Note: The long-awaited (har!) sequel to What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas, in which Ezra, Chris, Buck and Nathan were attacked by Elvis impersonators; Vin suffered a personal setback at Eli Joe's House of Chicken Fried Steak; and the fictional U.S. Secretary of the Interior behaved badly.
Everything in this story is fiction. Except, of course, the part about the gold, the ghosts and the endangered snails.
A hot Texas breeze ruffled Vin Tanner's hair as he leaned out the window of the Ford Suburban, squinting at the buckshot-pocked road sign that marked the miles to the Tascosa city limits.
With a sigh, he leaned back in his seat, trying to ignore the uneasy rumbling in his belly -- and the infinitely more disturbing noises coming from the back seats.
"Get sixteen cowboys to carry my coffin...get sixteen gamblers to bear up my pall! Throw bunches of roses all over my coffin...roses to deaden the clods as they fall!"
"Shut up, Buck!"
"Then beat the drum slowly, play the fife lowly...play the dead march as they carry me along! Take me to the green valley, lay the sod o'er me...for I'm a young cowboy and I know I done wrooooong!"
"Shut up, Buck!" A chorus of complaint this time, accompanied by the sound of fast food wrappers bouncing off somebody's thick skull. Vin slouched lower in his seat, rubbing his stomach miserably. McDonald's...
It was like trying to beat back the tide. Buck warbled on, oblivious to the critics who hemmed him in on all sides.
Fifty-sixth verse, same as the first.
"As I walked out in the streets of Laredo, as I walked out in Laredo one-- mmpf!"
There was a clatter of seatbelts unfastening, followed by the sounds of a vicious struggle.
"Knock it off!" Chris Larabee snapped as two bodies thumped against the seatback he'd been using as a footrest.
Vin glanced at the rearview mirror in time to catch JD Dunne trying to plug Wilmington's mouth with the team's last Egg McMuffin.
Vin whimpered softly. McMuffin... Whose idiot idea had it been for him to fast for 24 hours before he took another crack at the 120-ounce widowmaker special at Eli Joe's House of Chicken Fried Steak? Oh yeah -- Buck's. The same idiot who'd insisted they stop at every drive-thru between Denver and the Texas state line.
The battle raged on, mid-van. Larabee appealed to a higher power. "Josiah? Are we there yet?" He shifted away from the flying fast food, quickly polishing off the last of the cooling hash browns as JD and Buck wrestled for McMuffin supremacy. Vin nodded in approval. Hash browns should be used for good, not evil.
"Josiah?" Chris's plaintive call came again.
The driver ignored them all, staring dreamily out over the miles of empty asphalt that stretched toward the sunrise.
Larabee drew a deep breath. "JOSIAH!"
"Eh?" Sanchez removed the foam earplugs he'd purchased at their first pit stop, 300 miles back. "Sorry, brother. We're almost -- whoa!"
He slammed on the brakes as the road ahead vanished in a cloud of whirling dust. The windshield rattled as a distinctive, thrumming vibration filled the air. Josiah's eyes widened in recognition and he threw the old vehicle into reverse, barely avoiding the unmarked helicopter that was making its landing in the middle of the two-lane highway.
The Suburban fishtailed off the road, kicking up a cloud of dust as it came to a shuddering halt in a ditch.
+ + + + + + +
The helicopter blades slowed to a stop. Silence fell, unbroken by anything but the ticking of the truck's cooling engine.
Finally, the aircraft hatch popped open and a man in a nondescript black suit and mirrored sunglasses climbed out and approached the Suburban. The intruder produced an official-looking badge and tapped it against the driver's side window.
"Federal--" The man's voice trailed off as the window rolled down to reveal the barrel of a very large gun, pointed straight at his forehead. He cleared his throat and tried again, peering past the gun into the truck's interior. "Federal agent."
The gun barrel made a little beckoning motion. He handed his identification, then jumped back as the truck's doors flew open and five angry men spilled out.
"What the hell--" Larabee stormed toward the man with the badge. The stranger met him with an envelope on Secret Service letterhead. Larabee's scanned the letter, his expression souring with each line. Crumpling the paper, he rounded on the messenger.
"Missing? How could they go missing?" He advanced on the Secret Service agent until his angry reflection completely filled the man's mirrored sunglasses. "What did you people do with my men?"
