ATF Universe


Chris Larabee hung up the phone and scowled.

How in the goddamn hell was he supposed to get himself and three of his agents to Albuquerque by 4 PM on a Labor Day weekend when every commercial flight was booked solid?

He calculated the amount of time it would take to drive there in his head and came up with 6 hours, minimum. They could make it - IF they left immediately, - IF they drove 75 mph all the way - IF they didn't encounter any traffic hassles and IF they didn't stop . . .

No chance of the latter happening if he was sending Vin and JD - and he had no choice, he'd have to. Vin seemed to require half his body weight in junk food daily, and JD hadn't gotten the message that his body didn't need 20-ounce soft drinks that he'd inevitably have to get rid of a half-hour later. But, Nathan was taking a course at the local Fire Academy, to update his EMT certification, and Buck and Josiah were at a State Department briefing in Washington and wouldn't be back until late that night.

It would be him, Vin, JD and Ezra on the road trip from Hell.

Ezra had the only car that he trusted to make it that far without ending up in the break-down lane of I-25, and the Southerner would not be amused at JD resting his Reeboks on his Jag's padded leather dashboard or Vin peppering the custom-made doeskin seat covers with Cheetos droppings. Chris himself did not relish the idea of trying to cram his long legs into the backseat of a car designed to seriously hold only two people. Putting JD in the back was out of the question - the kid got car sick after two or three hours if he wasn't riding shotgun.

There was one alternative . . .

He picked up his phone and called Denver International Airport ops, giving his name and title. But, after being passed around to a half dozen people, he was out of options. He'd found out he could rent a plane. But, there was no one available to fly it due to the holiday.

Unless . . . Chris pulled the personnel files for Vin, Ezra, and JD, up on his computer. Of all of his agents, Ezra was possibly the most intelligent, certainly the most well educated, and probably the one most likely to have a pilot's license, if any of them did. Chris smiled when he discovered his hunch had paid off. Ezra had a multi-engine fixed-wing conventional certification, and it was current. He called the Southerner into his office and broke the news to him that he'd be spending the next few hours in a rented Piper Cherokee with himself and their two youngest agents.

Ezra didn't exactly groan, but he wasn't happy. "Mr. Larabee . . . I should warn you, it's been awhile since I've had the opportunity to commune with the clouds. Mother lost my plane in the last divorce settlement."

"You had your own plane?" Chris frowned.

"Doesn't everyone?" Ezra smirked. He was never one to be ashamed of his privileged background.

Chris snorted. "We have to be in Albuquerque by 4 PM. There's a major bust going down - they suspect that plans for missile components have been compromised from Sandia Labs at Kirtland Air Force Base and are scattered in different locations throughout the city. The only way to be sure of nabbing them all is to hit every location at once. They need back-up personnel and we're it.

"Rather short notice," Ezra observed.

"I know, but the longer they hang onto the info without acting, the greater the chance there will be a leak and the bust will fail."

"Who's going?"

"You, me and the kids," he said, referring to JD and Vin.

"Delightful," Ezra deadpanned.

Chris looked at his watch. "Go let them know. Give them 45 minutes to run home and pack enough for 3-4 days, and we'll all meet at the private air terminal at DIA at ten."

+ + + + + + +

Ezra had filed a flight plan, gotten a weather report, checked out the aircraft and loaded his two suitcases on board. He returned to the terminal to find JD sucking down a mega-sized . . . something . . . and Vin munching a bag of Cool Ranch Doritos, a substantial portion of which were ending up as crumbs on his black tee-shirt.

He took the drink from JD. "There are no facilities on that aircraft. I trust you will make it to Albuquerque before total dessication befalls you."

JD frowned. "Huh?"

Vin passed his Doritos to JD, who grabbed a handful. "Where's Chris?"

Ezra looked at his watch. It was 12:15. "I haven't the vaguest clue."

But no sooner had he spoken than his cell phone rang. It was Chris. After a quick conversation with their leader, Ezra put the phone back in his pocket and turned to the two younger agents.

"I fear there has been a multi-vehicle incident on the interstate . . . "

Vin's face paled and he started to get up, to go where he didn't know.

Ezra motioned him back down. "Our leader is unharmed and so is his vehicle, but unfortunately, he's firmly ensconced in the resultant traffic jam and probably will be for another hour or more. We'll have to leave without him."

