I want to thank Kris Mashburn for creating this universe. You might want to read her original story Larabee's Unit as I do make reference to it and it will tell you how the unit was formed.
Webmaster Note: This fic was previously posted on another website and was moved to blackraptor in June of 2004.
Chris Larabee stepped out onto the porch of the rustic two-story inn, which had been converted to house seven members of a very unique and highly successful search and rescue team. S&R Team 7 as they were officially named, unofficially, they were referred to as the Magnificent Seven by media and other rescuers alike.
Chris looked out over the flat Wyoming plains, he had to admit his team was one of the best; seven stalwart men, all with their own talents and idiosyncrasies. Together they proved a formidable force when Mother Nature decided to put people and their abilities to the test.
The tall, blond leader loved the solitude and beauty of the rolling treeless country, with the snow capped mountains as a backdrop. He took a deep cleansing breath, keeping his mind free from any disturbing thoughts. It was the middle of the week and it had remained quiet for the better part of two weeks but that would soon change as autumn marched on into winter.
The days were still mild, lulling hikers into a false sense of comfort and over-confidence. Believing they were prepared for the fickle finger of Wyoming's weather, many annual adventurers would tackle the backcountry with little preparation, unaware of the dangers that lied in the isolated and rugged wilderness. Chris knew his team would soon be rescuing these self same people.
Chris sipped at the coffee he held and winced. How could coffee smell so good and taste so bad? Vin must have made it again, he thought. The first person up in the morning was suppose to make the coffee, unfortunately that person was usually Vin, and he liked it strong enough to peel paint. In fact, Chris thought that JD had actually used it to clean the chrome on Buck's truck. Vin had left early to do some free climbing on a nearby rock face. Chris believed the younger man only felt alive when hanging by his fingertips a hundred feet from the ground.
Chris leaned against the post and wrapped one arm around his stomach as he watched the sun slowly become perfect over the distant horizon. The warmth was no longer intense as it was a month ago but it was still able to take away the early morning chill.
The nicker of his horses, in the stable, drew Chris's attention, knowing they were calling for their breakfast. The youngest member of their team, JD Dunne, had taken a liking to his paint. The whole team soon learned that the Olympic skier was also an accomplished rider. Chris's quarter horse was a magnificent animal that wouldn't tolerate any other rider.
Larabee had put in a request for five more horses. He was fairly confident Governor Travis would grant his request. The esteemed Magistrate had yet to deny him anything, so far. Chris inwardly smiled; he might have to test those limits soon.
The screen door creaked open and banged close behind him. Chris didn't have to turn around to know who belonged to the heavy footsteps that resounded on the wooden planked porch. Chris turned his head and smiled at the huge pilot.
Josiah Sanchez came up alongside Chris, his usual light-hearted smile firmly in place. He stretched huge, muscular arms over his head as he gazed out over the same wild expanse that Chris was admiring. Josiah was the oldest member of the team and the best damn helicopter pilot around.
"Morning brother, Chris," Josiah said, his soft baritone voice fitting right in with the wide open quiet and ruggedness of the Wyoming landscape.
"How's it going?" Chris replied, trying again to take another sip of the noxious drink he still held in his hand.
"Couldn't be better, the others are up, except Ezra of course." Josiah's grin widened under his graying mustache. "I believe it's your turn for the duty," Josiah devilishly reminded, enjoying the grimace that flashed across Chris's chiseled features.
"Yeah, I'll get to it as soon as I finish my coffee," Chris grudgingly replied.
"I'm going to do a check on my helicopter," Josiah said and clapped Chris on the shoulder as he stepped down to the ground and walked toward the airfield. "Good luck," he threw back over his shoulder.
Chris had discovered early on that the benevolent pilot and geologist was a spiritual man, in a sense. Josiah's wife, Ania, had once told him that Josiah walked the line between spiritualism and damnation. Chris believed anyone who flew small planes over the infamous Rockies needed to believe in something.
As the sun continued its ascent into the wide-ranging blue sky Chris's thoughts drifted over the rest of his elite crew.
Nathan Jackson had spent the night in Casper to collect some unofficial medical supplies and was due back later today. He had told Chris that working with these daredevils he needed all the help he could get. Chris didn't want to know the details of Nathan's so called, 'appropriation of much needed medical equipment,' he was just glad the paramedic was on their team. Nathan was a by-the-book sort of man, but he was realistic enough to know that sometimes you had to go outside the lines to get something done, not that he'd ever admit to this.
"God Damnit, JD, where the hell is my razor?" A loud voice bellowed from inside. "You certainly don't need it with that peach fuzz you call a beard," Buck teased.
Chris had heard Buck come in late last night from his latest exploits. Even in a state with less than a million people, Buck Wilmington managed to find accessible women. Only problem, there were probably six men for every woman, so most had boyfriends and or husbands to contend with. Buck told Chris this only aided in keeping things interesting. Chris had warned the Casanova that he would kill him if an irate lover shot him. The two men had been friends for more years than Chris cared to admit.
The team frequently patroned a nearby bar they affectionately dubbed the saloon, at least everyone except Ezra Standish. The enterprising southerner seemed to make a sport out of keeping everyone at a distance. Ezra maintained a facade of indifference, revealing only what he wanted to be seen, and giving very little away. On one of the rare times when Ezra's barriers faltered, Chris caught a flicker of sadness, or regret, on the solitary man's face. Larabee had the feeling that Ezra wanted to be a part of the group but something was stopping him, and Chris had yet to discover what that was.
Standish was someone Chris had yet to totally figure out, and someone who definitely liked going outside the lines and even sometimes erasing them altogether. The man was reckless but only with himself. The southerner seemed to love to gamble with his life. Chris believed Standish would leap from a cliff without hesitation to save one of them, therein lied the problem. Ezra didn't believe his life was worth the same as the others and would willingly forfeit it for someone else.
