ATF Universe


"Goddammit!" Chris Larabee swore angrily as he slammed the phone down hard enough to crack the plastic casing. There were no commercial flights available, until tomorrow. Which was completely unacceptable, as far as the ATF leader was concerned. And AD Travis was still out of town with his grandson and daughter in law, and so far Chris had been unable to reach them. But he and the others were getting to Albuquerque today, even if he had to bash a few heads to do it. There was no way that Chris Larabee was going to let someone else be in charge of the search for his men, while he sat here in Denver and twiddled his thumbs.

"Chris? What the hell is goin' on?" Buck Wilmington burst through the door of Chris's office, followed closely by Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson. The ATF leader had called all three of them, as soon as he'd gotten the news about the crash. He'd reached Buck and Josiah, while they were still at the airport, waiting for their baggage. Which was currently, still sitting at the airport, unclaimed. Chris's tone had left no doubt that whatever was going on, it was serious. And bad. Nathan had been called out of his EMT recertification class, with no explanation, either. Just an abrupt order, to get his ass to the office NOW!

"There's been an accident. Vin, JD, and Ezra . . . their plane crashed somewhere over the Rockies." Chris's terse explanation left the other three men gasping in shock for a moment.

Then Buck exploded. "What do you mean a plane crash? How the hell could they have been in a plane crash? And what in the blue blazes were they doin' in the Rockies, anyway?" Buck's roar faded into a plaintive cry as the true import of Chris'swords sank in.

"I'm afraid we're all a bit asea here, Brother Chris. Perhaps a little more in the way of clarification would help." Josiah's voice was calm, but it was obvious how much the effort had cost him. His fists were clenched so tightly that his nails were gouging little bloody marks in his palm.

Chris sighed, guilt, worry and frustration all vying for top billing in his voice.

"Albuquerque called. Needed some backup, for a major bust this afternoon.

There were no commercial flights, so I chartered a plane and Ezra was supposed to fly us over. Only I got caught in traffic on the interstate, so I told them to go on without me. When I got back to the office, there was a message from Albuquerque. Their plane went down somewhere over the mountains. They think there was a collision of some sort." The last few words got caught in Chris's throat. He should've been there. He was supposed to protect his men. What the hell had he been thinking? He should've told Albuquerque to go fuck themselves.

"What the hell were you thinking?" Buck's voice echoed his thoughts. He was staring at Chris in disbelief. "You let Ezra fly them? Hell, he probably had a chauffeur to do his flying for him. And you let JD up in the air with him? God dammit, Chris!"

"Buck. We've got better things to do than assign blame. And it ain't Chris's fault. Or Ezra's either. You know he wouldn't let nothing happen to Vin or JD, if he could help it." Nathan spoke sharply. Concern and fear had etched lines alongside his mouth and creased his forehead, and he looked as if the weight of the world was suddenly on his shoulders. He considered himself the team's medic and the thought of some of them hurt and out of his reach, was almost unbearably painful.

"You're right. I'm sorry, Chris." Buck deflated. His eyes had a bright teary sheen as he looked up, meeting Chris's eyes. "It's just the thought of JD and the others out there. Hell, the kid don't know the first thing about wilderness survival. He'll probably run into a hungry grizzly or something."

"Vin is with them. That boy could survive with nothing but a pocketknife and his shoelaces." Josiah's attempt at comfort fell flat. Because they were all thinking the same thing -  What if Vin hadn't made it? What if none of them had?

+ + + + + + +

"Look out for me?" Ezra attempted a short laugh, but the pain in his head turned it into a choked cry. Dammit, he needed to control himself. He wasn't hurt nearly as bad as Vin or JD. It was going to be up to him, to take care of the two younger men. The thought made him sick to his stomach. What the hell did he know about taking care of others? He'd never even had a fish to take care of, growing up. And his adult years had all been spent looking out for number one. He couldn't do it. They were all going to die. His rising hysteria was cut short by the sight of a tear running down Vin's face. It traced a path through the blood and dirt before disappearing into the collar of his shirt. Ezra had never seen the other man cry. Not ever.

"Why, Mr. Tanner, you should know I am more than capable of looking out for myself. It's what I do best, after all. I would be more concerned about you and Mr. Dunne." Ezra forced himself to speak with his usual insouciant air.