JD was already on his feet, hoisting his backpack onto his shoulder. Vin picked his duffel bag up from the floor with one hand and with the other picked up a plastic grocery bag. Ezra took the bag from him and peered inside. A bag of Double-Stuff Oreos, a six-pack of Butterfingers, three tubes of jumbo-sized Rainblow gumballs, a box of Hostess Zingers and another bag of Doritos - Nacho Cheese this time.

"I see you've covered the four basic food groups," Ezra scoffed. "Sugar, salt, fat, and chocolate." He handed the bag back to Vin. At least Albuquerque hosted many fine dining establishments where he could look forward to partaking of civilized cuisine after their work was done.

The three agents made their way across the tarmac to the waiting Cherokee. It was a 6-seater, but JD and Vin both wanted to sit in front next to Ezra. "I assure you, it makes no difference," Ezra sighed, noting that all of the seats were designed to accommodate an adult passenger, unlike his sports car.

"Yeah, but that one has headphones," JD pointed out.

With the speed and agility of the natural athlete he was, Vin levered his way past JD and jumped into the coveted seat. He grabbed the headphones and dangled them in JD's face. "Mine!" he taunted him

JD threw a finger at him and climbed into the rear of the passenger compartment. He reached over the back of Vin's seat and grabbed the bag of chips out of his hands. "Asshole," he muttered, as Vin slipped on the headset so he could listen to the communications from the control tower.

Ezra started the engines, donned his headset and adjusted the mike. He radioed the control tower giving his call sign, ATF-7, and indicating he was preparing for take off.

"10-4 . . . " the tower radioed back. "Be advised we have reports of moderate to severe low-level turbulence and possible wind shear in the vicinity of Raton Pass at approximately 15,000 feet."

"10-4," Ezra acknowledged. He'd request clearance to climb to a higher altitude and fly over the disturbance when the time came, although flying over the Rockies, there was really no way to avoid turbulence altogether, he knew.

The tower radioed back a direction and a runway number and Ezra set the plane in motion.

JD watched in fascinated admiration as the Southerner continued to communicate with the control tower and manipulate the aircraft into a position for take-off.

"This is soooo cool!" he exclaimed, then to Vin said, "I wonder what it takes to get a pilot's license?"

Vin just shrugged JD's question off, even though he knew full well what it took. For one thing, it took the ability to read and remember lots of numbers without transposing them, and to make sense out of complicated written material.

The fact was, he was working on getting his license, but his dyslexia made it a daunting challenge and he didn't know if he'd ever succeed, so he'd kept that fact to himself.

He envied Ezra. He was having a hard time following the conversation with the tower, but Ezra seemed perfectly in his element.

They had to wait on the runway for several minutes before they were cleared for take off, but by 1 PM, they were airborne and on their way.

With the excitement of the take off over, and nothing to look at below them except brown rocks and sparse brown vegetation, JD began to fidget. "How long before we get there?"

Ezra gave him a dirty look.

Vin looked out the window, fascinated. They were not flying so high that he couldn't spot an occasional deer or coyote scampering through the scrawny trees. He spotted a small herd of elk and pointed them out to JD, who banged his head on the window when he tried to look out.

The sky was clear and brilliant blue, dotted with billowy cumulus clouds. Visibility was unlimited and there was no bad weather between Denver and Albuquerque so they expected to land at the Double Eagle Airport right on schedule.

Ezra had chosen the smaller airport, on the western outskirts of Albuquerque, because it would be easier than hassling with the much larger Albuquerque International. He radioed their ETA to the Denver tower, just before they handed him over to Albuquerque air traffic control.

Rio Rancho, NM, earlier that day

Lawrence Barelas, full-time attorney at law and part-time aeronaut, sat in the ER of St. Joseph's Hospital and cursed his luck. His broken arm, concussion, and multiple abrasions were at the bottom of a long list of calamities that had befallen him that morning.

His $75,000 investment - beautiful chestnut-colored Picard-style hot air balloon with a custom designed envelope bearing his law firm's logo in desert sand and sage green - had been sideswiped by a tattered and patched bag of wind under the command of two beer-guzzling shit-for-brains amateurs whose license he would have revoked as soon as he got back to his office, after he had drawn up papers to sue them for every dime they had.