They all seemed to get along with each other, working together like a well oiled, yet complicated machine. Actually, for being strangers less than four months ago, with the exception of him and Buck, they got along surprisingly well. Ezra and Nathan butted heads on occasion. Both men were proud and stubborn, and many times Nathan wanted to ring the smart-mouthed man's neck. Nathan constantly questioned Ezra's rather dubious ethical standards and risky behavior.
Ezra and Vin seemed the most comfortable with each other, but even Vin had confided to him that Ezra was a hard man to get to know. He was friendly with everyone but not friends. The others were developing almost a family rapport, but Ezra seemed to keep himself just on the outskirts, more comfortable with looking in then being in.
Buck had taken it upon himself to watch over JD. The two men had developed a close relationship, almost like brothers. Except for Ezra's so-called mother, and Josiah's wife, the seven men were pretty much alone in the world.
Chris wondered if the others felt the same inexplicable bond he did; he knew Josiah did. The two men had stayed up late one night drinking, and when the alcohol finally dissolved the emotional barriers Chris confided in Josiah. The geologist at first stared at him strangely, then smiled knowingly. For Chris the bond was something akin to being a big brother, for Josiah it was more like a father figure.
Chris threw what was left of his coffee onto the ground. He knew he was only delaying the inevitable. He headed inside to wake Ezra. The man hated mornings, and unless there was a rescue to rush off to Ezra was quite difficult to raise and sometimes even dangerous as Buck had found out earlier. Ezra had thrown a piton at him, missing his head by mere inches as Buck liked to continually remind everyone. For someone who lived for the adrenaline rush of high mountain rescues; Standish could be one of the laziest persons he'd ever met.
Kenneth Hartman sat quietly, on the edge of the bed, in the dilapidated hotel just outside Yellowstone Park. His hiking boots stuck to the amber shag carpeting. The smell of stale liquor and tobacco permeated every piece of furniture in the small room. A neon sign flickered just outside the window denoting the name of the hostel, at least part of the name, -ast s-op m-tel, were the only letters illuminated, and they were fighting for survival.
Kenneth was a middle-aged man who no longer cared. For him this was the last stop in a horrendous year. His life had spiraled down from successful business man, husband and father, to a man obsessed with an irrational desire for revenge. Hartman lovingly caressed the high-powered rifle, which sat in his lap, thinking over the past year and how much his life had changed. How can life be so wonderful one minute then blown all the hell the next. He looked into the dirty, cracked mirror, which hung over the dresser, and saw a man he no longer recognized.
It had been a year since him, his wife and teenage daughter had decided to take an adventurous vacation, foregoing their usual trip to New York or the Caribbean for the splendor of the great Rocky Mountains.
They had decided on Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado for their wilderness excursion. Like this year, the weather had been mild with little or no snowfall. They were warned of the dangers of sudden snow storms and told it would be wise not to stray from the maintained trailheads.
Hartman's hazel eyes grew misty as he recalled that fateful day. The three of them hiked and rode horses throughout the park, enjoying the fresh air and open spaces. On their second to last day, a small squall dumped substantial snow on the mountains. Kenneth's wife and daughter wanted to go snow shoeing, having purchased snowshoes earlier. He couldn't recall the reason they had for starting out so late in the day. Maybe it was the business videoconference he just had to take, or her desire to go shopping at the quaint stores one more time.
By the time, the three of them got back together he wanted nothing more than to soak in the Jacuzzi with a glass of wine. They of course decided to go without him. It was several hours before Kenneth realized they hadn't returned. He went out and searched the immediate area. As it grew dark, he finally went to the forest service.
The search and rescue teams were hampered by another snowstorm that had quickly moved in, and they had absolutely no idea where to start their search. Kenneth spent the night pacing inside the ranger station demanding that someone do something.
By the time, the rescuers found Hartman's wife and daughter they had died from exposure. The forest service representative explained to the media that the pair was totally unprepared for the weather, if they had just dressed warmer and carried some provisions. If they had told someone where they were going, or if the search could have started sooner they would probably have survived.
Kenneth would hear none of it. He blamed the members of the rescue teams, calling them incompetent cowards, and telling everyone they were to blame for the loss of his wife and child.
People nodded in sympathy as Kenneth Hartman blamed the world. It wasn't long before his friends began to drift away, unable to cope with his irrational accusations. He found solace in a bottle and soon found himself out of a job. He finally had to sell his home and most of his possessions. This didn't bother the ex-executive much; material wealth no longer held the same interest for him. Hate, despair, revenge were what enriched his life now and soon everything would be made right again.
Larabee entered the common area, formally the lobby of the inn, to see JD planted in front of the computer terminal, checking weather reports, and sending out situation reports. Buck lounged in an overstuffed leather chair, absently tying knots in a length of rope. Chris leaned up against the wall and peered over at Vin, who sat in front of the huge fireplace checking out some new equipment. Ezra was stretched out on the sofa leafing through a magazine called, 'High life'.
Chris could hear Josiah puttering in the kitchen. Yes, they felt like a family, dysfunctional and frustrating at times, but a family nonetheless. It brought to the surface the feeling of loss he carried for his own wife and son. He took a deep breath, and then slowly exhaled. He was happier than he'd been in the three years since their death. Maybe these men could help mend his tattered heart and allow him to care again.
Nathan entered through the double doors carrying a large bag. He shook out of his jacket, throwing it over a nearby chair.
"Hey, Nathan, what'cha got in the bag?" JD eagerly questioned, spinning around in his chair.
"Things to keep your sorry butts alive," Nathan good-naturedly replied, setting the bag on the table.