The man tucked the badge away, his jaw set an a belligerent tilt.
"The question should be," he said. "What did your men do with the Secretary of the Interior?"
+ + + + + + +
Five hundred miles away, Nathan Jackson unfolded himself from a battered park service jeep; ready to put some distance between himself and the overfed bureaucrat he was supposed to be safeguarding.
Southern Utah stretched before him in a spectacular vista of red cliffs and sandstone spires. It looked like every Western movie ever made and for a brief, happy moment, Nathan toyed with the idea of making a break for it -- hiding out in a box canyon like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid until the fools behind him gave up and went home.
He was still plotting his escape when a worn pair of boots came pattering over to join him.
"Forty-five thousand pounds of gold!" a creaky old voice sounded from somewhere in the vicinity of his elbow. Nathan scowled down at the gnarled little gnome who'd led them on this wild goose chase.
"Ain't no gold, old man," he repeated his mantra. "Man your age ought to know better than to fill folks' heads with tales and nonsense."
"Call me Gabby," the old man said, his beady blue eyes and toothless pink gums twinkling as he picked up the tale again. "Forty-five thousand pounds of gold, hidden and forgotten these 400 years. Carried to this very territory by eight thousand Aztec warriors in the service of the great Montezuma himself!"
Nathan looked to Ezra for some backup, but found him huddled over the road map, cheek by jowl with the sorriest excuse for a bureaucrat this side of the Washington Beltway.
"We really ought to be heading back now, sir," Nathan raised his voice to address the Interior Secretary's ample backside. The bureaucrat held his position, busy plotting possible routes for this utterly unsanctioned road trip.
"Uh, sir?" Nathan tried again. "You know you're due in Vegas tonight. You've got that big speech to deliver."
The secretary flapped a hand at him, as if swatting an annoying fly. Ezra abandoned the map and joined Nathan on the canyon rim.
"We've got to get him back on schedule," Nathan hissed.
"Our orders are, and I quote--"
Nathan cut him off. "Yeah, yeah. Whatever the big man from Washington says, goes."
Ezra put on his best Just-Following-Orders face. It was not the expression he'd been wearing when Judge Travis assigned them this babysitting job.
With a tip of his imaginary hat, Ezra turned and began herding the secretary and the gnarly little mountain man back toward the jeep.
"We're not going treasure hunting in Lake Kanab!" Nathan yelled after them.
He was ignored.
+ + + + + + +
"Subjects were last observed making their way down the Las Vegas Strip at approximately 2:17 a.m. The secretary was, er, unwinding after a public hearing about mining rights on federal land..." The Secret Service agent had to shout as the helicopter rode noisily aloft with its new passengers. "They resurfaced four hours later in Utah, where they commandeered an all-terrain vehicle from a ranger station in Bryce Canyon."
The helicopter banked north and west, jostling the passengers and sending Vin -- who'd shimmied out of his seatbelt to root through the overhead storage bins -- flying. He scraped himself up off the floor and resumed his search for something, anything to eat. Cookies...candy bars...pancakes, dripping butter and oozing maple syrup... Aha! His fingers closed on something. Emergency flare. Dang.
Ignoring the overhead foraging, Larabee rested his elbows on his knees and pinned the Secret Service suit with a medium-caliber glare.
This was the last time, the absolute last time, he indulged in what the Judge liked to call "interagency cooperation." How could the Secret Service lose a cabinet secretary? How could they lose this cabinet secretary, who was not only loud and obnoxious, but slow moving? And how could they lose Nathan and Ezra -- who were faster on their feet, but just as hard to miss?
The Secret Service man pressed on with his account. "Ahem. Earlier that evening, the secretary's staff observed him in conversation with an older gentleman who`d been at the hearing. Billed himself as a prospector from Utah. When his assistant went to collect the secretary for the night, he, the old prospector and your agents were gone."
The ATF agents absorbed the tale in skeptical silence.
Finally, Josiah stirred. "Why do I get the feeling you're leaving something out, brother?" He dropped a heavy hand on the agent's shoulder, baring his teeth in an unfriendly smile. "Lord knows, Nathan Jackson and Ezra Standish have their quirks, but they take their jobs seriously. They wouldn't allow a high-ranking government official to just wander off. Particularly not this one. They've dealt with him before."