The mid-air collision of two hot air balloons was not a dramatic occurrence, beyond the oohs and ahhs it might elicit from anyone watching below. There was no sound, except perhaps the soft rustling of fabric against fabric. But the event could nevertheless have potentially catastrophic consequences, especially if too much air was forced out of one or both balloons, or if the envelopes were moved into contact with the 15-foot flames that shot upwards from the gas burners used to heat the air inside.

After the impact, he'd said a quick Hail Mary before realizing that at least his burners had been closed at the time of impact, so there was no flame damage . . . But he was descending fast, his envelope partially collapsed. He looked up inside and saw the flame path was clear, so he hit the burners, hoping to expand the air that was left and re-inflate the envelope before he hit the ground at 90 mph.

All he had managed to do was slow his descent to a non-lethal speed. The gondola had slammed into the mesa and tilted on its side, the impact knocking Barelas off his feet and forcing him to let go of the burner controls. As the runaway envelope dragged the wicker gondola across cactus, yucca, tumbleweeds and buffalo grass, he'd clung to the frame in a desperate attempt to keep from being thrown out, and at some point had realized to his dismay that the burners were stuck on "open." The faint odor of melting rip-stop nylon reached him at about the same time the gondola slammed into a stalwart creosote bush and he tumbled out on his head.

Stunned by both the blow and the circumstances, he watched as his precious balloon, now relieved of his anchoring weight, begin to ascend skyward unattended. There was a small burn hole near the apron, but other than that it was unscathed. The burners were still going, not at full open but just enough to keep the balloon airborne until the fuel ran out. All 4 almost-full tanks of it.

He knew he'd probably never see his beloved prize again . . .

+ + + + + + +

"How much longer until we get there?" JD asked.

"Mr. Dunne, make no mistake, if you ask me that one more time, I shall pull over and make you get out and walk." Ezra threatened.

Vin unwrapped a Zinger and stuffed the entire cake into his mouth. He offered one to Ezra who glared at him.

"Wha? 'ere good," Vin mumbled around pink cake crumbs and cream filling.

"I'll take your word for it," Ezra said, exasperated.

Vin passed the box back to JD, who grabbed two of the cakes. "I'll eat his."

The radio crackled and Ezra was instantly alert when he recognized his call sign.

"ATF 7, be advised of unidentified traffic in your area."

Vin perked up and slipped the headset, which he'd placed around his neck, back on.

JD, who had also heard the transmission, leaned over to Vin. "What do they mean, unidentified?"

Vin shrugged. The tower was telling Ezra they had picked up a transponder signal, but it was intermittent and they were not sure of the exact location of the aircraft, just that it was somewhere close to them.

"10-4," Ezra answered, and both JD and Vin detected just a hint of unease in the Southerner's usually calm voice. He looked out the window on his side of the plane, then as far as he could above the aircraft. He turned to Vin. "Do you see anything out there?"

Vin turned to look out the window and an instant later, his visual field exploded into a solid sea of brown.

He jumped back and a sharp little yelp escaped him, his mind unable to process what he was seeing. JD saw it, too, and froze, his mouth open and his eyes wide. The object - which was huge - appeared to literally swallow the small plane as the windows were covered and the light was blotted out.

The explosion of color had startled Ezra, too and he instinctively banked the aircraft to avoid whatever it was before realizing that the engine on Vin's side of the plane was malfunctioning. An alarm went off in the cockpit and he killed the engine, then struggled to regain control of the aircraft.

"What the fuck is that?" JD demanded, his panic unconcealed. Some of the windows were clear again, but the brown stuff was everywhere. The starboard wing was covered, the props strangled to a halt.

"Mayday! Mayday! This is ATF 7," Ezra barked into the mike. "We have an emergency. . ."

Ezra was struggling with the stick and the plane was still under control, for now. Albuquerque was asking for the nature of their emergency.

"We hit something. . ." Ezra said with uncharacteristic brevity "No discernible impact, but we've sustained damage to the starboard engine . . . I've shut it down."

"10-4. Advise nature of other aircraft involved."

"I don't know what it was!" Ezra said sharply, but immediately calmed down. "It wasn't another plane, and it wasn't birds."

There was no immediate response from the tower, then "ATF-7, begin your descent. Advise if you are able to maintain a heading of 165 degrees. You are cleared for emergency landing at Taos . . . "

"10-4." The calm had returned to Ezra's voice. "Descending to 12,000, heading 165."