JD smiled then leapt out of his seat to grab a piece of paper that had just spit out of the fax machine. He quickly scanned it. "Chris, you might want a look at this." JD placed the sheet of paper into the blond leader's outreached hand, and then shoved his own hands into his back pants pockets.
Everyone's attention diverted toward their leader.
Chris's brow furrowed, causing Buck to drop the rope he had been manipulating at his feet. He hated when Chris got that look. "What's up, pard?" Buck asked.
"It seems we have a sniper shooting rescue workers," Chris casually replied, even though he found this exceedingly disturbing. He rubbed his chin as he continued to silently read the short paragraph.
"What? you're kidding," Nathan exclaimed. As if they didn't have enough to worry about during a rescue, now someone was taking pot-shots at them. Nathan nodded toward Josiah, who stepped out from the kitchen, wiping his hands on a towel.
"What's this about a sniper," Josiah questioned.
"A rescue team was ambushed down in Rocky Mountain Park in Colorado, one of the members was killed and two others injured," Chris continued after he had finished scanning the article.
Ezra's brow creased, and he pushed himself up off the sofa and headed up to his room without saying a word. He reappeared moments later holding a folded newspaper. "We might have a serial shooter," he exclaimed. "This was in yesterday's paper." Ezra handed the paper to Chris, pointing to the second column on the right.
"Forest Service employees shot in Yellowstone, no injuries. Shooter eludes capture," Chris read.
Everyone was quiet for a moment contemplating the implications. Why would someone want to kill rescue workers? Was the first thought in everyone's mind.
Nathan shook his head and looked down into the bag thinking it was a good thing he got these supplies.
The sound of a truck horn caused everyone to rush toward the door and tumble out onto the porch. They stared at the huge tractor-trailer that pulled up in front of the inn.
"Man, look at those horses. They're beautiful!" JD excitedly shouted as he ran down the length of the trailer.
A stocky man, wearing overalls, exited the cab of the truck, carrying a clipboard. He walked up to Chris.
"Larabee, Chris Larabee?" He called out.
"That be me."
The stocky man handed the clipboard to him. "Here, you need to sign this."
Chris scribbled his name and returned the clipboard. The truck driver tore off a copy and handed it to Chris. "Well, they're all yours," he said. "They'll be a great help on your searches."
Chris nodded and let his eyes drift over the sturdy animals.
"Am I to understand we will be using these equine in the implementation of our jobs?" Ezra quipped, overhearing the truck driver.
"Yep, I talked Travis into them, between my own two mounts we'll each have one," Chris replied.
They all watched as the driver began unloading the horses and hitching them up to the railing. The horses' seemed to have withstood the ride with little trouble, and Chris could tell these were good animals.
Vin latched on to a dirty black mustang, stroking its muzzle and talking softly to it.
When Josiah laid eyes on the red roan, snowflake blanketed appaloosa, he didn't think he'd be lucky to fall in love twice. He hoped his wife would understand.
"Mr. Larabee, I must voice my displease at having to use such outmoded and possibly ill-mannered transportation," Ezra complained.
"You're not afraid of them, are you Ez?" Buck teased. He never could pass up an opportunity to rib the urbane southerner. Their verbal jabs had turned into a sport, with both men trying to best the other with colorful speech or underhanded comments. Buck thought Ezra enjoyed it because it helped to keep him sharp; Buck just enjoyed it because it was fun.
"I will have you know, Mr. Wilmington, I have been riding since I could walk," Ezra threw back, exaggerating the statement by putting his nose up in the air.
"Yeah, probably only those snobby aristocratic thoroughbreds," Buck countered, sweeping his arm to encompass the small herd. "These here are the horses that made the west."
Just as Ezra was about to rebuke Buck's disparagement of his riding preference a dusty buckskin nuzzled his shoulder. "Now, cut that out!" Ezra yelled, turning around to meet two large dark eyes staring directly at him. He turned his back on the mischievous animal only to have his backside nipped. Ezra yelped and spun, the anger on his face quickly disappearing. "Well, aren't you the rascal." He found himself reaching out and stroking the soft velvet nose.
Chris wasn't sure who chose whom, but they all latched onto a horse almost immediately. Buck and Nathan both taking a liking to two mustangs.
"We're going to be cowboys," JD exclaimed, hanging over the fence. Chris smiled and turned to Vin.
"Did he just call us cowboys?"
Everything was ready, Kenneth thought, as he took a swig of water from his canteen and bit off a piece of jerky. He only had to wait for his plan to go into motion. He shoved what was left of the jerky back into his camouflage jacket. He tried to get more comfortable on the small hard platform, which sat nestled among several tall pines. He placed his eye to his riflescope, checking the sights, peering at the flat mesa just across the small valley. This wilderness had taken his wife and daughter, it was only fitting that he took the lives of the people who protected it and the ones responsible for their deaths.
"Okay ladies, we have someone trapped down a hole on Green Mesa Mountain. Let's earn our pay," Chris called out, striding across the room and out the door.
The team scrambled behind him like a frenzy nest of ants, all grabbing their equipment and knowing exactly what part they played. Within minutes, seven men were racing down the road in three sport utility vehicles. All of them psyched, preparing their minds for the unknown. Every rescue was different; taxing both the mind and body of the victim, as well as the rescuer. The seven men worked as one, each knowing what the others were capable of and filling in where needed to make the whole team strong.
JD sat in the back of the first truck with Vin and Chris, who could feel his youthful energy as he attempted to sit still. He was in contact with the forest service, trying to get as much information as possible and passing on directions to Chris, who expertly traversed the rough mountainous terrain. JD flipped shut his cell phone. "They say someone phoned it in, a male, didn't leave a name, just said his buddy had fallen down a hole. He gave them a location then hung up."