He was rewarded by a brief smile from Vin that rapidly turned into a grimace as another wave of pain wracked his injured body.

"Can't move, Ez. Can't see. Ain't nothin' but a burden to ya. Dammit."

Vin's soft whisper caused a lump to form in the southern agent's throat.

Kneeling down, he reached out a hesitant hand and silently brushed a bloody strand of hair out of Vin's unseeing eyes.

"Go take care of JD. I'll be ok." Vin attempted another smile, but it was beyond his capabilities. Ezra sighed and got stiffly to his feet.

"Buck." Another moan came from JD's direction. Ezra grabbed the first aid kit and a few of the makeshift bandages he'd cut from the balloon, and hobbled over to the young man as fast as his injured body would allow.

"I'm certain Buck is on his way, JD. He would never miss such a wonderful opportunity to point out the trouble you always manage to land yourself in.

And how he is always having to come to your rescue." Ezra fumbled through the kit for adhesive and some antibiotic ointment as he spoke. He felt the bile rise in his throat at the sight of that loosely flapping skin on JD's back. And the sour stench from Vin's earlier episode, wasn't helping matters. Swallowing hard, he took a deep breath.

"Ezra? You . . . really think . . . Buck . . . is on his . . . way?" JD gasped out the words, his voice weak and still rather dazed sounding.

Shit. Ezra thought, as he blatantly lied to the youth. "Of course, JD." He frowned, as he glanced out at the rapidly darkening sky. "Now, I'm afraid this is going to hurt." As he spoke, his hand hovered nervously over the young agent's back.

"Do what you have to, Ez. It's ok." JD turned his head to the side, teeth clenched tightly against the forthcoming ordeal. Ezra was glad the boy had his eyes closed. He didn't think he could bear to see the pain in them while he did this. He placed a hesitant hand lightly on JD's back.

JD's stifled scream of pain almost made him lose his nerve. He'd barely touched the boy. God. He couldn't do this. But the resolute look on JD's pale face made him feel faintly ashamed. He wasn't the one that had to endure the pain. If JD could do it, then surely he could. He had to. He reached out a hand again.

+ + + + + + +

"Aaaaaahhhhhhhhh!" JD's screams made Vin flinch in sympathy. The young man, at first, had tried so hard to stifle his cries, but the strangled, choked sounds he made were worse. Vin had been glad when Ezra had finally snapped that JD might as well scream. That maybe he'd at least frighten off any predators lurking around out there. Instead of just getting on the southern agent's nerves with his misguided attempt at bravery.

Vin knew Ezra was feeling the weight of responsibility. Knew the other man was hurt worse than he let on. But without his eyesight, he had no way of knowing how much. Vin felt his insides freeze at the thought that he might never regain his sight. What would he do? He'd have to give up his job. He'd be useless. He . . . Alright, Tanner. Get a grip. Right now you got more important things to worry about. Like getting out of here alive. Well, that made him feel a lot better.

He could smell the foul odor of stale vomit. He wondered if it made Ezra and JD gag like it did him. Shame burned in him at the thought. It wasn't bad enough that he was lying here, completely helpless and dependent. But he couldn't even control himself enough to avoid adding to their troubles. Just one more thing to add to Ezra's burdens. And he was setting a hell of an example for JD. Vin hated the feeling of being a bother. He'd grown up feeling that way after his Mom died. Just one more mouth to feed and clothe. A burden on society. Shuffled from foster home to foster home. He'd sworn he'd never give anyone a reason, to look on him that way again. That he would take care of himself. And now here he was. Couldn't even keep his goddamn promise to himself.

Vin was suddenly rocked violently back and forth, the wind howling as it shook their small plane. The bolt of agony that passed through him at the forced movement, nearly made him pass out. He could feel his head swim and stars spun in the blackness. He couldn't stop the shriek of pain that passed his lips. It hurt so goddamn bad. He felt a warm gush of liquid down his thigh and tears of shame and pain began leaking out of his eyes. He hoped to God that it was blood he felt.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra placed the last piece of adhesive across JD's back. The young man's screams had been reduced to quiet whimpers by this time. As if he lacked the energy or will to do anything more. Ezra didn't know whether to be worried or relieved.