The plane begin to shudder and lurch about violently and Ezra's face became alarmingly grim, just as Albuquerque repeated the advisory he'd been given earlier, regarding severe turbulence.

"Shit!" he exclaimed softly, mindful that his mike was open.

JD heard a scraping sound that sounded like it was coming from the floor of the fuselage. Vin and Ezra didn't hear it because of the earphones. He looked down at his feet where the sound was coming from and in the next instant the floor buckled upward, sending splinters of fiberglass and shredded carpet into the cabin. Suddenly, he realized his feet were dangling over mid-air.

Vin and Ezra had felt the blow. Vin looked behind him.

"What is it?!" Ezra yelled at him. The air turbulence continued to fling the damaged plane around like a ping-pong ball.

There was a gaping hole in the floor, and through it, Vin and JD could see tatters of brown fabric, frayed cable, shredded wicker and the metal cylinder that had probably punched the hole in the floor.

"What the fuck . . . ? " JD looked up at Vin, terrified. He found no comfort there - Vin was just as scared as he was.

There was another soft thump and then a burst of blue flame ignited outside the aircraft. A second later and a violent explosion rolled the plane almost 90 degrees to port. JD and Ezra were both slammed against the bulkhead, Ezra's skull hitting the widow hard enough to crack it. Vin's seatbelt was the only thing that prevented him from falling onto Ezra.

Blood cascaded down Ezra's face from a cut in his head and he frantically wiped it out of his eyes as he tried to regain control of the aircraft. It wasn't responding properly anymore. His tail controls were gone and the malfunction light had come on for the port engine. He glanced out the window and could see ribbons of brown fabric whipping around the prop, fouling it.

"Mayday! Mayday!" he shouted into the mike. "This is ATF-7 . . . We're going down . . ."

He turned his head and looked at Vin and realized that his two passengers had to be even more terrified than he was. He called up on his ever-present reserve of composure and calmly shouted over the sound of air rushing into the cabin through the hole in the floor, "Mr. Tanner! I recommend that you and Mr. Dunne assume crash positions!"

Vin's military training had familiarized him with the procedure, but JD had no idea what Ezra was talking about and Vin knew it. "Like this JD!" he yelled to the kid, and then folded himself over so that his head was on his knees and his hands were clasped behind his head. He raised his head to make sure JD complied and then turned his head sideways to look at Ezra.

They were not exactly plummeting to earth in an uncontrolled descent, but it was obvious that Ezra was going to have to try and put the severely disabled plane down in some of the roughest terrain in North America. "Good luck, Ez," he said softly.

Ezra wiped more blood out of his eyes. "Thank you, Mr. Tanner."

+ + + + + + +

JD prayed. Oh my God, I am heartily sorry, for having offended Thee, and I detest all of my sins . . . He'd been taught that prayer in Catechism when he was seven years old and preparing for his First Communion. You said it after you confessed and the priest absolved you of your sins. Sister Mary Agnes had told them they could say it if they ever thought they were going to die, and there was no priest around to hear their Confession. He'd always wondered if he actually believed that, but at that moment, he found comfort in the possibility . . .

Vin had always thought he wasn't afraid to die. He'd been wrong. His heart was pounding so hard he was afraid it was going to burst and kill him before the ground came up and finished the job. The apprehension of waiting for the final impact was so intense it was physically painful. He was sick to his stomach and wanted to cry out that this wasn't fair. That he wasn't ready. Not now . . . Not yet . . .

His system flooded with adrenaline, Ezra was beyond fear. His mind was focused on one thing - getting the plane down - any way, any where - just so they weren't hanging vulnerable in an unforgiving sky. He'd managed to slow their descent, but there was simply nowhere to land. He'd tried to correct his course to the heading Albuquerque had given him, but the blood in his eyes and the blow to the head had left him unable to clearly see the instrument panel, so he wasn't really sure which way he was going.

Not that it mattered. The terrain was uniformly treacherous as far as the eye could see in every direction. They'd never make it to Taos or any other airport. The tops of the trees below were coming up fast. They were above the timberline, so most of what was growing at that altitude were tough, small, shrub-like conifers, but there was an occasional ponderosa pine or aspen that had beaten the odds, and he realized what a real threat they were when the top of one suddenly loomed in the distance. He was too low to bank the plane to avoid it, so he tried pulling back on the flaps to slow the aircraft down. It meant they'd probably stall, but at this point it was a case of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. It was no use, the tree was coming up on them too fast, and the plane was slowly disintegrating as it bounced off the unyielding vegetation below them.