The hairs on Chris and Vin's neck prickled. Vin continued looking down at the relief map in his lap, checking out the terrain, something didn't feel right, and he hated when that happened.
The three trucks climbed up the dirt road until they reached the top of the mesa and stopped, waiting until the cloud of dust they kicked up dissipated. Everyone piled out of the trucks, grabbing their equipment. Josiah surveyed the immediate area. He had studied the map of the area earlier, so was familiar with the terrain and what obstacles they could possibly face.
Buck climbed into the back of his truck and pulled up ropes and a pulley, which he handed over the side to Vin. JD juggled seven headsets, trying to keep up with Chris and Nathan's long-legged strides.
Nathan was first at the hole, which lay almost in the middle of the mesa like a gaping mouth. He stretched out on his stomach and inched forward until he could peer down into the dark void.
"I think I see him," Nathan excitedly exclaimed to the others who were busy setting up. "He's about twenty feet down, caught on a ledge or something."
"Can you tell if he's alive?" Chris asked, checking his headset.
"Hello, can you hear me!" Nathan shouted down the hole, hoping to elicit some kind of response. The tall paramedic wrinkled his brow. No movement or sound rose up from the depths of the hole.
Vin flopped down on his stomach next to Nathan and stared down into the dark abyss.
"The hole is narrow, but seems to open up a bit right where he is," Nathan explained to the Texan, who nervously chewed at his bottom lip.
Chris peered over the two men at the hole. "Okay, Vin, you'll have to go down and see what's what?"
Vin laid his forehead on the ground for a moment then slowly raised it and brought himself to his feet. He had to swallow the sudden lump in his throat.
"Right," he quietly replied, his gaze still locked on the hole.
The nightmare that occasionally invaded his dreams now flashed before his eyes, the sight of his last foster father, looming over him with a belt. He had not cleared the table fast enough--It was never fast enough--any excuse to beat him but this time little Vin Tanner fought back.
He did pretty well for a scrawny twelve year old but not good enough. His foster father grabbed him and threw him into an old abandoned well behind the house. The well was small and narrow, he could barely sit down and his foster father had thrown several boards across the top, allowing very little light to filter through. For three days Vin wallowed in shallow water, with no food, by the time social services came for him he was hypothermic and catatonic.
Vin's hand shook as he took the harness that Buck handed him, barely acknowledging the man. A cold fear caused a shiver to course through his body. He kept trying to convince himself that this was a silly childhood fear; he'd been trying to convince himself of that for years.
Standish stood apart from the others, leaning against Buck's truck and eyeing the tall Texan. He could tell Vin was wrestling with some inner demon. Ezra's brow furrowed as he watched the younger man's tongue dart nervously along his lower lip, all the while, staring down at the hole like a man staring at his death. He could tell that Vin's breathing had quickened and beads of sweat had broken out on his upper lip.
Maude Standish had taught her son how to read people's emotions, saying that few people could hide their true feelings. Something always gave them away--a look, a twitch. She had taught him these insightful tricks, which is all he thought they were, in the hope he'd use them to take advantage of people and further his own agenda. Becoming involved in Search and Rescue, greatly disappointed his mother but then what else was new. He did find her teachings useful when playing poker.
Ezra straightened and strode over to Chris. "Mr. Larabee, I wish the opportunity to extricate our hapless victim." Ezra said, a tight smile forming on his clean-shaven face. He reached into his pants pocket and pulled out a large silver coin. "I'd like to flip Mr. Tanner for the privilege."
Chris stared at the southerner a moment, not sure what the man was up to. Usually he wouldn't allow someone to countermand his orders, but something in Vin's posture told him he needed to let this slide.
"I don't care what you do. I just want someone down that hole now!" Chris demanded, turning his attention to Buck and the others.
Ezra nodded and looked to Vin, who still seemed lost in his own thoughts. "Mr. Tanner, heads I go down the hole."
Vin slowly nodded, only partially aware of what was going on. He couldn't seem to calm his racing heart. Ezra flipped the coin into the air and smoothly caught it, slapping it on the back of his hand. He raised his hand to reveal the president's head. Ezra quickly slipped the coin back into his pocket and put out his hand, allowing Vin to hand him the harness. He smiled at the relief in Vin's face and something else that he was not familiar with, gratitude.
"You're not turning into a Glory Hound now, are you, Ezra?" Buck good-naturedly chided, watching as the smooth-talking southerner slipped on the figure 8 descending harness.
"Mr. Wilmington, going down a dark, unknown hole relying on your rigging is not my idea of glory, more like a death wish," Ezra sarcastically replied with just the hint of a smile
Buck sneered at the slight as JD and Vin broke into laughter, which was promptly cut off by an icy glare from Chris.
"Let's go!" Chris yelled out, "I don't think that guy down there wants to listen to your smart-ass remarks."
Ezra smiled and stepped up to the edge of the hole, checking his equipment as Buck double-checked the ropes. A pulley had been anchored to the only nearby tree with Josiah on belay.
"See what the situation is. If he's dead we'll just send another line down and pull him up," Chris instructed. He placed a hand on Ezra's shoulder, causing the younger man to stiffen. "Be careful."
Standish inclined his head slightly, and nodded, surprised by the concern he saw in the older man's eyes. Ezra touched his two fingers to his brow in salute to signal he was ready. He was then slowly lowered down into the hole. It was very close, the dark walls squeezing around him. His back and arms brushed against the unseen rocks. Ezra didn't think any one could survive a free fall down this narrow of a hole.