"So." Josiah tightened his grip. The agent yipped. "Was there something else you wanted to tell us?"
The Secret Service man tried to scoot away from Josiah and bumped into a glaring Buck.
"They were making a nuisance of themselves," he said, pressing himself deeper into the seat cushions. "All day long, one complaint after another: the venue was too open...the casinos weren't secure...too many people had access to the secretary...the secretary was hitting the margaritas too hard. So we told them--"
His eyes darted around the cabin, knowing his escape options in mid-air were limited. "We told them to shut up and smile. That we were in charge of security. All they had to do was stick to the secretary like glue and do whatever he said."
Josiah dropped the squirming agent like a hot potato. The five agents stared at the suit, thunderstruck.
"Did I hear you right?" Buck squinted at the agent as if he'd discovered a strange and foolish new life form. "You told Ezra and Nathan -- Nathan! -- to `shut up and smile?'"
Josiah shook his head. "Oh my. That wasn't wise."
A wide, evil grin split JD's face. "You guys are in so much trouble..."
Larabee transferred his glare to the helicopter window and the flat, green swath of the Texas panhandle below. He could just order the helicopter to turn around and drop them back at Josiah's old rust bucket. The Secret Service made the mess, the Secret Service could clean it up.
Then again, the sooner somebody rounded up the stray bureaucrat, the sooner all seven of them could sit down to a nice chicken-fried steak.
All right, then. "They haven't contacted us," he growled. "If something had gone wrong, they would have called for backup. Any theories about where they've gone?"
Behind his mirrored sunglasses, the agent looked pained. "The secretary was overheard questioning the old man about one of the, uh, local legends of southern Utah. We think they, er..." His voice trailed off in a mumble.
Vin caught the key mumbled word and sat down hard, all thoughts of breakfast forgotten. Larabee drew a deep breath, knowing he wasn't going to like what he heard. "Say again?"
"We think they set off in search of Montezuma's Lost Gold."
+ + + + + + +
"Ezra," Larabee spat out the name, glaring around their landing spot -- the weedy runway of a tiny outfit that boasted tourist flights of the Utah canyon lands. "Ezra, I expect this from. But Nathan? Nathan, taking off on a treasure hunt?"
Josiah patted Larabee's shoulder. "They were provoked, brother," he reminded him.
Buck looked up from the accordion tangle of the map he was trying to unfold. "Nate `n' Ez off looking for gold. Ain't that one of the seven signs of the apocalypse, Josiah?"
"It's a world gone mad," Josiah agreed, unperturbed. "Brace yourself for the rivers of blood and the rain of frogs."
Chris snatched the map away and opened it with one snap of the wrist. He smoothed it on the hard-packed ground as his agents and their reluctant Secret Service escort hunkered around to listen.
"Okay," he said, pleased to have regained some small measure of control over this madhouse morning. "From what Agent..."
"Smith," muttered Agent Smith.
"Smith here says, there are dozens of spots where people have tried to dig for Montezuma's gold over the years, but only two or three serious contenders -- here." He jabbed his finger at a point on the map. "Here." He indicated the canyons outside town. "And here." He pointed straight at the lake itself.
"I want Agent..."
"Smith. To get his bird back in the air and start running a search pattern." He didn't bother waiting for the agent's nod of agreement. "Buck, Josiah, you take a look around Johnston Canyon. I'll check the lake."
He turned to JD, who was fiddling with a pile of high-tech equipment he'd liberated from the helicopter. "JD, you head into Kanab and find someplace where you can set up a command center. Get this pile of crap working and see if you can track the signals from any of their cell phones."
JD patted the purloined laptop affectionately. "Okay." He paused, listening to the awful racket coming from the vicinity of the vending machines. "Uh, what about Vin?"
Everyone turned to study the sharpshooter, who had wrestled a candy machine to the ground, trying to shake loose a Snickers.
"Take Vin with you," Chris said with a resigned sigh. "Get him some pancakes before he tries to gnaw off his own leg."
+ + + + + + +
Sunlight sparkled across Lake Kanab.