Ezra closed his eyes and muttered "God help us . . ." an instant before the big aspen sheared off the left wing and sent them cartwheeling into the ground.


"Get offa me, Buck." JD mumbled. He didn't feel like wrestling right now. His head hurt and Buck just wouldn't quit. He started to raise his arm to shove the big man off of him, and pain sheared through his right shoulder.

Wait. How come his arm hurt?

JD tried to open his eyes. It shouldn't be this hard just to get his eyes open. And, he realized, it wasn't just his head and his shoulder that hurt. Practically everything did. He was lying flat on his face, and Buck had him pinned down.

"C'mon Buck. . . you're hurting me, lemme go," he pleaded.

He tried to push himself up, but white-hot pain shot up both forearms as soon as he put pressure on them. He tried to roll over, but his shirt was caught on something, and when he tried to pull it free, it made the pain in his shoulder wrap all the way around him. Why was Buck doing this to him?

No . . . Not Buck. Buck wouldn't hurt him like this. Where was he? What was happening to him?

"Buck?" He managed a terrified whisper.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra moaned softly and grabbed his head. He really shouldn't drink like that.

Like what? He hadn't been drinking. No, they were going to Albuquerque. He was flying the small plane. That was right, wasn't it? he asked himself. His head hurt so badly, it was hard to think. There was a also a sharp pain in his left wrist that echoed the pain in his right ankle.

The plane had hit something . . . What was it?

And he'd tried to land the plane. There'd been a tree. It had clipped a wing.

". . . Assume crash positions." He'd said that, but who had . . . Oh my God! Vin and JD! What had happened to them?

Ezra forced his eyes open.

+ + + + + + +

Oh shit! Vin knew it was bad, the second he was aware of anything. His right side was in agony and he had a headache the size of Texas. He tried to open his eyes, but they weren't cooperating. Gingerly, using his left hand, he reached up to touch his head. The slow movement sent sparks of pain shooting through his body. Whatever had happened . . .

What had happened? Vin frowned and regretted it immediately. God, it even hurt to move his face. His hand finally reached his forehead and he could feel the sticky wetness. Blood, it had to be blood. That's why his head hurt so bad. Somehow, he'd taken a blow to the head. But how?

The plane. Something had hit the plane.

God, where were JD and Ezra?

Vin tried harder to force his eyes to open. Shit! They were open. They were open and he couldn't see. NO! Vin could feel the panic rising up from his belly. He was in so much pain he couldn't move. And he was blind . . .

+ + + + + + +

Ezra tried to look around him, but he still had blood in his eyes from the cut on his head. He attempted to reach into the left hip pocket of his slacks where he usually kept a clean handkerchief for emergencies, but when his fingers made contact, everything below the elbow erupted in searing pain. He used the palm of his right hand to wipe his eyes instead.

Most of the passenger compartment was gone, and his seat had twisted so that he was jammed up against the bulkhead. He didn't feel as though he were wedged in tight, though. If he could get his seatbelt loose, he could extricate himself, he thought.

He heard someone moan and managed to turn enough in his mangled seat to see Vin, still sitting more or less beside him. He absently noticed a gaping hole where the nose of the plane had been. The front of the plane had been sheared off. Only a few dangling shards of the windshield remained . . . God, his head hurt.

Vin moaned again.

"Mr. Tanner? Vin?" Ezra's drawl was laced with pain, as he managed to turn his head far enough to see Vin clearly. Lord, the sharpshooter was a mess. His long hair was fouled with blood and debris. Ezra could see that the source of the blood was a deep gash above his right eye. It looked like the cut went all the way to the bone.

"Ezra?" Vin's drawl was raspier than usual and, Ezra noted, it was very weak.

"I'm here, Vin. Don't try to move." Ezra spoke gently. "I need to ascertain the severity of your injuries."

He needed to turn his body in order to get a good look at his friend. His head throbbed with white-hot agony and he hissed as the pain in his ankle intensified to the point where it was almost intolerable.

He'd obviously sustained some type of head injury, but he was conscious and aware, if not completely alert, so he dared to hope it wasn't serious. Except for his arm and ankle, he didn't think he was injured anywhere else. He'd been lucky - although given the circumstances, luck was a relative term.