Ezra kept his eye on the injured figure below him. He hadn't detected any movement. He adjusted his head set, the light on his helmet playing over the dark rock that surrounded him. "Almost there, still no sign of life," Ezra spoke into the small mike. Being suspended over what appeared to be a bottomless pit was extremely unnerving, and Ezra found himself having to shake off the tinge of fear that tickled his gut. Fear was good, it's when it turned to panic that a person could find himself in trouble.
A dark cloud fell over the six men above, realizing they would probably only be bringing up a body. They all hated when they lost someone.
The shaft opened up slightly, and Ezra adjusted his light again as he grew closer to his objective.
Kenneth brought the scope up to his eye and nestled the rifle into his shoulder. He smiled as he drew a bead on each of the six men standing on the mesa across the valley. He waited, he wanted to see the look on their faces.
"Hold," Ezra spoke into his mike. He played the light over the figure then reached out and took hold of the shoulder. A faint smile came to his face; it was a mannequin. His first thought was that this was just some prank. His light then caught the piece of paper attached to the blue jacket of the dummy. Ezra ripped the paper off the jacket.
'You're Dead!' it read in large black letters. Ezra's grin fell from his face, and his eyes shot upward.
"Shit, it's a trap!" He yelled into his head set. "Pull me up!"
Chris placed his hand over his ear mike then looked back at the others. "Pull him up. It's a trap!"
Josiah, Vin, and Buck started to furiously pull Ezra back up when gunfire erupted all around them; bullets ricocheted off the rock surface. Josiah winced and fell to the ground as a bullet tore through his arm.
Chris dropped to the ground and raised his head. "Everyone take cover," he yelled out. "Ezra, stay down we're being shot at," he said into his mike.
Vin and Nathan quickly got under Josiah and hoisted the larger man up to his feet and then they raced over to the safety of the trucks.
Buck crouched down and made sure the rope that was Ezra's life line, was locked in place before he scurried over to the trucks, trailed by a line of bullets.
When Chris saw that all his men were safe, he made a dash to the trucks. Throwing himself between them, he came up gasping and leaned his back against one of the wheels. He looked left then right, quickly accounting for all his men. He peered around the back of the truck to look at the hole that still held one of his men.
Ezra heard the gunfire above and felt himself drop a foot then stop. He wiped the sweat from hands down his pants leg and took a deep calming breath.
"Mr. Larabee, Chris," Ezra called. "Is everyone all right?" He didn't hide the worry that filled his voice.
It was one of the longest and most agonizing moments Ezra could ever remember before Chris's voice came over the mike, bringing him instant relief.
"Yeah, Josiah took a bullet in the arm is all. Are you okay?"
Ezra looked around a moment, smiling at the plastic face dummy staring at him. "Yes, I have someone down here who is better company than Mr. Wilmington."
Chris chuckled and looked over to Buck who scrunched up his face in mock reprisal to the insult.
"Hey now, that's twice you've slammed me," Buck retorted back into his mike, the humor evident in his voice.
"Only twice, I must be slipping," Ezra drawled, cringing at the sound of bullets that started once again to fly over the hole.
Ezra had come to realize what these six men meant to him. He had been a loner most of his life, never allowing anyone to get past his aloof exterior, or allow himself to develop any camaraderie with the people he worked with. Whenever he found himself starting to care, he would just move on. It gave him a reputation as a quitter, and maybe he was, just not in the sense that everyone assumed. His mother had taught him to hide his feelings. 'Never let them know what you're thinking,' she'd always say; she had taught him well.
When he first joined Larabee's specialized team, he didn't think it would be any different from all the other organizations he had been a part. He soon found out how wrong he was. These six men were exceptional, yet they all shared a common thread. He did care about them but what was different was that they cared about him too.
"Shit, is this guy nuts?" Buck uttered, ducking down behind the truck. "What we ever do to him?"
"That my friend is the million dollar question," Josiah replied, hissing as Nathan tied a bandanna around his bleeding wound.
JD swore as he watched bullets tear into the tree they were using to anchor the pulley. Chris followed JD's wide-eyed stare and his heart started to race.
"Ezra, grab onto something..." Chris yelled into his mike just as a bullet struck the pulley, shattering the locking mechanism.
Ezra couldn't stand listening to the gunshots, he needed to do something. He thought of just free-climbing up but then figured as soon as he stuck his head out it would be shot off.
Chris's frantic voice suddenly came over his mike, but before he could comprehend what he was being told he found himself in an unexpected free fall.
They all heard Ezra holler but could only watch in horror as the rope started filling the hole like a disappearing viper. Vin lunged out at the quickly disappearing rope but was stopped by Chris's weight on top of him.
"That's what he wants someone to do, so he can get a clean shot," Chris yelled at his friend. Vin looked at the hole, anguish clearing written on his face.
Ezra's arm was the first part of his anatomy to strike a rock, sending up a searing streak of pain. This didn't last long as a star-studded pain radiated from his head as it made contact with a protruding rock, plummeting his mind into the same dark abyss his body now fell.
The rope roughly and abruptly jerked to a stop.
Ezra didn't feel the sudden jerk as the rope snagged, causing his body to slam into the side, snapping two of his ribs. He was oblivious to all this and swung lifeless within the dark hole, the opening above, barely visible.
"Did he hit bottom?" JD breathed, staring out at the hole only a few feet away. His mouth had gone dry and no matter what he did, he couldn't force moisture back into it.
"I don't know, maybe it snagged on something," Nathan quietly replied.
"Ezra, can you hear me," Chris spoke into his mike, trying to keep his voice from cracking.
Everyone was quiet for a moment, hoping to hear something, anything that would tell them their friend was still alive. Nothing, it was as if the mountain had swallowed him whole.
"Buck, how much rope is left?" Chris asked.
Buck eyed the tangle of rope that was left on top. "About thirty feet."
"So, he's what? seventy feet down," Chris estimated, running his fingers through his dirty blond hair.
