Home For The Holidays
Ezra and the trucker talked for awhile but, after the exhausting four weeks of undercover work and the arduous traveling experience he had incurred in the last several hours Ezra was beyond tired. He could feel his eyes closing shut and jerked his head up and shifted in an attempt to stay awake. Intellectually he knew it was safe to go to sleep. The man behind the wheel that had so graciously offered him a ride was of no threat to him, but he still felt uneasy letting himself drift off. Perhaps it was guilt that made him try to stay awake. Guilt, because the trucker had no choice to stay awake and keep his rig rolling. Guilt, because he had once posed as a trucker when the F.B.I. had learned guns were being shipped across the states under the guise as other merchandise. Maybe, he felt he owned the honest truckers something. Ezra realized his tiredness was causing his thinking process to be all over the place and not make any sense whatsoever.
After jerking awake for the fourth time David said quietly, "Its okay if you want to catch some zzzs, Go ahead and get in the sleeper, Im used to making this haul alone, Ill be fine."
Ezra could only nod his head in thanks, but declined the use of the sleeper, before closing his eyes and letting the much-needed sleep overtake him. Five hours later Ezra awoke with a start, the sun shining brightly in his face. David, seeing Ezra jerk awake in his rear-view mirror, remained silent until his passenger could get his bearings. The agent finally turned his attention towards the trucker. "Please forgive my rudeness, I didnt mean to sleep for so long."
David waved the apology off before saying, "Let me ask ya something, Ezra. You never really said what ya did for a living besides working for the government, but I gotta figure ya do all right by the looks of thing. Why didnt you just call someone and have them wire you some money? At least that ways you could have holed up somewhere until this storm passed."
Ezra took a deep breath. He hated to admit it, but the idea of calling one of the guys for money never crossed his mind. He had never had anyone he could call to ask a favor from before. The whole idea of a real friendship was still new to him and he was still trying to figure out the rules to it. Maybe there were no rules when it came to honest friendships. He thought back to the one phone call he had made. He had told them he had caught a plane to Dallas, and then had procured a seat on a bus to Amarillo. He realized he had even blurted out that he, of all people, had been pick pocketed and, if memory served him right, he even admitted he was miserable. Ezra shrunk deeper inside of himself; he would never live that one down. Admitting to feeling emotions was next to admitting weaknesses. Maude had drilled into him that it was something people could take and use against you. He wondered if the guys would ridicule him for being miserable and quickly quashed the thought. They might harass him a bit for losing his wallet, but internally he knew they would never belittle or use his emotions against him. He was bought back out of his reverie when David cleared his throat, a clear sign he was still waiting for an answer.
Ezra figured the man deserved as much of the truth as he could tell him. Ezra started off telling David what agency he worked for, without telling him what he did, exactly. The agent went on to give some highlights of his latest case and how he came to be riding along with the trucker on a cold Christmas morning. David asked about the rest of the team and Ezra gave brief orientation on each man he worked with. Silence settled in the warm cab before David said, "Sounds like you guys are pretty tight."
Ezra thought on it a minute before agreeing. "Yes, I suppose one might say that."
The trucker waited a second before asking again, "So, why didnt you just call and have them wire some money?"
"Couldnt get a hold of them, between time and the storm," Ezra replied. He knew it was a weak answer. In reality if he had really wanted to get hold of them he could have called any of their cell phones or, at the worst, called Inezs business number. He simply didnt see it as their problem, or a dire emergency. He had grown up learning to solve his own problems and not depend on anyone for anything. The trucker accepted the simple explanation.
"So how long have you guys been working together?" David asked, setting off a conversation that would lead into other topics, making the miles and hours pass by quickly.
Back at the ranch:
Chris awoke and headed for the kitchen to start the coffee maker. During the early morning, the storm had kept up its pace and now the part-time ranchers yard looked like a winter wonderland. He knew without a doubt that at least two if not more of the guys would be having a grand snowball fight later. At the thought of the guys Chris mind struck on the chord that their seventh was still at large with no way of tracing his movements. He wondered once again why the man had not called back last night. Between Josiahs investigative work and Bucks cleaning on the tape, they had learned Ezra was without money. If he had simply called one of them they would have gladly wired him some cash. At least that way the man could have found a room to stay in.