A sudden gust of wind caused Ezra to lose his balance. Instinctively, he reached out a hand to catch himself and had to bite back his own scream as his injured wrist bore the full brunt of his weight. He heard Vin scream at the same time and cursed. He had to stabilize the sharpshooter somehow. Vin would never survive if the wind kept up like this. And their hope of rescue had just diminished greatly. No pilots in their right mind would fly into an oncoming storm like this.

"Ez? What's happening?" JD's voice begged for reassurance. In it, Ezra could hear the same terror that he felt. He shook his head wearily, wincing at the pain that evoked. He wished he had an answer to JD's question.


"Easy, Mr. Dunne." Ezra's calm voice sounded ludicrous to his ears. He didn't feel calm at all. What he felt was desperation, absolute, down to the bone, desperation. But, right now, JD and Vin needed him to sound calm and in control. And, he was going to do that, if he choked on every word. "Mr. Tanner, just moved when he shouldn't have. Stay here," as if JD could go anywhere "I'm going to see to Mr. Tanner's injuries." Ezra's ankle screamed in pain, as he started to straighten up.

"Ezra." The youngest of the seven called to him weakly.

"What is it?" Ezra asked him, only half listening. He was already going over Vin's injuries in his mind.

"Thank you." His whispered words clutched at the Southerner's heart. This boy was lying there in so much agony, and he was thanking the man who'd caused it. Tears sprang to his eyes, and Ezra had to swallow hard, to answer softly, "You're welcome, JD." With a gentle pat to JD's uninjured shoulder, Ezra turned towards his other friend.

"Vin?" he inquired, as he cautiously picked his way through the debris, until he could get to the injured man. The smells rose up threatening to break his iron control, sweat and blood and vomit, and a new smell - urine. Ezra could see the tears in the sharpshooter's unseeing eyes. He could only imagine how humiliating this fiercely independent man found his helplessness.

Like the rest of the team, Ezra knew a little of Vin's background. In some ways, he mused, it mirrored his own. Two very small boys, passed around from home to home, never really being wanted in any of them. They'd both learned, not to trust or depend on other people. The only difference was, that while Vin had been with strangers, not all of whom, had treated him decently, Ezra had been with family. Family! Ezra snorted at the thought. Not one of those so called family members had cared a whit, about a small lonely boy, who desperately missed his mother. Maude, that was someone they definitely did not have in common. A hand that was as weak as a newborn kitten on his arm interrupted his thoughts.

"Ez, I'm sorry." Vin's raspy drawl was weaker than the grip on his arm.

Ezra was too worried, to even try to pretend. And Vin Tanner had a way of knowing when a man was lying to him. It had served him well, and if Ezra had anything to do with it, it would keep right on serving the sharpshooter well for a very long time. So, the undercover agent laid it out as plainly as he could to his friend.

"Mr. Tan - Vin, you're badly injured. I know you're embarrassed, but right now, there's a storm blowing in. I've got to dress you're injuries, as best as I can, and then I've got to find a way to stabilize this plane. And, if you have to vomit, or if you have to go, then do it and don't waste your energy feeling guilty about it. You're going to need all the energy you can get, just to survive until, we're discovered. And, if you're really lucky, you might just be able to pay me back a little, for what I'm about to do."

Vin's blue eyes smiled at him, before closing. "If I'm real lucky." The soft drawl was barely audible.

Ezra decided to wrap Vin's head and arm, and then worry about his leg.  Fortunately, the balloon which had been their undoing in the sky, was providing plenty of clean bandages on the ground. He cut off several large strips of the nylon fabric and a few smaller ones.

Standish folded one into a square about three inches square and placed it on the gash over Vin's eye. He heard the younger man gasp, and quickly took his left hand and put it on the bandage. "Can you hold this in place, while I wrap something around it? Ezra knew, that for Vin, the worst thing about the crash, was his helplessness. And, he knew that the man would be grateful to have something, even as tiny as holding a bandage in place that he could help with.

The Southerner was winding a long strip of cloth, when Vin winced at about same time, as Ezra's fingers came in contact with a large bump at base of his skull. "I'm sorry, Vin. I'll try to be more careful." The words were ridiculously inadequate in light of what Ezra still had to do, but he couldn't think of anything else to say to his friend.

"S'okay, Ez." Vin couldn't manage anything else.