"Yeah, unless..." Buck let the words hang, not wanting to speak them, afraid if he did it would make it true. However, the thought had already gone through everyone's mind, 'unless the rope broke or he hit bottom.'
Vin lay out on his stomach alongside one of the trucks, a pair of binoculars in his hands, scanning the adjacent mountainside.
"Do you see him?" Chris asked.
"Yeah, he's halfway up Fisher's Mountain, up in the trees. He's pretty well covered in there," Vin replied in disgust.
Chris stared at the nearby mountainside and suddenly a wicked glint lit up his blue eyes.
Josiah caught the look from his spot on the running board of one of the trucks and smiled. Chris had an idea.
"Buck, get me the Fire division at the Forest Service then call the police and tell them they'll find their shooter at the bottom of Fisher Mountain," Chris explained. Buck threw his friend a quizzical look, but immediately went to dialing on his cell phone.
Moments later Buck handed Chris the phone. "I got a Fire Marshall Gephart," he explained.
Chris took the phone, not waiting for introductions. "I need a water drop on the west side of Fisher Mountain." Chris paused a moment. "Yeah I got a fire out here...gun fire!" His hand tightened around the cell phone as he listened to the Fire Marshall rattled off a list of regulations. "Listen, if I don't hear a helicopter in fifteen minutes, Governor Travis will be in your face in sixteen."
Vin and Buck regarded each other with wide grins. Chris always knew whose weight to throw to get something done.
A quarter hour past since Chris had ordered the helicopter and water drop. It felt like forever for the six men who couldn't take their eyes off the opening. Buck absently twisted at a short length of rope as JD chewed mercilessly at his thumb nail.
"Is he still there?" Chris asked, squatting down next to Vin who hadn't moved from his position on the ground, keeping an eye on the sniper.
"Yep, I catch movement every now and then in the trees," Vin answered.
Chris knew the younger man was suffering from guilt, thinking he should be the one in the hole right now. "You know it was Ezra's decision," he casually remarked.
Vin bowed his head. "I know, but it doesn't stop me from being scared to death for him."
Chris clapped Vin on the shoulder and made his way over to the last truck where Nathan was still tending to Josiah. "How is he?"
Nathan fiddled with the makeshift sling. "The bullet went straight through, but he won't have use of the arm for awhile," Nathan explained.
"Any sound from Ezra?" Josiah asked, ignoring the pain in his arm.
Chris bowed his head and folded his arms across his chest. "No." There was nothing else to say.
JD continued to try and raise the southerner, but all he got was static over his headset. The youngest member of the team suddenly tore the headset off and threw it to the ground in frustration. "Why isn't he answering?" he angrily shouted.
"Easy, JD, we don't know what's wrong, maybe it's just his head set," Buck tried to assure.
"That fall," Vin haltingly said. "If he hit bottom he's dead."
"We don't know if he did, he's probably just hung up," Buck angrily attacked. He didn't even want to think that Ezra was dead.
"Enough!" Chris broke in, as him, Josiah and Nathan approached. He turned to the geologist. "Josiah, I want your best guess."
Josiah studied the hole and surrounding area. "This mesa is 500 feet and there are mines all over this area."
"Is there a chance he's alive?" Chris anxiously broke in.
"Yes, if it's an airshaft and as long as the rope didn't break he didn't hit bottom."
"We have to get him out!" Vin said. Chris turned to the sound of frustration coming from his best friend.
Consciousness was slow to return. Ezra opened his eyes, and his vision slowly cleared, but what he saw made little sense until he remembered where he was. He had lost his helmet and with it his only source of light. His head throbbed and he raised his left hand up to his face feeling the blood covering his right cheek. He reached out to touch the rough rock just inches from his face.
Ezra tried to raise his right arm, but hissed and gulped back the pain that exploded throughout his body. Using his left arm, he grabbed the rope above his head and tried to pull himself up and find some sort of foothold. He didn't think anyone was holding the rope, which meant it was snagged on something. He had to get his weight off of it in case it let loose. He slipped back down holding his breath against the pain. He was to weak and in too much pain.
He couldn't hear the gun shots anymore and brought a hand up to his head set and tapped it.
"Is anyone there? Chris, Vin?" His voice was barely above a whisper. He listened for a moment, nothing.
He slowly turned on the end of the rope, the darkness hiding the glistening of tears in his eyes. He hoped the others were all right. He could already hear his mother's condescending voice, 'See what happens when you help people.' Lord, his head hurt.
"Where the hell is that helicopter?" Buck yelled out, expelling his own fear and frustration.
The thud, thud, of rotors finally reached all their ears, bringing smiles of relief. Chris ran to his truck and grabbed his radio. "This is Chris Larabee, come in, over." He looked up and waved his arm at the hovering aircraft.
"We have you in sight, where do you want this," the pilot answered.
"On the east side of Fisher's mountain about halfway up is your target," Chris instructed.
"Okay, understand, one wash out coming up, over."
Chris grinned at the pilot's obvious amusement at actually dumping water on someone.
The large helicopter continued on toward the mountain.
Kenneth Hartman squinted into the blue sky at the sound of a helicopter. He positioned his body behind the body of the tree to protect himself from the sniper he believed was going to try and dislodge him from his perch.
His brow furrowed as he studied the low flying helicopter that followed the rugged terrain, and then hovered directly over him. He barely had time to raise his hands as a wall of water erupted from the underbelly of the helicopter washing him out of the tree.
Chris and the others watched and whooped as the wall of water crashed down upon the mountain side, tearing at the trees and undermining the soil underneath. They all rushed out from cover, no one waiting to see if it was clear. Vin was the first to reach the hole with the others close behind. He slid down on his stomach almost sliding into the hole.