"There! There! You see? The petroglyph!" the Secretary of the Interior scampered up the rocky slope like a drunken marmoset. He patted a worn squiggle in the rock. "This is the symbol the Aztecs used to mark their underwater treasure troves! Oopsie--"
He overbalanced, teetering precariously over the water. Nathan waited a beat longer than necessary to drag him back to solid ground.
Ezra ignored the byplay and concentrated on the motley collection of dive gear they'd rented back in the oddball hamlet of Kanab. He'd managed to wriggle most of the way into the wetsuit, unhelped by his would-be assistant, Gabby.
"Legend has it that when the Spanish Conquistadors killed Montezuma, his followers spirited his wealth out of the Aztec capital, Tenotchitlan, and hid it away in the territory that is now Utah," Gabby's crickety voice soared, as if this were the first time he was telling his tale, rather than the sixteenth by Ezra's count.
Behind them, Nathan steered the cabinet secretary toward the park service-issue jeep and the decidedly non-regulation Bucket o' Margaritas the bureaucrat had whipped up in the back seat. Their charge whistled happily as he plunged his hip flask into the frothy pink drink. Nathan shuddered and headed back to the shoreline.
"This is nuts," he grumbled.
"This, my friend, is a fortune in gold," Ezra countered.
"Guarded by eight thousand angry ghosts," the secretary hollered, waving his flask for emphasis. Strawberry margarita mix splattered the red earth.
The two agents squinted back at the man. "Say what?" Nathan asked, since somebody had to.
"Yep," Gabby said. "Once the treasure was buried and the river was dammed to create Lake Kanab, all the warriors who carried the gold were sacrificed. The priests tossed the bodies into the lake to keep the secret safe forever."
The secretary hooted. "No diver has ever managed to explore the lake! The ghosts always get to them first! Cut your heart out as soon as look at you, Aztecs! Ask -- urp -- anybody!"
Ezra eyed the calm blue waters beyond the posted "No Swimming" sign and did a quick cost-benefit analysis vis-à-vis Aztecs ghosts and Aztec gold. He zipped up and reached for an air tank.
Nathan snatched the tank away. "Enough is enough," he hissed. "We made our point. We had our fun. Now let's pour him back in the car and head for Vegas, huh?"
"Less talking! More diving!" the secretary ordered.
The two agents gritted their teeth.
"Shutting up!" Ezra said.
"Smiling!" Nathan ground out.
Ezra picked up the spare tank and headed toward the water. Nathan started to follow, but halted when he heard a brittle crunch beneath his shoe.
"Watch out for the snails!" the secretary called after them, almost as an afterthought.
Gabby backed away. "I mighta forgot to mention that the lake's crawling with endangered snails. Best watch where you step."
The agents stared, aghast, at Nathan's shoe.
"Lake Kanab," the secretary bellowed toward the cloudless sky like the world's worst tour guide. "Is home to the endangered Kanab ambersnail. Killing an endangered species carries a maximum fine of $10,000."
Nathan wiped his shoe surreptitiously on a patch of saw grass.
The secretary chortled into his margarita.
Ezra duck-walked toward the water, placing his swim fins with exaggerated care. Nathan followed along in the webbed footprints, holding tight to the safety line he'd clipped to Ezra's harness.
He was still scanning the ground for endangered snails when he felt a tug on the rope. He looked up to see Ezra wading into the lake.
Nathan opened his mouth to protest. Ezra winked and slid beneath the water -- effectively ending the argument. Nathan huffed.
+ + + + + + +
The nylon safety line slid between his hands, marking Ezra's progress underwater. A line of bubbles arrowed across the lake toward the spot the treasure hunters had indicated. Nathan fed the line out smoothly, alert for any tug that would signal a diver in distress.
A sudden whoop behind him almost made him lose his grip.
"NATE!" A familiar voice called out. "We been lookin' all over the place for you two!"
"Oh no," Nathan mumbled, turning to watch as Buck and Josiah steered a rental truck next to the jeep and piled out onto the beach. Endangered snails snapped and crackled under their feet like popcorn.
They gave the rope a curious glance, nodded to the secretary -- who ignored them -- and turned back to their fellow agent.
"So. Where's Ezra?"