Ezra tied off the bandage, careful to maneuver it, so that it missed the golf ball sized lump at the back of Vin's head.

Ezra scrubbed a hand through his hair. He couldn't do anymore for Vin's broken arm, then he'd been able to do for JD's. So, steeling himself to the cries of pain from the young sharpshooter, Ezra wrapped the arm in layers of soft nylon. As gently and quickly as he possibly could, Ezra tied the arm loosely to Vin's body. Leaning back, Ezra surveyed his friend.

Vin's face was gray and sweat beaded his forehead. His eyes were closed and he was gulping in deep lungfuls of air.

"Vin? Are you alright?" Ezra asked softly, knowing that Vin, of course, wasn't alright.

"I'm - kinda - lookin' forward - ta gettin' - even with ya - some." Vin choked out.

The man never failed to amaze his partner. This might possibly be the worst moment of Vin's life, and that perverse sense of humor was still coming to their rescue.

"I assure you, Mr. Tanner, I'll do my best to avoid providing you, with an opportunity to take revenge." Ezra smiled to himself. "I'm going to try to stabilize the plane now. I suggest you rest. When I come back, I'm going to try to do something about your leg."

"I'd appre - ciate - it Ez. It's hur - hurtin' kinda bad."

Ezra squeezed his friend's hand in a last reassuring gesture, before he carefully climbed out of the nose of the plane.


Once Ezra was outside the plane, he experimented to see how much weight he could put on his left ankle. As he leaned more heavily on it, he almost passed out from the pain. He decided he needed to splint it before he did anything else. He spied a long branch, that he could use as a walking stick and picked it up with his uninjured right hand.

With the help of the branch, he hobbled closer to the plane. Grabbing a handful of fabric from the balloon, Ezra used the knife to cut a long strip. Scanning the area, he spotted some small branches that he could use as a splint. After selecting two, he sat down on a nearby rock and tried to figure out how he was going to do this one handed. He decided to untie his shoe and slip the branches inside on either side of his ankle. Awkwardly, he wrapped the nylon around his ankle and pulled it tight. When he was done, he observed his handy work.

"Not the neatest of bandaging jobs, but it should suffice," Ezra said out loud.

He remained seated on the rock, studying the plane, trying to figure out how to stabilize it. He was still sitting there, trying to come up with a plan, when a gust off wind blew down the mountain, shaking the plane. Ezra heard Vin cry out in agony.

"Well, whatever you decide to do, Standish, you'd better get to it," he chided himself.

The southerner spotted some rocks close to the plane that he thought he could move and wedge under the plane. He pushed himself off of the rock and got to work.

+ + + + + + +

"Vin, are you alright," JD asked worriedly.

"I'm fine," came the weak reply.

"Do you really think they're coming for us?" JD asked.

"Yeah, JD, they're coming," Vin said trying to reassure him.

Vin didn't need his eyes to see that JD was scared. He could hear it in the kid's voice. He knew his crying out like that, hadn't helped convince JD that everything would be OK. But, he couldn't help it. When the plane had moved, it hurt so bad, he thought he was gonna be sick again. Instead, he'd yelled his head off. Vin leaned his head back on the seat, and tried ignoring the pain, but it was no use, everything just hurt too much.

Vin hated not being able to see what Ezra was doing. He knew that his partner was hurting a lot more than he let on. If he hurt himself more out there, they would never know. Vin just hoped he didn't do anything stupid.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was crawling on his knees, pushing a rock towards the plane. At first, he had tried lifting them, but when he bent down, his head had begun to swim and he had been afraid, that he would pass out. He never thought, that he would ever see himself crawling around like this. However, it put less pressure on his ankle than hobbling. Ezra was actually rather proud of himself. He had pushed enough rocks around the plane, so that it was stable. Ezra rolled the last one into place, then sat down and leaned heavily against the side of the plane.

"That's done," he said. "Now, what can I use to put Vin's leg in traction?"

Good lord, Ezra thought, I'm talking to myself. He shook his head bemusedly, and looked around. He noticed the gondola from the balloon a short distance away.

The undercover agent could see that it was pretty much destroyed, but maybe he could use the wood for splints. Ezra pulled himself up and limped over to the gondola. As he got closer, he could see that it was largely destroyed. The wicker sides of the gondola were shattered and completely useless. However, the bottom had broken up into large enough pieces, that he might be able to use them. He twisted and pulled the wicker to remove it. When he was done had one long board and a few shorter ones.