"Ezra, can you hear me?!" He yelled.
Buck and Nathan grabbed what was left of the rope and pulled.
"Damn, it must be hung up on something," Buck exclaimed. Nathan joined Vin at the hole trying to pierce the darkness.
"Anything?" Nathan asked.
Vin shook his head sadly, resting his forehead on his arm in resignation. It should have been him down there. He raised his head, his blue eyes revealing a determination that could overcome any fear.
"I'm going down there," Vin emphatically replied.
"Are you sure?" Chris looked at Vin, knowing something had transpired earlier between him and Ezra. Ezra did his job, but he rarely volunteered to take on any additional duties. Chris had been surprised when Ezra wanted to flip for this rescue and thought the sly southerner was up to something.
"Yeah, hell, Ezra drove through flames and overcame his fear to save us, the least I can do is repay the favor," Vin answered, reminding Chris about their first rescue together.
Chris nodded his understanding. "We'll use the winch on Buck's truck so we can pull you both up."
Buck got the extra ropes and harness and quickly hooked Vin up. He thought that he heard the younger man mumbling some kind of prayer. Vin's eyes were closed and he refused to look at the hole.
"Ay, pard, you okay?" Buck quietly asked, laying a hand on Vin's shoulder.
Vin's eyes slowly opened. "Yeah, Bucklin, I'm fine." He turned and looked down at the hole. His hands shook slightly as he tightened the harness down. Vin took a couple steps toward the hole and had to swallow the bile that rose up in his throat, a cold sweat broke out down his back. His fear threatened to take hold of him again.
Chris saw the turmoil in Vin's face and grasped him by the arm.
"You don't have to do this, I'll go," Chris expressed.
Vin gave his leader a faint grin and took a deep breath. "Nah, this is something I have to do, for me as well as Ezra. You guys just be ready to pull us both out," Vin replied more confidently then he felt at the moment.
"No problem," Chris assured, bringing two fingers to his forehead in salute.
Vin sat on the edge of the hole and took a deep breath then gave the others a thumbs up and was slowly lowered into the hole.
After a few feet, Chris's voice came over the headset. "How you doing, cowboy?"
Vin had closed his eyes and only now regained the courage to open them. He started panting as the walls were way too close. He could hear his foster-father laughing as he sealed him up in the well. Nathan's voice suddenly broke through the voices of his past.
"Vin, listen to me. Wipe your mind free of any thoughts and take a deep breath and hold it," Nathan instructed.
Nathan had heard Vin's rapid breathing over the mike and had a feeling that the Texan was suffering from claustrophobia.
Vin did as he was instructed, not thinking just obeying the words that came over his headset.
"Now release it slowly and think about being atop a mountain, nothing but you and the open sky and the mountain," Nathan calmly said, trying to paint a picture of wide-open spaces.
Again, Vin did as he was instructed.
"Now, you are not alone we're all here. You have to keep repeating that to yourself. The walls are not closing in on you," Nathan said, hoping he was getting through.
Chris and the others stared dumbfounded at Nathan. None of them had realized that Vin was claustrophobic. Chris shook his head-damn male pride, they all had way too much of it.
"Cowboy, you all right?" Chris asked again.
"Yeah, but it might help if you all sort of kept talking for awhile," Vin said.
With that, Buck's voice immediately came over the head set and began relating one of his many lascivious encounters, leaving nothing to the imagination.
Vin made his way slowly down the shaft, relying on a small flashlight that hung from his belt to light the black depth beneath him.
"Do you see him yet?" Chris broke in.
"No, but my light's only cutting through a few feet."
Vin heard a groan and froze. "I think I heard something."
His descent stopped and Vin thought he could feel the anxiousness of his friends above.
"Ezra?" He called, biting his lower lip.
"Vin?" A soft mumbled southern drawl weakly rasped up from the darkness.
"I hear him, keep lowering me," Vin anxiously called into his mike.
As he came alongside the southerner, he reached out and grabbed hold of his arm. "Whoa!"
Chris and the others stopped feeding the rope, holding it until Nathan and Buck hooked it up to the winch on one of the trucks.
"Whatever...brings you...down here?" Ezra's voice was weak, but Vin had to smile at the familiar wit.
"Just returning the favor," he replied, trying to see what injuries his friend had sustained in the fall. He grabbed his flashlight with one hand and played it over Ezra's face, seeing the blood covering the right side. He looked into his green eyes noticing the abnormal pupils. Vin ran his hand down Ezra's arms, the right one bringing forth a cry of pain.
"I'm sorry, Ez," Vin said.
Ezra only nodded his head, his eyes shut tight and his breath coming out in short pants.
Vin brought his hand up to his ear and readjusted his headset.
"Yeah, Vin I'm here."
"I think Ezra has a concussion and probably a broken right arm. I can't tell if there are any other injuries."
Nathan looked over his shoulder at Chris. "I think we just need to get him up here as soon as possible." Chris nodded and Buck headed for the truck to wait for the signal.
"Okay Vin, we're ready, hook Ezra up to you and we'll pull you both up," Chris explained.
"C'mon let's get you out of here," Vin said to the semi-conscious man hanging in front of him.
"That would be most welcomed," Ezra breathed out. His head fell to his chest as he was unable to fight the beckoning darkness any longer.
Vin hooked a line to Ezra. He wished he could just hold onto the man all the way up but the narrow passage wouldn't allow it. "Okay, pull us up," Vin called into his mike.
Vin started to rise, when he saw that Ezra was coming up he reached out and cut the old line. Vin kept his eye on Ezra as they were slowly raised to the surface.
Vin's hands groped at the edge of the hole and then he felt hands grab his wrists and pull him up and out. Chris and Nathan then grabbed Ezra and gently pulled him out, the bright sunlight revealing the extent of his injuries.