+ + + + + + +
Beneath Lake Kanab, it was pleasantly cool and blessedly silent. Ezra swam through water clear as an aquarium, making for the rock wall and the faint outline of a submerged cave -- just where the old prospector said it would be. He grinned around the regulator's mouthpiece and flicked on the powerful dive light, aiming it toward the opening.
There would be no treasure in that cave, of course. On the list of western tall tales and legends, Montezuma's Gold ranked right up there with the jackalope. Still, it couldn't hurt to look.
He eased into the narrow tunnel, angling his air tanks away from the rocks. The water was colder and murkier here, as the walls closed in and his fins kicked up clouds of silt from the tunnel floor. He reached out, trying to feel his way forward. The hand disappeared into the darkness.
Ezra slowed, forcing himself to breathe slowly and evenly as he waited for the silt to settle. He felt the comforting tug of the dive line. Nathan, he knew, would be holding tight to the other end, scowling like a gargoyle and waiting for an excuse to haul him to shore.
He patted the invisible rock wall and surveyed the small area illuminated around him. Rocks, algae and a few startled fish. He kicked forward. The view was the same.
The tunnel was widening into a proper cave now. Ezra swept the light around, taking in the expanded vista of rocks, algae, startled fish -- and no treasure. No skeletons. Not even an Aztec squiggle carved into the rocks.
A glance at the air gauge reminded him that it was almost time to turn back -- and well past time to return their straying charge to his handlers in Vegas. He swam a leisurely circuit around the cave and was about to double back down the tunnel when he spotted it.
There, in a shadowy alcove -- a second tunnel, barely wide enough for a single diver. And inside, twinkling in the artificial light, a flash of gold.
+ + + + + + +
At the Optimist Café in Kanab, Vin Tanner was losing hope.
"No pancakes?" He turned desperate eyes from the menu to the waitress who waited impatiently, three pencils jutting akimbo from her apricot-colored beehive. She untangled a pencil, licked the tip and held it poised over the order pad.
"No pancakes," she confirmed in a froggy smoker's croak. "Ain't good for you. Too many carbs. How `bout a nice fried egg?"
JD looked up from the laptop he'd plugged into a floor socket. "Carbs?"
"Car-bo-hydrates," the waitress enunciated for him, jamming the pencil back in place and glaring down at the suffering man. "Cook's doing Atkins. Lost ten pounds, eatin' nothin' but Slim Jims. Decided to re-do the entire menu."
JD looked around the deserted restaurant. "Well, that's great for the cook, but I think Vin here's got his heart set on pancakes. Think you could whip up some carbs, just for us?"
"Nope." She fished another pencil out of her hairdo. "Trust me, you'll thank us for this someday. How about a nice plate of broccoli?"
+ + + + + + +
Buck, Josiah and Nathan watched another few inches of dive rope disappear beneath the surface of Lake Kanab.
"This," Buck said, speaking for them all. "Is the stupidest thing Ezra's ever done."
Nathan winced. The longer Ezra stayed underwater, the more time his brain had to concoct worst-case scenarios -- from underwater cave-ins to vengeful Aztec ghosts playing kick-the-can with Ezra's severed skull.
"Okay, Ezra, playtime's over," he muttered, and gave two quick tugs on the rope: the signal to resurface.
There was a single answering tug on the rope. An emphatic `no.'
+ + + + + + +
"You sure they went this way?" Chris asked, surveying the sheer rock face before him.
"Sure I'm sure," JD's voice chirped confidently in his ear. "The computer--" There was a pause while JD took a noisy slurp of something. Chris could hear ice clinking against glass, and the faint hum of an air conditioning unit cranked up to full power.
Larabee blinked away the sweat that was dripping into his eyes. The sun beat down on his scalp, poaching him like an egg inside his black shirt, black jeans and black boots.
JD continued. "The computer says the lake is just on the other side of that ridge. Agent Smith and his helicopter are already on the way. They're gonna pick us up and we'll all meet you at the lake."
Larabee was already out of the car and moving, scanning the cliff for the easiest route to the top. He heard a muffled crash on the other end of the line.
"JD?" Another crash, and the sound of distant shouting.
"Uh...Vin's in the kitchen, having a talk with the cook. About pancakes."
Before Larabee could frame a reply, there were more crashes, louder. Something shattered near the phone. JD yelped. "Gottagobye!"