He bent down to pick them up and found himself sitting on the ground, as a wave of dizziness swept over him. Ezra closed his eyes and willed the pain and dizziness to subside. He couldn't black out now; people were depending on him.

Ezra laughed bitterly, People depending on him, that was a joke. He had never had to care for anyone but himself. Now, he had to care for his friends. Friends he had never dreamed he would have. Why does it have to be me? Why couldn't it be Vin?

Ezra didn't want to admit it, but he was afraid. Afraid, that he would let everyone down. Afraid, that Chris and Buck would see, that he couldn't be trusted with the safety, of the two youngest of the team. He would prove them wrong, prove that he could be trusted. Once the dizziness passed, Ezra opened his eyes and surveyed the plane. It still amazed him, that they were even alive. The right wing of the plane was completely gone. Sheared off, by the trees they had crashed amongst. What was left of the left wing, was resting against the side of the rise. The nose of the plane was missing and had come to rest up against a tree. Ezra looked up at the tree and saw one of the propane tanks from the balloon wedged amidst the branches. As he stared, Ezra got an idea.

+ + + + + + +

Vin wasn't sure how long Ezra had been gone. It felt like forever, when he finally heard a sound outside the plane. God, I hope that's Ezra, he thought. If not, we're in trouble. Vin knew there were scavengers, as well as predators, in these mountains. The sound got closer and Vin tensed.

"It's only me, Vin," Ezra announced as he crawled back inside.

"Have fun strolling around out there?" Vin teased.

"Yes, it was invigorating considering it's starting to get dark," Ezra answered. "How are you doing Mr. Tanner."

"I'm alright," he lied.

"I'm glad Vin, because I have an idea for your leg," Ezra began quietly.

"Let me guess," Vin said hearing the hesitation in his voice. "I ain't gonna like it"

"I'm afraid the pain will be excruciating."

"Aw hell, Ez, it already hurts. You might as well just get it over with."

"Alright, I'm going to place a length of board under your leg," the southerner explained, since Vin couldn't see what he was doing.

Vin felt something hard pushed up under his rear end. Ezra then told him, that he was going to lift his leg up and rest on the board. He took a few deep breaths and steeled himself for the pain. He ground his teeth together, but when Ezra lifted his leg and placed it on the board, he cried out hoarsely. Sweat was beading on his forehead and Vin could feel the tears running down his face. He couldn't help it the pain was too intense. Once his leg was in position, Vin heard Ezra tell him to relax before they moved to the next step. He jumped when he felt something wipe at his face.

"I'm sorry, Vin," Ezra apologized.

"S' okay," Vin replied.

"Are you ready to proceed?" Ezra asked.

"No," Vin admitted weakly. "But, let's get it over with."

"Do you want me to explain what I'm going to do?" Ezra asked gently.

"That's alright, Ezra, I'd rather you not," Vin smiled. "What I don't know won't hurt me."

Vin could feel Ezra wrapping something around his right ankle. When he was done with that he felt Ezra tie something tight. He heard Ezra sit down next to him, and he felt him tie something around his waist. He then felt Ezra ease something between his bad arm so a rope could be tied crisscross over his chest. Ezra instructed him to lean back and Vin could feel his chest being tied securely to the seat. Ezra checked his arm to see that it wouldn't be caught in the ropes. When he touched it, Vin hissed in pain.

"Ezra, what are you doing?" JD asked.

"I'm securing Vin, to the seat so that when his leg moves, he won't be pulled out of it."

"Can I help?" The younger man asked softly"

"There's nothing you can help with right now," Ezra told him gently, knowing that JD was feeling useless. "But you can help in a few minutes."

"What do you want me to do?" JD asked.

"This ordeal is going to be quite painful for Mr. Tanner." The older man explained. "Do you think you can talk to him, distract him, while I do this?"

"Yeah sure," JD responded, grateful to be able to do something, no matter how small to help. "I can do that."

Ezra smiled reassuringly at him, and then told Vin, that he was going back outside.

"When you hear me count to three, you're going to feel a pull on your leg. It's going to hurt."

Vin nodded and Ezra touched him lightly on the arm, before turning away, to climb out of the plane.