Not for the first time did Chris wonder at Ezras lack of dependency on them. All of the others had at one time or another called on him for a favor, whether it was for a ride to work or an extra day off and a few times he had found himself calling on the others for some kind of help. But not Ezra, he never called on any of them unless it was a matter of life and death, and even then he didnt come right out and ask, but merely mention the problem. It was up to them to offer a solution. At least the man was making some progress; just acknowledging that he knew they would be there for backup was a giant step. The man definitely had some serious issues when it came to people, but then again, didnt they all?
The blond heard the soft steps of someone behind him and greeted the friend. "Hey, Buck. What are you doing up so early."
"Chris. Coffee ready, yet?" Buck asked as he reached for a cup. "Thought Id get started on trying to figure out where Ez went." Filling his cup of the incredibly hot liquid he said, "He didnt just fall off the face of the earth. Although, in this stuff it wouldnt be too hard."
Chris only smiled. Everyone had Vin pegged as Ezras closest friend and, while Ezra and Vin were great partners in the prank department, it was Buck, Chris believed, that was Ezras confidant, although, Buck would never say and Chris certainly would never ask. The blond leader figured it was Buck to whom Ezra confided in when Maude would become too much for him to handle or a particular social problem arose with the guys that Ezra didnt know how to cope with; like the Christmas gatherings. Buck was a good guy and better friend. Chris was thankful that his old friend had taken the young undercover agent under his protective wing.
"Dont think well have much luck. The weather will play havoc with the telephone lines and the cell phone service is already out." Chris informed his friend, as the others began to filter in looking for the coffee. Today would be a long day.
Back in the rig:
It was nearing noon; in just a few hours they would be rolling into Colorado City. Ezra could almost feel the anticipation building within him and for the life of him he couldnt rationalize it. He couldnt fathom how he had let the six men so close that he was actually anxious to see them. The thought befuddled him. Years of Maudes teaching had simply been overridden by six persistent, loud, at times obnoxious, men; who knew how to push, pull and if they had to, mow down people to get what they wanted. The thing that Ezra couldnt get his mind wrapped around was the fact that what these men seemed to want most was him, for him to be a part of their group. It was quite unsettling at times, and yet it gave him a feeling he hadnt encountered too many times in his life, it was quite a warm feeling and one he kinda enjoyed.
A little after two, David pulled the long-hauler into the welcoming lighted parking lot of the truck stop. The snow was definitely getting thicker and it would not be too many more hours before the highway would be closed down. If his luck held for just a little longer he might make it home by nine and therefore he would technically be home on Christmas. Ezra climbed out of the rig minus one gift, which he had left sitting in the passenger seat. He had never been one to take anything for nothing. He would simply have to replace Josiah leather bound book of Conan Doyles Sherlock Holmes stories.
Ezra followed David into the large building and headed for a quiet space to have a little alone time. Though he was generally thought of as a people person, and while it was true he could converse with any person with half-a-brain, he still liked time to himself. He found his quiet space; albeit the washer and dryers were making some noise, it at least wasnt voices expecting a reply. The agent decided to give the guys a call, knowing that by now they would undoubtedly be watching a football game and munching on goodies. The weird, envious feeling returned at the thought. Ezra pushed away the thought as he sought out the payphones. Figuring JD might be using the internet, he dialed Chris cell and received the irritating message that the phone was not in a serviced area. The agent quickly deduced it had to be due to the weather. He would call collect and promise reimbursement. He tried the cell number and got the same message. Hanging up, he decided to try the house phone on the off chance he could get through. The operator took the information and put the call through. After the fourth ring he persuaded the operator to continue to let it ring a few more times. Knowing the guys, they were probably arguing over whom would get up to answer the intrusive ringing.
On the seventh ring Ezra was about to hang up when David came in the room. "I found ya a ride to Denver, but hes leaving now," the trucker said. Ezra quickly hung up just as a voice called out on the other end, and hurriedly followed David to meet his new ride.