It was instantly obvious to the southerner that Vin needed help badly. Ezra could see that his right leg was twisted at an impossible angle. No, Ezra corrected himself, it was possible if his femur was broken. The piece of bone sticking out of Vin's right forearm didn't look very good, either. But Vin's level of consciousness and the obvious weakness in his voice, coupled with the cut on his forehead worried him even more. The dull pain so obvious in the sharpshooter's eyes confirmed it for him.

"JD?" Vin gasped out.

"He's alive. I haven't been able to get to him yet," Ezra lied, his voice not betraying the fear he felt. He wasn't even sure where JD was . . . although he seemed to remember hearing him asking for Buck. He wasn't sure about that. The pain in his head was making it hard for him to think.

"Don't try to move, I'm going to see if the radio is still working." If I can find the radio.

Vin gave Ezra a weak imitation of his grin. "Ain't . . . goin' . . . nowhere."

Ezra pushed himself to a standing position using his right arm and resting his left knee on what was left of his seat. A wave of dizziness immediately washed over him and he had to slump back into the seat before he passed out. When it had passed, he tried again, and managed to stay standing this time.

He looked into the rear of the compartment where JD had been sitting. The entire starboard side of the fuselage was gone, but the rear seats were all intact. JD was lying prone across two seats. His legs were free and didn't appear to be injured, and his upper body rose and fell at a steady rhythm, telling the southerner that the young man was indeed still alive, but he was being held down by the twisted wing strut poking against his shoulder blade.

"JD?" he called to the kid.

Dark eyelashes fluttered. "Buck?"

"No, JD. It's Ezra. How badly are you injured?"

"Hurts. . . " JD muttered. "Get it offa me."

Ezra looked at the twisted strut. It appeared to just be lying on top of the kid. He was able to move it with one arm, but it was caught on JD's shirt somehow. He tugged at it and the kid wailed, "Stop . . . STOP!"

He used his fingers to disengage the piece of metal from the fabric and to his horror discovered why JD had screamed. What he had thought was a tattered piece of his shirt was a flap of flesh as big as his hand that had been peeled back off of JD's shoulder blade.

Sickened by the site of the ghastly wound, his fingers trembled as he carefully folded the loose tissue back into place so that the bone was not exposed. JD mumbled something, but Ezra's ears were ringing and he couldn't make out what it was. His vision began to go black again, and he had to sit down, fighting a sudden urge to vomit.

He broke out in a cold sweat and began to shake uncontrollably. He was going into shock, he knew, but he had to find the radio.


Ezra took another deep breath to steady himself. He wasn't sure he could handle things at the moment. He laughed suddenly as he caught sight of the small first aid kit poking out from under the pilot's seat.

"I don't think the Band-Aids and rubbing alcohol in that are going to be much use to us," he muttered, looking again at the large patch of avulsed skin on JD's back.

At that moment, a sudden gust of wind rocked the small plane, and Ezra found himself covered with silky tan and brown material. Ezra disregarded the irony in the fact that the cause of their predicament could actually be their savior as well.

"Aw Hell!" Vin cried out, bringing the undercover agent's attention back.

"Easy, Mr. Tanner," he spoke softly, turning back to what was left of the cockpit, untangling himself from the balloon remnant.

Vin was breathing fast and deep, trying to hold back the pain he was feeling more and more of now that full consciousness was returning to him.

"Ezra? You try that radio yet?" he asked. "I'd like to get outta here real soon," he added before letting out a scream as he moved his right arm.

"Didn't I tell you not to move, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra admonished, trying to stay calm, putting a hand on Vin's shoulder.

He was surprised as the young agent flinched, as if he didn't know Ezra was there.

"My arm hurts. I got somethin' stuck in it, Ez," he muttered. "Get it out?" he asked, almost begging.

Ezra took a moment then, confused as well by Vin's question. How could the young man not know that there was nothing sticking into his arm, but rather it was the bone sticking out of it? Then it hit him. He looked closely at the sharpshooter's face.

"Vin? Can you see me?" he asked quietly.

"Yeah, 'course," he lied, swallowing.

"Then how many fingers am I holding up?" the southerner asked, not even bothering to hold his hand up.

"Two or three, it's kinda blurry," Vin lied again.