"Hey, Ez?"

"Yes, Vin?" Ezra paused, just as he was about to ease himself down to the ground.

"I'm gonna have to think, of a really good payback for this one, ain't I?"

Ezra laughed and dropped to the ground. He grabbed the two pieces of rope he had tied to Vin's ankle. He was glad that he the rope attaching the gondola to the balloon had been usable. The nylon was way too slippery for this. He walked over to the tree where the propane tank was wedged. He dropped one of the ropes and climbed on the rock next to the tree. Ezra threw the rope over a branch higher up and then balanced himself so that he could tie it to the tank. It was awkward, but he managed to tie it, using his good hand and his teeth. When he was satisfied the knot was tight, he called out to Vin.

"Alright, are you ready?"

"Go for it," Vin called.

"Forgive me, my friend." Ezra whispered to himself. And then, much louder, "One, two."

On two, Ezra pushed the tank out of the tree. He knew that if he had waited for three Vin would have tensed and it would have hurt even more. Still, Ezra wasn't prepared for the inhuman scream that split the night. Just as quickly as the scream started, it was cut off. Ezra wasn't sure which was worse, the scream or the deadly silence that followed it.


Ezra came out of his shock when he heard JD's desperate call. He knew Vin had probably just passed out and he finished what he had started. Grabbing the second rope, he secured it to the tree. He pulled it as tightly, as the rope that was on the propane tank. Once that was tied off, he untied the tank, and then tied that rope to the tree for good measure.

Wearily, Ezra climbed down from the rock and hobbled back to the plane. He climbed back inside, to find JD crying and calling to Vin. When he saw Vin he could understand JD's fear.

The sharpshooter was hanging like a broken rag doll over the nylon strips that he had used to secure him to the seat. Ezra leaned Vin's head back so it was resting against the seat. Blood was dripping from Vin's lip where the sharpshooter had bitten it, in his agony.

I'm so sorry Vin, Ezra thought mournfully.

"Is he dead?" JD asked in a shaking voice.

"No, just unconscious." Ezra answered.

"God Ezra, I never heard anybody scream like that before."

"I know," Ezra replied succinctly.

"What are we going to do?" JD asked looking at the older agent.

"There's nothing we can do until help comes," Ezra said. "But now I have to finish splinting Vin's leg."

Ezra wasn't sure whether he'd done more harm than good. He couldn't tell if the bone had realigned itself or not. He just had to hope that it did. He took one of the boards and cushioned one end with a folded piece of nylon. This one, he placed on the inside of Vin's leg, tucked up close to his groin. The other board, he laid along the outside of his leg and then he tied them securely in place. When he was finished he sat back and observed his handy work. Vin was now cocooned in brown nylon. Ezra sighed and leaned his head back when he heard a soft rumble.

"What's that?" JD asked panicked.

Just then they heard the patter of rain on the roof of the plane. JD smiled at Ezra when he realized it was only thunder. Ezra looked out the window of the plane and cursed.

"What is it?" JD asked, "What's wrong?"

"Nothing, Mr. Dunne," he said. "I just hit my wrist."

Ezra didn't want to alarm the young man as he watched in dread as fog drifted into the valley, covering the plane.


Ezra sat down in his mangled seat. He needed to rest. He needed to sleep, but he knew he had to fight that. He had a head injury, which he didn't think was serious, but he couldn't take a chance on falling asleep and maybe not waking up if Vin or JD needed him.

He looked at the threatening sky overhead. Before he did anything else, he'd have to secure the nylon fabric so that it provided more shelter than the fuselage alone offered.

Vin moaned. He was coming to. He was deathly pale, his face covered in a fine sheen of sweat. Ezra reached over with is good hand and used a piece of the brown fabric to wipe his face.

Vin's eyes opened, and stared at nothing, but when he blinked Ezra knew he was conscious.

"Mr. Tanner?"

Vin reached up with his good arm and touched Ezra's hand. "Thanks," he whispered.

Vin was still in wretched pain, but the constant tension on his injured leg had eased the fierce spasms and the grinding agony caused by the splintered bone ends. He still hurt like hell, but, he did feel a little bit better.

He was so thirsty. But they hadn't brought anything along to drink, and the memory of the cold drink Ezra had taken from JD caused a pang of ironic longing.