"Hello," Vin shouted. The weather was causing havoc with the lines and made it sound like a wind tunnel when he picked the receiver up. The guys turned to face the sharpshooter when his voice went up in pitch, as he said, "Heck yes, Ill accept the charges!"
Turning, he flashed the guys a big smile, as he said, "Hello. Hello? Hello?" His voice rising with each word he spoke.
Vin shouted a few more times then hung up, feeling like the call had been important. He wouldnt ever openly admit it, at least not in a serious mood, but he missed Ezra. They all did. Ezra could liven up things quicker than anyone and he was exceptionally good a getting their boss ire up, which always proved to be great entertainment. Who needed TV and football when they had Chris threatening to knock Ezra into next month? Chris didnt do anything halfway.
"Who was it, brother?" Josiah asked as Vin walked back into the living room.
"The operator, she said she had a collect call from Ezra but, either he hung up before I answered or the line went dead," Vin replied as he sat back down in his spot glumly.
"Well, if hes holed up somewhere thats warm this would be about his getting up time," Buck laughed.
"Lets just hope he had the common sense to do exactly that," Nathan said. The medic knew the undercover agent was notorious for not doing the sensible thing.
"Hes fine," Chris said flat out.
"How can you be so sure, Chris?" Josiah asked.
"Because I havent received a phone from a hospital demanding I come get his sorry hide," Chris retorted, with a small smile. The statement had the others laughing and agreeing. If Ezra were in a hospital and conscious Chris would no doubt be getting the infamous phone call. Without saying it they all silently hoped Ezra wasnt in some hospital unconscious.
Back on the road:
The ride the trucker had found him turned out to be with a traveling salesman who lived in Denver. Ezra didnt care at the moment if the guy was an arms dealer, he was getting closer to home by the hour and a strange excitement was starting to grow. The snowplows were working overtime, trying to keep the highways clear and salted. He knew when the sun went down and the wet roads began to ice over they would become very dangerous. The salesman, thankfully, had a new model of a Ford SUV with four-wheel drive. Driving at a safe speed, and barring any reckless drivers on the road, they would perhaps arrive in Denver without harm.
The salesman was, of course, a very good conversationalist, although if it had been up to Ezra, they would have rode in semi-silence. He talked for a living, but the times he enjoyed most were when he wasnt required to hold-up a conversation. When he was with Chris or Vin, both would talk to when they had something to say, but they didnt talk just to hear their own voices and, contrary to myth, that was what Ezra enjoyed about being with both men. They conversed when they wanted; otherwise they left you to your own thoughts. This gentleman, however, didnt or wouldnt notice that he was tired and would have enjoyed some silence. The undercover agent slipped into one of his many versatile roles and became a buyer; a role he was quite accustomed to playing. However, he made sure he stressed he bought something other than what this gentlemen sold.
An eternity later, in utter blackness, the lights of Denver finally came into view. They were still a good piece off, but the fact that he could make out the lights like a twinkling beacon made him want to shout with joy, almost. He did have his decorum he had to uphold. Forty-three minutes and lifetime of traveling later, they passed the city limit sign. Ezra didnt think he had seen a more wonderful sign in his life. He could have easily read: Home.
The salesman had already mentioned his locale in the city, while Ezra had only implied he was coming in for a visit. No need in letting the man know he, too, lived here. Ezra could see the bright neon sign of a twenty-four gas station and quickly suggested the man drop him off there. He reassured the salesman he would simply call his party and have them come pick him up. The driver agreed with the pitch and pulled into the station. As Ezra got out of the car, he handed a blue wrapped gift to the gentleman as a thank-you token. The salesman declined the offer, but took it after Ezra convinced the man he had won it as a door prize at the convention he had been attending. Standing in front of the door, he watched the diver pull away before walking over to the payphone. Maybe one of the guys would come get him if he offered them money for gas and expense. After trying their cell and home numbers without any success he was beginning to realize, as he walked into the warm store, he would have to see this trip to the end in the same method as he had traveled this whole trip, the seemingly hard way.
Standing inside the store, he felt the hairs on the back on his neck rise. Turning around he found the clerk watching him intently. Smiling back at the woman, he waved his cell phone and explained, "Trying to get a hold of a ride."
"Snow on the lines is kicking their use in and out. Right now theyre out. Have been for the last couple of hours," the woman explained.
Ezra could only smile and nod, biting the retort that urged to escape. Finally stating, "It appears so."
"Your car break down or the snow get to be too much?" the woman behind the counter inquired.
"Neither. Been trying to get home by any means necessary since yesterday morning," Ezra said, thinking back. Had it really only been yesterday when he started on this odyssey.
"Oh," she said softly. She smiled before saying, "So youve got this far and now youre stuck?"
"That would be an accurate assumption," Ezra said, as he began walking down an aisle. He had only snacked for the past thirty-six hours and his hunger was again growing. He fingered the few dollars he still had left from selling his items at the pawnshop. He found a can of small wieners, grabbed a box of crackers and took a bottle of juice from the refrigerator.
Walking towards the counter, he contemplated his next move. He was so close, yet from where he stood, he felt a million miles away from his target. Setting down his last present on the floor in order to pay for his items, he looked at his watch; nine-twenty three. He had almost three hours before he broke his word and that thought ate at him. Even though he hadnt spoken the promise aloud, he had still made it and, contrary to what people thought, he didnt go back on his word.
Ezra paid for his items and popped the lid off his vienna sausages and opened the crackers. He ate the simple meal and visited with the clerk. He had thought about a cab, but once again he needed phone service for that, plus there was no guarantee he could talk the driver into going out to the ranch. Going to his condo never crossed his mind; the ranch was his single-minded objective.
Back at the ranch:
The guys had spent the day being frustrated. There wasnt much in the way of tracking they could do. Without the credit cards, Ezras trail had essentially grown cold. Since he was technically not missing and because they had no proof he was in any danger as an agent, they couldnt call out the troops. Josiah and Nathan had both called the bus terminal in Amarillo again, when the phones were working, and talked to a number of people, none of them had any memory of a specific stranded traveler. There had been too many fitting Ezras description; a white, male having no means of further transportation towards ones destination.
Not one of them suggested opening the presents sitting under the tree or eating the Christmas dinner that was sitting in the refrigerator waiting to be finished cooking. They would wait for their missing brother and celebrate together as a whole family. These men who had lived for so long alone and had finally found a family amid this team would wait until they were one.
Buck sat in one of the recliners, half-watching the movie. All football games had long been played and though they had watched them as in years past, none of them, he noticed, could quite get into the worked up frenzy they had in the past. For some reason without Ezra there to lay odds and make wagers, it just wasnt the same. He was looking forward to getting the outsider to at least stay inside the house this year. Last year, Ezra had bolted to the barn after the second round of presents had been handed out. The man had some definite issues with the holiday, but that was part of the challenge with his friend. To see how many of those issues they could resolve or at the very least make better. Wherever he was, Buck sure hoped he was inside and warm. The man hated being cold almost as bad as he hated having to do menial labor.
Back at the store:
Ezra was finishing up the last viennas and washing it down with a swallow of his juice when headlights reflected in the stores window. An old pickup pulled up and young man walked in, his face hidden behind a scarf. For the briefest of seconds he imagined it was JD, driving Bucks truck. His reality soon kicked in and realized it was not who he had wished for. Ezra smiled politely and watched as the man and girl exchanged greetings. It was apparent these two knew each other in some manner.
"Hey," the man said, looking at Ezra.
"Good evening," Ezra replied.
"Hes stuck here," the girl behind the counter said, obviously trying to be helpful.
"Really?" Tom said inquisitively. Looking at the manner in which the agent was dressed, he could tell Ezra wasnt some regular joe, much less a threat. "Where you trying to get to?" the man questioned.
Ezra quickly explained the location of the Larabee ranch and watched the obvious recognition appear on both faces. "Youre familiar with the locale of which I am speaking of?" he asked cautiously, not daring to hope he might have found a way of getting home after all.
"Yeah. The turn-off to my parents place is five miles this side of that ranch on the opposite side of the road," Tom said. The smile on his face was burgeoning. He knew what it was like not to be with family for Christmas and was thinking he knew now why the fates had been making him run late. This guy needed him in order too make it home himself.
If you dont mind riding in a truck without any heat Id be glad to offer you a ride," Tom said, pleased he would be doing something good for someone else.
"I wouldnt mind it at all. Thank you for such a generous offer," Ezra said, a smile of his own growing wider.
The man bought the two items he had stopped to purchase before going on home. Ezra followed the man out to the old truck and climbed inside, and knew the kid wasnt joking when he said he had no heat. The inside was colder than a refrigerator. How the young man had been able to endure his trip without heat was beyond him. He looked again at his benefactor, wondering how the driver had made his trip in the flimsy blue-jean jacket he was wearing, and made a quick decision. Taking out the last present for his bag, he took out the bulky package, unwrapped it. Vins coat would finally be the worth the price of dragging it along on this trip.
Tom waved off the offered leather coat with the removable fur lining. He insisted he had made the trip this far just fine and he didnt want to use the jacket meant for someone else. Ezra explained that he had started out with seven such gifts and how he couldnt very well show up with just the one. "Tom, I see it as an equal trade in gifts. I am giving you a warm article of clothing and you are giving me the gift of being with the ones I have spent the last thirty-six hours trying to get to," Ezra said. "Besides it would make me feel better knowing I was able to reward you in some small manner since I no longer have any monetary means by which to compensate your generosity.
The driver hesitated a moment before realizing how much the hitchhiker really wanted this exchange. Reluctantly he took the coat and slipped it on, started the truck and backed out of the parking lot headed for home.
Total darkness immersed them once they left the city and dangerous traveling conditions caused them to creep along the highway. What would normally take forty-five minutes, driving the speed limit, was taking them close to two hours. As they approached Toms cutoff, Ezra noticed the man showed no signs of slowing down. "Pardon me, didnt you say this cutoff was the one needed for you to get home," Ezra asked.
"Yeah, thought I would take you on home first," Tom replied, wiping the foggy window shield with his hand for the umpteenth time.
"Sir, while your intentions are honorable and very much appreciated, I dont believe you will be able to get down Mr. Larabees road. It will be far too muddy and I fear you, yourself, will become stranded," Ezra said, silently fearing he would be the cause of the man not getting home to his family.
"I dont mind, Ezra," Tom replied.
"Yes, well I would prefer it if you pulled over here. Though the driveway is on up there, the house isnt. If I walk right through those trees there I will arrive safely at Mr. Larabees front door in a matter of minutes and you will not have to take any further risks," Ezra said, lying through his teeth. From the spot he pointed to was a good three miles back into the ranch.
"You sure, Ezra? Its really no problem to take you the rest of the way," Tom said. He wanted to be courteous, but his own doubts about getting home safely were beginning to creep in.
"I am perfectly sure, Tom. Now pull over and we will both be home within minutes," Ezra said authoritatively, but softly.
"Okay," Tom said, as he pulled over just slightly. It was too dark to tell where the edge of the highway was and he didnt want to take any chances of going over the shoulder into the ditch.
Not daring to let the truck set idle for too long Ezra clasped the outstretched hand and shook it. The two gloved hands holding for just a second longer than normal. Climbing out of the truck into the wind and snow, he huddled further into his overcoat, gave one last wave and shut the door. Now all he had to do was hike through woods he had only been in a couple times by himself in the daytime, much less in the dark during a storm and find his boss house. Slipping and sliding his way across the slick road he reached the other side still upright, stepping off the snow-covered road, he went down to his knees in the snow bank.
Back at the ranch:
After playing a couple of uninteresting games of poker, the guys had finally called it quits and had started watching the late-night comedians. None of them could explain why they werent calling it a night and going to bed, but each one silently kept hoping their brother would walk through the door any minute. Like a commercial, they would look up and their brother would be standing there; clean-shaven, with a smile on his face asking for a cup of coffee. Intellectually they knew it wasnt possible, but then again this was supposed to be the time when anything was possible, wasnt it?