Ezra closed his eyes and sighed as he said, "Vin, I'm not holding any fingers up. And, I'm afraid that what you felt sticking into your arm, is actually one of your bones, protruding out."

"Shit," Vin swore, putting his head back against the seat, squeezing his eyes shut against the pain, trying to keep himself from crying. He took a deep breath and changed the subject, asking again, "What about the radio?"

The southerner looked around the cockpit and saw what was left of the electronic device.

"I'm afraid it's in even worse shape than you are, Mr. Tanner," he finally replied. "But now I've got a question for you. Did you happen to pack one of those ever-present knives or all-in-one tools you are so fond of? I'd like to cut up some of this material to use as bandages."

"What material?" Vin asked.

"It would appear that a collision with a hot air balloon was responsible for the crash," Ezra said. "Most of the material from it is covering the plane. I thought I could cut some of it up for bandages, but I need a knife."

"I got my knife in my right boot," he sighed.


Chris pulled his Ram into his spot at the Federal building. He climbed out and headed for the elevator. He glanced at his watched and it said 2:30pm.

He had just spent the last three and a half-hours sitting in a traffic jam.

Needless to say he was not a happy camper. As the elevator chimed it's arrival he waited impatiently for the doors to open. When they did, he stormed out and everyone immediately got out of his way. Everyone on the eleventh floor was aware of the famous Larabee temper. Chris made it to his office without punching someone. After unlocking the door and stalking inside, he slammed it shut.

The first thing Chris did was grab the phone and call Ezra. He wanted to make sure the southerner hadn't killed Vin and JD. Those two could try a man's patience. He dialed the number for the contact in Albuquerque and waited for someone to pick up.

"Hello, this is Agent Larabee, let me speak to agent Standish . . . What!? . . . What do you mean they never showed? . . . That's impossible they left over two hours ago. Has anyone checked the airport? Maybe they were delayed . . . No? Well, why don't you just do that, and then call me back!"

Chris was getting a bad feeling about this. Just as he was about to call DIA, he noticed the message light blinking on his phone. Chris impatiently punched the play button and listened to the recordings.

"Hi, Chris it's Mary. I hate these things! I'll be back in town, Tuesday, give me a call, maybe we can have lunch. Bye."

"Mr. Larabee, this is Lazy J tack shop. The new saddle you ordered has arrived. We'll hold it until the end of the week. Have a nice day."

"Agent Larabee."

The second he heard the smooth, professional, voice, Chris knew something was wrong.

"This is Mark Forester from flight control over at Denver International. Charter flight, ATF- 7 disappeared off the radar at 1:34 pm. The pilot informed the tower that he was hit by something just before the plane went off radar. It's feared that the plane crashed over the Rockies. Teams have already been scrambled to search for the wreckage. Please call as soon as you receive this message."

"You have no more messages," said a pleasant mechanical voice.

Chris couldn't believe it. This couldn't be happening. This was just a short routine assignment. Nothing should have gone wrong. The shock wore off quickly and his years of experience handling emergency situations kicked in. Chris grabbed the phone and hastily dialed and then waited. It seemed like hours, but in reality only a few seconds passed before he heard the line pick up and he started speaking.

"Buck, we have a situation."


"It's okay, it's okay, it's okay . . ." Vin chanted under his breath. He sat rigid, trying to keep his breathing slow and easy. The simple act of just breathing hurt his arm, and his head, and everything. Every little piece of him was screaming in pain. He could hear Ezra scrambling around in the debris near his feet trying to get to his right leg, but it sounded like Ez was having a tough time of his own. "It's okay, it's okay . . ." Vin continued. But it wasn't okay, it wasn't ok in the least, and he knew it. But it was the only thing he could think of to do, to quell the rising panic, that was threatening to suffocate him. His mind raced. What am I gonna do if I can't see!? What the hell are we gonna do!? "

Buck?" a confused and frightened voice called from behind him.

"JD! It's Vin. I'm here, pard," Vin called weakly over his shoulder, relieved to have something else to worry about. "Ez is here too. Just . . ." his head began to swirl in clouds of colored mist. From a distance, he heard someone calling his name. He tried to call out to JD again not to panic, not to worry. That he, they, Vin and Ezra, would take care of him. Buck would count on them looking out after the kid. And, Vin knew that Chris would have faith in him to get the others out of here - wherever in hell, here was - to someplace safe. Chris would expect that of him. But the words wouldn't come. Instead Vin felt the fear and the pain. And, he felt the tears welling up, until like a dam bursting, they spilled out, big and loud and messy. He tried his best to stem them, but succeeded in only gulping noisily, as the plaintive cry escaped his lips. "Chris."