"Is there anything I can do for you, Mr. Tanner?" Ezra said softly.

"You didn't happen . . . to bring a six pack . . . along, did ya?" Vin rasped.

Ezra looked at the threatening sky. In all likelihood, they'd soon have more water than they cared to contend with.

JD moved carefully in the seat behind them. The kid's wrists were bruised and swollen. He'd probably crossed his arms across his face at some point and they had taken the force of an impact that otherwise might have killed him. The boy was trying to sit up, but unable to  put weight on his arms, he was having a hard time.

Ezra cleared the debris from around him and hoped that the adhesive tape he'd used to close the ghastly injury on his back would hold. He could see it was soaked through with blood, and that the wound pulled with every move JD made.

Ezra doubted that the boy knew how bad it was, which was probably fortunate.

He used his good arm to steady the kid as JD managed to work himself into a sitting position without using his arms. He leaned back in the seat and then immediately yelped in pain as he put pressure on his wound.

"Easy, Mr. Dunne," Ezra cautioned.

JD looked down at his hands and winced when he tried to flex his fingers. "I think I broke something," he said.

"I'm sure your diagnosis is correct."

Thunder rolled above them, much closer this time. Ezra struggled to his feet.

"Where are you going?" JD asked.

"I'm going to attempt to provide us with some semblance of shelter from this impending storm," he looked upward.

"Ez?" Vin whispered.

Ezra moved closer to the sharpshooter so he wouldn't have to use his strength to speak loudly. "Yes, Mr. Tanner?"

"If you can . . . somehow rig a big piece of this." Tanner fingered the brown fabric binding his injured arm with his good hand "so that it's suspended . . . off the ground . . . " He was having to pause for breath between the phrases. That can't be good, Ezra thought, as Vin continued. ". . . Then put something . . . heavy in the center . . . Like a . . . a . . . "

"Like a funnel?" JD said, visualizing what Vin was talking about.

"Yeah . . . a funnel," Vin gasped. "You can collect . . . some . . . water . . . "

Ezra nodded and then remembered Vin couldn't see. "I understand, Mr. Tanner."

Ezra took Vin's knife and hobbled out through the large opening in the wreckage. He'd learned that the fabric of the balloon was not easy to tear, because it was reinforced with a criss-cross patter of fine nylon cord. With Vin's sharp knife, however, he'd be able to cut it, if he could find some way to hold it and slice it with the same hand. He'd need a large piece, though. Enough to cover the passenger compartment. He surveyed the wreckage in the waning daylight and found what appeared to be the largest piece of the balloon that was not somehow entwined in the wreckage. He was struggling with it when JD walked up beside him.

"Can I help, Ezra?"

Ezra tried not to laugh. The kid's hands were useless. But then he got an idea.

"Open your mouth," he told the boy.

JD, still partially dazed from his ordeal, complied without question.

Ezra stuffed a corner of the fabric between JD's teeth and had him bite down on it. "You pull while I cut . . . you understand?"

JD nodded, his verbal reply muffled by the mouthful of fabric. Ezra began to cut as JD pulled back, slowly drawing the piece free. Working together, they managed to cut a piece large enough to create a makeshift tent.

The fabric weighed almost nothing, but the wind whipping at it made it difficult to handle, especially with only one hand to work with between the two of them.

Somehow, though, they managed to get it back to the plane, along with whatever loose scraps they encountered along the way. They were working against time, Ezra knew. He hoped they could get the shelter completed before they got wet. Temperatures plummeted in the mountains at night, and they'd need to stay dry to stay warm.

JD held the fabric in place using his mouth and his feet as Ezra struggled to move still more rocks into place to weight it down. He left some slack at the top, which he poked down through a hole in the roof with a stick, and then tossed a small rock into the depression. I served to both tighten the fabric so it didn't flap in the wind, and it would serve as a reservoir for water.

"JD, see if you can find any of that food we had on the plane. We need to keep it out of the rain."

JD blinked at him. "You don't really think they're looking for us, do you?

"Mr. Dunne, there is no question that they are looking for us, but I sincerely doubt we'll be home in time for supper."

JD continued to stare at him vacantly.

"JD?" Ezra frowned.

The boy became alert again. "Huh?"

"The food. Help me find it."