Larabee punched the End Call button with a little more force than necessary and started climbing.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris!" Josiah's relieved call met him as he reached the top of the cliff.
"Wha--?" He turned too quickly and overbalanced, tumbling down the slope and into green oasis of Lake Kanab. He landed with a thump, nose to nose with a bucket of something frothy and pink.
A pair of dusty wingtips moved into his field of vision.
"No thank you, Mr. Secretary." Larabee pulled himself up and limped toward his men, who were just standing around, arguing over a piece of rope. He counted noses and came up short.
"Ezra?" he asked.
Three pair of eyes turned to the rope. Larabee followed their gaze, down the rope, into the water.
Everybody started talking at once. Larabee massaged his forehead as a wiry old geezer appeared out of nowhere and grabbed his arm, gabbling away about sunken treasure and endangered ghosts and angry snails.
"Enough!" Larabee snapped. Sifting through the absurd tale, he came up with only one fact that interested him. Ezra was underwater -- under the water, where Larabee couldn't throttle him.
Elbowing Nathan aside, he grabbed the safety line and gave an almighty yank.
+ + + + + + +
A little closer... A little closer... Ezra wormed his head and shoulders deeper into the cramped tunnel, groping blindly toward the spot where he'd seen that tantalizing flash of gold.
Somewhere, he was sure, eight thousand Aztec ghosts were snickering.
There! His fingers closed around something smooth and hard in the mushy tunnel floor. Ezra exhaled in relief, filling the small space with bubbles, and began to back out, clutching his prize.
He was almost clear of the tunnel when something cold and clammy brushed against his cheek.
Startled, he dropped the light. The flashlight beam bounced wildly around the small, murky space, casting wild shadows on the rock wall. Thoroughly disoriented, Ezra flinched back, aiming for the open spaces of the main cave.
The back of his head hit the tunnel ceiling with a resounding crack.
The last thing he felt, as absolute darkness closed in, was another clammy caress, wrapping itself around the hand that still held the gold.
+ + + + + + +
The safety line pulled taut, but refused to budge. Irritation faded to alarm as Chris began to pull in earnest, throwing his full weight against the rope. Behind him, the others scrambled for handholds.
The rope vibrated under their hands like a guitar string.
"It's caught on something," Josiah said, rising panic in his voice.
Without warning, the rope went slack, sending the four agents tumbling to the sand. Nathan grabbed the rope, feeling absolutely no resistance as he reeled the safety line back to shore.
"Oh no, no no no. Ezra, don`t you do this to me," he muttered, pulling faster and faster until he was holding the frayed end of the rope in his hand. Something had sliced through the tough nylon fibers like a knife.
+ + + + + + +
Ezra was adrift in dark waters. Disoriented and aching, he blinked, trying to get his bearings in the velvety blackness. The dive light had gone out. The water's chill had seeped through the wetsuit, leaving him almost as sluggish as the blow to the head.
He floated a bit longer, listening to the rasp of his own breaths through the regulator hose. Two thoughts anchored him -- the smooth golden weight he still held in one hand, and the knowledge that Nathan still held tight to his lifeline. It didn't matter that he couldn't tell up from down or see his hand in front of his face. Two quick tugs on the line and Nathan would--
His reached back and touched a frayed, drifting length of rope.
At least now he knew what had been tickling him. Touché, he congratulated the ghosts muzzily. You win. You keep the gold. I'll take my leave.
He opened his hand, expecting the golden lump to tumble away. Instead, it clung to his palm. What on earth? Ezra flapped his arm, trying to shake the nugget loose.
A sudden blaze of light filled the cave, dazzling him. He could see the tunnel now, glowing before him with a bright light at one end, moving closer.
Ezra backstroked. He had no intention of going into the light. He wanted no part of unearthly tunnels. But the beam of light was faster, cutting through the murky cave water like a ... flashlight?
A hand shot out of the darkness behind the beam and wrapped around his neck.
+ + + + + + +
"So? What'd you find? Gold? Ghosts? Montezuma's treasure?"
Ezra cracked open an eye to find a circle of concerned faces dripping on him.
He spit out the regulator. "Snails," he croaked.