"I'm sorry, to report," Ezra's soft drawl, was punctuated by a grunt of pain as he extricated himself from the rubble at Vin's feet, knife in hand, "that Mr. Larabee isn't here." Without his customary verbosity, Ezra sounded as desperate as Vin felt, and it scared the hell out of the sharpshooter.

With more groans and mutterings about the misery in his head, the Southerner managed to stand up in the ruined aircraft. "Saints preserve us," Ezra declared, sounding more like himself. "And you brandish this implement of mayhem, for what purpose, Mr. Tanner?" The wicked looking blade glinted in the rays of light that still cleared the mountaintops as the sun began its daily descent.

"To shut up fancy-mouthed undercover agents." Vin murmured, his slow grin, taking the sting out of the words, as his head rested against the back of the seat.

"Clearly you don't need my immediate assistance if you're able to vocalize such venom-"

"Help," JD's desolate voice broke through the bantering, the two older men had been using to ward off the desperation both were feeling.

"I'm coming, JD," Ezra said calmly. He staggered to where the young man lay pinned by the wreckage, drifting in and out of consciousness. He laid a shaky hand on the dark head and said, "I'm going to get some material to help wrap up your wound. Please try not to move and I'll be back shortly."

JD whimpered. "Can't you get me up from here, Ez?" He sniffled. "Please?" he whispered. "It really hurts."

Ezra searched for a suitable response and felt his resolve to remain calm and in charge slipping into despair and panic.


I cannot be the one to do this, Ezra thought, as he looked from one injured friend to the other. Damnation! I am not strong enough for this. He silently cursed as his fingers curled tightly around the knife handle, the force of his grip turning his knuckles white.

"Ez, it hurts so bad," the faint child-like voice whimpered again.

"I know JD," Ezra wearily sighed as he was brought back to the job at hand, "I know."

Limping over to the balloon cloth, Ezra began to cut at that offending material. At first his slices were weak and orderly, but as his anger grew, so did his frustration and he began to slash at cause of their predicament.

"Ez . . . "

Ezra turned, following Vin's voice and he wretched his arm as it caught in a loop of material. "What is it now, Mr. Tanner? I do not need anymore . . ." he hissed through clenched teeth.

In his isolation of darkness Vin had tried to keep his silence. He had tried to control the bile that was threatening to rise from his stomach and find an escape.  He tried and failed.

"Shit!" Ezra quickly dropped the knife and tried to get to Vin, but in the end all he could do was hold his friend's forehead as the sharpshooter emptied his stomach contents on the cabin floor. Trying to ignore the smell as his own body fought its weakness and tried to follow Vin's example, Ezra concentrated on holding onto the shaking body under his hand.

"Oh, Hell . . . I'm . . . sorry Ez," Vin gasped as he tried to catch his breath.

Ezra was more than relieved to hear Vin's voice, as the heaves seem to run their course through his friend's body. He helped lay the sharpshooter's head back against the seat.

"Indeed Mr. Tanner, not one of your more glorious moments," Ezra said, trying to ease Vin's embarrassment. Noting that in his rush he pulled a trail of cloth with him, Ezra used his teeth and good hand to tear off a strip.

Vin jumped at the noise and again as something touched at his face,

"What the . . .?"

"I do beg you pardon. I had forgotten," Ezra referred to his friend's, hopefully temporary, blindness as he gently continued to wipe Vin's face.

"I hadn't," Vin answered softly before changing the subject, "How're you and the kid doin'?"

"I couldn't be better Mr. Tanner," Ezra lied, as he tore off another strip to wipe the sweat from Vin's forehead, "our young friend is not so good. If you feel that you are able to fend for yourself for a moment, I would like to get back to Mr. Dunne and see if I can make him somewhat more comfortable than he is in his current position." Turning to leave, Ezra's injured arm was suddenly grabbed eliciting a pained gasp from the agent.

"I thought so." Vin's unseeing eyes looked up in Ezra's general direction. "And who's gonna look after you, Ez?"


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