"Uh . . . oh . . . okay . . . "

He walked away with shuffling steps. His legs didn't appear to be injured, but he was unsteady on his feet. Ezra hoped he wouldn't fall, because he couldn't catch him without further injuring himself, and if he did that, he couldn't look after Vin.

He hated this. He wished it would all go away so that he could just lie down and sleep. His headache was blinding him, and he was would have given a month's salary for the bottle of Advil he'd tucked away in his now-missing suitcase.

Picking through the rubble, they found JD's knapsack, still intact. Ezra used the straps to fasten it around JD's waist. It had several pockets and he opened them so they could use it to carry anything they could find that might be of use. The didn't succeed in finding any of the food, but they did find a Styrofoam coffee cup and half-eaten bag of stone cold McDonald's french fries in what was left of the gondola.

Ezra carefully tucked them into the knapsack as JD stared at the wreckage.

"Ezra, what do you think happened to the pilot?" he said softly.

Ezra quite honestly hadn't thought of that. "I don't know JD, but if I find him, I assure you, I have every intention of kicking his ass."

JD kept staring. "He's probably dead, huh?" the boy said sadly.

Ezra looked at the kid and felt a brief flash of shame. Not only had he not given the person - or possibly people - who had been in the balloon a second thought, it probably would not have occurred to him to consider that they, too, would have preferred to have avoided their unfortunate encounter.

"Yes," he said softly. "I'm sure he is."

He went to touch the boy on the shoulder and stopped just short of touching his bloody shirt.

There was another clap of thunder and hard, heavy drops began to pelt them. They hurried back to the shelter as fast as they could hobble and made it just as the rain began to fall full force. Ezra unfastened the backpack and shoved JD inside, then followed him as quickly as he was able. He was pleased that there was enough room inside that they would not be too cramped, but he wasn't happy to discover that rip-stop nylon wasn't entirely waterproof. As the rain began in earnest, most of it slid down the sides of the makeshift tent, but it also puddled in certain spots and then soaked through. Vin's injured leg was in the path of one of the leaks and Ezra quickly emptied JD's backpack to see if there was anything waterproof inside.

He found a plastic Wal-Mart bag crushed at the bottom of the pack. He pulled it out and withdrew a pharmacy sack with a three-month supply of birth control pills inside. He looked at JD questioningly.

"Casey was wondering what happened to those," he said sheepishly. His face flushed with embarrassment as Ezra tossed the tablets over his shoulder.

He pulled out three tubes of oil paint and then, much to Ezra's considerable joy at their good fortune, discovered that the last thing the bag contained was a six-pack of Hershey bars. If he had found the Holy Grail he would not have been happier.

The chocolate was stale and obviously had melted and rehardened, but he handled the treasures as if they were the finest chocolates.

He slit the now-empty bag open and spread it out so that it covered as much of Vin's leg as possible. Vin jumped at the contact and then gasped because the sudden movement hurt.

"I'm sorry, Mr. Tanner. I should have told you I was going to do that."

"It's okay, Vin," JD soothed and moved to touch the sharpshooter's face, but then winced with pain and thought better of it.

Ezra looked around for the smaller boards he'd salvaged earlier. He couldn't set JD's arms. For one thing, he had no idea how, but for another, he was fairly certain you needed two good hands for that. But he could splint them, and stabilize the broken bones he was sure were hidden under the badly discolored skin.

JD cooperated as best he could, gritting his teeth as Ezra pressed his forearms flat against the splits and then wrapped them in strips of brown cloth.

The rain continued to pound on them from above, and darkness was quickly encroaching upon them. The temperature was dropping rapidly, too, Ezra noted with dismay. JD had a set of what the boy referred to as office clothes in his knapsack - navy slacks and a light blue oxford shirt. He also had a sweatshirt, two tee shirts, a pair of jeans, and another flannel shirt like the one he was wearing. He put the two extra shirts on the boy and struggled into the tee shirts himself. Luckily, JD liked to wear clothing that he would easily fit into twice, so Ezra didn't have to worry about fit. He did, however, offer up a quick prayer that he wouldn't perish while wearing a tee- shirt with the word "TOOL" emblazoned across the front. He was sure he didn't want to know what it meant.

He used the rest of the clothing and the shreds of fabric he'd gathered to cover Vin. It wasn't going to be enough, but it was all they had.


Comments to: