin answered. He anchored the phone between his ear and shoulder as he held the IV's securely in one hand while sticking a finger from his free hand in his other ear. He called Vin again and was glad when his friend's voice came through loud and clear.

"Still here, cowboy. What news?"

"He's out but he don't look good. Nate's just checking him again."

"Ezra?" Nathan said suddenly as he leant down near the man's mouth. "Don't give up on me now, dammit. Shit! I'm losing him. I need help here!" the medic yelled frantically.

The blond whirled round as he heard Nathan call and Chris frowned when he saw the very worried look on his friend's face.

Two paramedics appeared as if by magic behind Chris and spoke directly to Nathan. "You call for help, pal?"

"Yeah, I did. Need to intubate him now 'cause he's deteriorating fast and has gone into respiratory arrest. He's in hypovolemic shock and has got bad leg injuries. Chris? Move aside slightly and let them in nearer," the medic barked.

"What's wrong, Nate?" Chris asked, even though the medic had just said what the problem was with the injured agent. The blond stayed rooted to the spot and stared at his friend as he waited for an explanation.

Nathan looked up irritably at being asked to repeat himself but his features softened when he saw the terror on Chris's face. "He needs some help breathing and his condition is fluctuating badly. We're doing what we can, Chris, so can you move out of the way for a bit?"

The paramedics moved round in front of Chris and took up position beside Ezra and the blond watched as a tube was inserted carefully into his friend's mouth and down his throat. Nathan then quickly attached a bag-valve device onto the end of the tube and pressed the bag at intervals to ventilate his colleague's lungs. One of the paramedics, meanwhile, checked that the tube had been properly positioned by listening to the sounds in Ezra's chest with a stethoscope. He then taped the ET tube into place after making sure that Ezra couldn't bite on it and negate all their good work. He checked the tube's position once more and then sat back on his heels with a sigh.

The man looked up at Nathan seriously and caught his eye. "Okay, that's the best we can do for him at the moment. We need to move him out now," the paramedic said as he checked Ezra's IVs once more before feeling the man's pulse.

"Which hospital ya goin' to?" Chris asked anxiously as he hovered nearby.


"Did ya hear that, Vin?" the blond said into the phone.

"Yeah, we'll meet ya there, cowboy."

Chris turned back to Nathan after putting his phone away. "Nate, you go with Ez and I'll go get the car and drive there."

"Okay, see ya later and try not to worry, Chris. He's in good hands."

The blond nodded as he handed over the IV lines and then watched Nathan climb into the ambulance with Ezra. He then ran back to collect the car, feeling cold and shivery as he thought back on the events he'd witnessed. His thoughts weren't just with Ezra but with all the other injured people he'd seen as well.

The hospital was inevitably overflowing with unattended casualties but because of Ezra's condition he was being treated straightaway. Chris tracked down the rest of his team and sat with them but his mind was still back at the wreck site. For once, he sat quietly in the waiting room staring at a spot on the wall as he tried to calm his jumbled nerves. He was slightly overwhelmed by the conditions and none of his friends could get him to talk. Not that any of them felt like making conversation either but they could sense his state of mind. The man stayed steadfastly tightlipped despite their best efforts so Buck eventually took up position beside him and put a comforting arm round the blond's shoulder instead. He hoped Chris would at least get some consolation from the touch.

Nathan finally joined them after half an hour had passed by in relative silence. He sat down next to Buck and sighed loudly as he wiped his face with a shaking hand.

"How is he?" Chris asked as, suddenly active, he leapt out of his chair like a jack-in-the-box.

"They've just taken him for surgery to get the metal stake out and to put his ankle back in as well as pin his broken leg. After that's done they gotta stitch up all the wounds in his leg and he's got some real deep ones so it's gonna take time. He's gonna be on a ventilator for quite a while 'cause he developed breathing difficulties at the scene, as you know. He's suffering from real bad shock and things were a bit uncertain for a while. Once you get to a certain stage with shock there's no way to get the patient back but fortunately for Ez we got to him just in time. He's pretty sick but the fact he's survived this long is somethin' in his favor. We'll know more when he's out of surgery."

+ + + + + + +

Several hours later, they all adjourned to the undercover agent's room in ICU. The man was very pale and had a tent-like structure over his leg to keep the weight of the blanket off it.

"Is he gonna be okay, Nate? Do ya know any more?" Chris asked tentatively.

"Well, survival has been put at 60 percent in his favor." Nathan saw the worried looks on the other men's faces at the news so he hastily put out his hands. "Guys, don't freak out. When you consider the expectation was only 30 percent when he was admitted you have to agree that he's headin' the right way." Nathan smiled encouragingly before continuing with his explanation. "He's got about two hundred stitches in his lower leg alone. Some of the wounds are infected and his leg's real swollen so they've had to splint in rather than put it in a cast for the time being. The wound where the metal pierced him is by far the worst injury and resulted in him losing a lot of blood. He's battered and bruised but he was very lucky to live at all 'cause no-one else survived in the part of the train that he was in. They were all dead at the scene."

"Shit. How's he gonna be emotionally, Nate? Musta been a terrible experience for him," Vin noted quietly.

"Yeah, he's bound to be real upset but most of all he'll feel guilty that he lived and others didn't. He won't get over it quickly, that's for sure."

+ + + + + + +

"Hey, Ez," Vin greeted when he saw the now ventilator-free man's eyes open slowly as Chris and Nathan talked on the other side of the bed several days later. Ezra had been weaned off the ventilator over the previous two days and the doctor had been pleased when the injured man had managed to breathe on his own without problems straight afterwards.

"Mr. Tanner?" Ezra mumbled groggily with a rough voice.

"How ya feeling, bud? Do ya want me to find a doc?"

Ezra was quiet as he considered his answer and tried to remember what had happened. "No, I'm just tired and I ache all over."

"Get some rest, Ez. Yer gonna be fine so relax and go back to sleep. We'll be here so you won't be alone."

Ezra closed his eyes but opened them straightaway as he recalled what had happened to him. "The train! Oh my God, Vin. All those people....screaming....shouting....and then the dreadful silence that followed," the undercover agent sobbed as he became increasingly upset at the vivid flashbacks that assaulted him.

"Calm down, Ez," Nathan said as he moved toward the bed quickly.

"What about the others? What about the people I traveled with?" Ezra asked frantically.

"Look, Ez. It was a bad accident and there were inevitable casualties. Try to get some sleep and we'll talk later when yer feeling better."

Ezra, however, just couldn't settle and Nathan finally asked the doctor in charge of his friend to sedate him. His friends watched the injured man fall asleep as they finally realized just how exceedingly lucky they were to have him still amongst them.

The End