Tromping through the woods:
Ezra wished he could lie down and go to sleep. He was no longer all that cold. He was already chilled from the unheated ride and five minutes into his walk his fingers and toes had become unbearably tingly. Now, he kept slapping his hands together to make sure he could still feel them. He had lost track of the amount of times he had fallen or the number of tree limbs his coat had snagged on. It didnt matter. He wasnt going to give up now. He had fooled himself into seeing this as just another case. The ending was just around the bend or the next tree. He would make it and he would succeed.
Stopping for breath he looked down at his wrist, fumbling with numb gloved fingers, he finally managed to pull back the sleeves covering his watch to see the time. He had eighteen minutes. Starting off again, he thought he caught sight of something shiny. Looking more closely, he noticed the object remained stationary and glimmering; a light. He was almost there! He kept his eyes fixated on the point where the light should be, the object blinking in and out of sight with the shifting of his course. His heavy-laden feet kept a steady pace with his mantra that he was almost there, just little farther. Soon the light became visible more constantly. Its glimmering becoming brighter. His teeth chattering, his body physically jerking, he kept heading towards the light. Inwardly he had to laugh at thought that the joke would be on him if the shining object he was headed for turned out to be a figment of his imagination and not the ranch house.
He climbed the stairs slowly. It seemed to take every bit of strength he had left to get his legs to lift high enough to clear each step. Struggling, he grasped the doorknob with both hands and with the last of his resolve turned the knob and stepped into the brightly lit foyer. Not bothering to even contemplate what he normally would have seen as rudeness by not removing his muddy shoes, he stumbled into the living room.
At first no one took notice of the shivering man standing in the doorway. Not until a very stuttering southern drawl said, "Hey, yall." His ability and desire to correctly articulate something more meaningful left out in the woods.
Six men jumped at the sound of the new voice and just as quickly hurried over to their freezing friend. A barrage of questions and orders soon livened up the once quiet group. Chris, Nathan and Buck guided Ezra over to the fireplace, while Josiah starting stoking the dying embers into a blazing fire. JD ran to gather extra clothes and blankets, while Vin went to heat some cocoa to a warm temperature and gather a bowl of tepid water.
Meeting back in the living room, they watched as Nathan stripped the soaked shoes and socks from the swollen red feet. Chris and Buck were divesting the undercover agent of the rest of his clothes, then eased the blue feet into the bowl of water. JD handed the dry clothes to Josiah, who placed them in front of the fire to warm, while Buck wrapped a blanket around Ezras trembling body. The agent had taken the ministrations from his friends without comment. He was simply too cold and too tired to stop it.
Finally he looked up into JDs worried face and tried to smile. With a very slight smile and a twinkle in his green eyes he stammered out, "Made it home for Christmas." Looking up at the clock on the mantle he said, "With three minutes to spare."
"Of all the foolhardy, non-sensical, idiotic, jackass stunts to pull, Ez. What were you thinking? Do you know ?" Nathan spewed.
Ezra let Nathan rant on, basking in the glow of good friends. Then he caught a glimpse of the tree and all the presents that were under it and his heart sank. He had none of the presents he had started out with; he had nothing to give his friends. Seeing the sudden dip in his friends appearance, Chris asked worriedly, "Whats wrong?"
Taking a couple of deep breaths to better control his voice, Ezra answered, "I have arrived empty-handed, bereaved of your gifts."
Buck let out a belly laugh, causing Ezra to look at his friend sharply. "I see nothing whimsical about that statement, Buck," Ezra said, his teeth still chattering.
"Pard, your home. Id say that was the best Christmas gift you could have given any of us," Buck said.
Several ayes chorused in agreement, including his boss. Leaning down close to his agents ear, Chris said, "Glad to have you home, Ez. But if you do anything this stupid again Ill strip the hide off ya. Ya got me?"
Ezra leaned back and took note of the half serious face and the cocked eyebrow and nodded. "I got ya, Mr. Larabee," he said, as he warmed up in the glow of the fire and the company of his friends. He knew he would do it all over again, just for this moment of being with friends.
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