Vin hurriedly worked his way out of his harness as Ezra was carried over to a blanket that had been laid out on a grassy patch. Nathan was immediately at his side, pulling out a knife, he ripped what remained of Ezra's blood soaked shirt his experienced eyes quickly taking in the extent of his injuries.
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"Definite concussion and broken arm," Nathan answered, not stopping from his examination. He rolled Ezra over to reveal scrapes and scratches all down his back. "He might have a couple cracked ribs too."
A coin fell out of Ezra's pant's pocket and JD picked it up. He looked at the silver dollar, turning it over in his fingers. "Hey, Vin, isn't this the coin that Ezra used?" He handed the coin to Vin.
Vin looked down at the silver coin, noticing the president's head imprinted on one side; he then turned it over to see a matching impression on the other side. Vin stared down at Ezra. He knew, somehow Ezra knew of his fear of tight places, and in his own eloquent way managed to remove him from that prospect without embarrassment.
Buck looked over Vin's shoulder seeing the two-headed coin. "Looks like Ezra cheated himself into trouble this time," Buck said.
"He didn't cheat," Vin said, squeezing the coin in his fist. "He was just being a friend."
"All right, no one move!"
Chris turned around to come face to face with Kenneth Hartman, who stood before them, soaking wet and pointing a rifle.
"Shit," Buck coldly voiced, glaring at the fanatical shooter.
Nathan remained on his knees, his back to Hartman, and the knife still in his hand. Ezra stirred and Nathan placed a stopping hand on his chest.
"What do you want?" Chris hissed out sharply. Here stood the man who had probably killed one rescuer and tried to kill seven more. Chris wanted nothing more than to get his hands around the man's neck.
"You all are responsible for my family's death," Hartman supplied.
Five confused expressions came to five faces at the same time.
"What the hell are you talking about?" Vin growled.
Hartman ignored Vin's question. "Hey, you on the ground get up!"
Nathan turned his head slightly. "This man is seriously injured," he explained.
"I don't care, get up!" Hartman yelled, raising his rifle.
Nathan came up smoothly, pivoting on his right foot. His hand swung around, and in one fluid motion released the knife he had been holding. The knife buried itself in Kenneth's shoulder, and he yelped in surprise as much as in pain. Vin and Chris lunged out and tackled the stunned gunman.
"Hey, what are you doing?" Kenneth yelled out as he was taken to the ground.
Vin and Chris roughly pulled the now indignant man up as Buck picked the rifle up off the ground.
"He threw a knife at me," Hartman exclaimed unbelieving, his hand trying to stop the blood that was pouring past the knife hilt.
"Yeah, imagine that," Buck grinned.
Nathan kneeled back down next to Ezra when an afterthought turned his head over his shoulder. "Vin, I want my knife back."
"Lord, Nathan, where did you learn to throw a knife like that?" JD asked incredulous.
Nathan smiled. "My grandfather, he had a dart board, but never any darts. We always ended up using kitchen knives. I discovered early on I had sort of a knack for them."
"That's an understatement," Buck added with a grin.
"Okay, let's get off this mountain and get Ezra to a hospital. JD, Buck take our shooter to the authorities," Chris said.
"My pleasure," Buck growled.
"What about my arm?" Hartman complained.
"Oh yeah," Vin said as he moved up and snatched the knife out of Hartman's shoulder, causing the man to fall to his knees.
Buck shook his head and pulled the man back up to his feet. He looked at the slow bleeding wound. "You'll live," he observed, shoving Hartman toward his truck.
Chris knelt down beside Nathan seeing the worry on his face. Ezra hadn't regained consciousness and Nathan was growing concerned especially with the head wound.
"How's he doing?" Chris asked looking down at his motionless friend.
"Not good," Nathan replied.
Everyone looked up when they heard the sound of a helicopter directly overhead. Chris strode over to his truck and grabbed his radio. "What's up?"
"Thought I'd stick around in case you needed anymore help," the pilot answered over his mike to Chris.
"Yeah, we have a seriously injured man," Chris said.
"I'll be down in a sec," the pilot replied. Chris and the others watched as the skilled pilot slowly descended and landed lightly down upon the mesa.
Larabee watched as Vin and Nathan carefully lifted the injured southerner and carried him to the helicopter. Chris glared at Josiah who smiled and then followed Vin and Nathan into the helicopter. Chris watched as the helicopter slowly rose up and then disappeared over the ridge.
Buck had tied Hartman up in the front seat of his truck and was waiting at the driver side door when Chris walked over.
"He'll be alright," Buck said.
"He better," Chris said glaring at Hartman who tried to sink down into the seat. Chris, Buck and JD each got in a truck and headed down the mountain.
Vin entered the sunlit stable and heard the person he was searching for talking quietly at the end of the aisle. He walked down the hay-strewn path until he came upon Ezra, grooming his horse with one arm, the other still in a sling.
"Mr. Tanner," Ezra greeted.
Vin settled his lithe form against the stall door, staring at the man, who still held the remnants of his fall in the yellowish bruises that dotted his face and arms. Ezra had spent two days in the hospital with one or more of them always at his side. They had discovered what Hartman was talking about when he blamed them for the death of his family. They all hoped he was now getting the help he needed.
"I think you lost something."
Vin flipped a coin into the air. Ezra grabbed it and turned it in his fingers. He stood unsure for a moment, then slowly raised green eyes to meet smiling blue ones.
"I just want to thank you, for what you did," Vin expressed.
Ezra looked at the young man strangely. "But you still had to come down the hole."
"Yeah, and thanks, sometimes it takes helping a friend to overcome one's fears."
"So true Mr. Tanner, so true."