He held up his hand to display the golden-shelled snail still stuck fast to his palm. The snail waved its eyestalks at the group and slid slimly down the hand and dropped to the sand with a wet plop.
Everyone contemplated the snail in silence. Ezra rolled onto his side, slowly taking in the scene. When had the other agents arrived? Where had that helicopter come from? And why was Chris sitting around in his underwear? Good Lord, even the man's boxers were black.
JD bounded between the soggy bodies that littered the shores of Lake Kanab -- until Gabby pointed out the $50,000 worth of damage he'd just done to the local ambersnail population. Vin slouched in the shade of the helicopter, chewing discontentedly on a head of broccoli.
The Secretary of the Interior approached the scene, flask held out like a peace offering. He circled the group once, then approached the Ezra's rescuer.
Larabee turned his face out of the sand and studied the flask through the dive mask he still wore. Wordlessly, he held out a hand.
Buck, who was still trying to figure out how to untangle the dive line, scuba tanks and Chris from each other, intercepted the sticky flask and took a gulp. Larabee grumbled, too tired to do more. In retrospect, cave diving in his skivvies might not have been such a hot idea. He sneezed. Payback would begin as soon as he could feel his toes again.
Up the beach, Ezra had roused enough to fend off Josiah and Nathan's attempts to examine his battered skull.
"Ow! Ow! Unhand my head, you oafs!"
Josiah ignored the sputtered protests and pinned Ezra's head in the crook of an arm. Nathan, still looking a little wild eyed, was applying cool compresses.
"I'm going to kill him," Larabee muttered, staggering to his feet and looking around for his pants.
"Now Chris, he's in no condition--" Nathan began, easing himself between Larabee and the groggy agent.
Larabee favored the medic with a feral grin. "Not Ezra. You."
Nathan swallowed hard. He'd seen that little vein in Larabee's temple throb plenty of times -- but never over something he'd done.
Larabee took a threatening step forward, and felt something crunch beneath his bare foot. He hopped away. Nathan saw his chance, grabbed Ezra, and made a break for the chopper.
It was completely unfair, Larabee reflected as he picked endangered snail shells out from between his toes. One reliable agent. Was that too much to ask? One man out of seven he could count on to be steady, dependable, predictable. Boring.
He eyed rest of his team. Vin was gnawing on a broccoli floweret like a leg of lamb. JD was down on his hands and knees, trying to herd snails to safety, fencing them off with little pebble paddocks. Buck had discovered the helicopter pilot was female. Josiah had discovered that the bucket of margaritas was still half-full.
Larabee sighed, looked down, and realized he was still wearing nothing but boxer shorts and a scowl. Son of a --! Where the heck did he leave his pants? He turned -- and almost ran into the Secretary of the Interior.
"Gentlemen, you've done a superlative job. I'll be sure to pass my thanks to your superiors," the secretary said, beaming as Agent Smith nudged him and old Gabby toward the helicopter. Buck tossed Chris the discarded pants. JD located his shoes. Josiah added the shirt to the growing pile.
The secretary poked his head out of the helicopter. "Agent Sanchez, I'd like to drop you back at your car. Where did you say you were parked?"
JD grabbed Vin. "Hey! We'll be back in Tascosa in time for supper! Vin can take another crack at that $500 bounty at Eli Joe's House of Chicken Fried Steak!"
Vin let the broccoli drop.
"I might just try one of those giant steaks myself," JD added, ducking instinctively as Buck aimed a swipe at his head.
"You?" Buck snorted. "You couldn't handle one of Eli Joe's side salads!"
"What? You don`t think I could give Vin a run for his money?"
Larabee squinted at the kid`s concave belly. "You ain't the type."
JD puffed up, outraged. "Whaddaya mean? I can eat as much chicken-fried steak as any of you!"
Chris shook his head and clambered aboard the helicopter. "Eat a salad, kid. You'll live longer."
JD's outraged squawk was lost as the helicopter lifted into the air.
The downdraft sent the little golden snail cartwheeling across the beach. It fetched up against a bit of flotsam at the waterline, clinging to its new perch as the noisy machine rose into the sky, dwindling to a speck of black against the blue.
The snail swiveled its eyestalks and scooted higher on the shiny new addition to the Lake Kanab shoreline -- Josiah Sanchez`s car keys.