Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: In this ATF story, some time has passed. Betaed by Kerry, who was ably assisted by some seagulls and a really nice bottle of red wine.
Feedback: Yes, please.
Buck Wilmington sat at his desk and rubbed Tiger Balm into his temples, trying to get rid of the headache the ibuprofen and Tylenol hadn't touched - he needed sleep, just one uninterrupted night's sleep. Tia, his youngest, was cutting a new tooth, she was normally a good sleeper, but right now she was waking two and three times a night. ATF Senior Special Agent Wilmington didn't have pictures of his family on his desk - there wasn't room. He had them on the wall; he had pictures on every wall. To the left of the desk was a picture of the President. Behind the desk, pictures of Buck himself, one taken when he was a Navy SEAL - best dress uniform, medals gleaming. One in his Denver Police Department uniform and a picture of the legendary Team Seven, the first Team Seven, Larabee's team - a formal picture, taken after they had all received a commendation. On the wall to the right were more pictures of the team, family shots, candid shots of camping trips, cook outs, horseback rides. On the wall opposite the desk, where he would see them anytime he looked up, were his family, Inez and the girls, his girls, the lights of his life.
"Sir?" Agent Rowan appeared at his door, she was twenty four and reminded Buck of JD when he first joined the team, a computer wiz kid, who was eager to learn and more than a little impulsive.
"What is it?" he asked tiredly.
"I just picked up something in a police report from California."
"This had better be good Sara."
"You asked us to let you know about any report involving one of them."
Buck looked up. "Them?"
Sara nodded at the wall of pictures of Team Seven.
"It's on you computer, internal e-mail."
Forcing himself to concentrate, he moved his mouse to the appropriate icon.
There were days when Chris regretted taking early retirement, but not today. The sun was shining, the air was fresh and all he could hear was wildlife, the wind in the trees and the odd snort from his horses. The ranch had always been part of his life; he had always promised himself that one day he'd breed horses. The property had been in his maternal grandmother's family for three generations, it came to him when she died, that was when horse breeding stopped, he had just become a detective, Adam was two and there just wasn't time to put in the hours a working ranch needed. He never got rid of all the horses, but it wasn't the same. That one-day he would breed horses was always understood. Then fate stepped in and ended his career, or at least his career as he knew it.
This was his first year as a real horse breeder. He'd brought his stallion, Chaka, with Sarah's life insurance money, he'd never been able to bring himself to touch it before, but this was something he knew she'd approve of. Chaka was magnificent, seventeen hands, a true black, his foals would be worth a small fortune. Before Chris was ready to get his own mares, he needed more money, and to spend time working on his other new career as a PI and bounty hunter. He liked tracking down the real scum that had skipped bail, and putting them back behind bars, the private investigator work wasn't usually as satisfying, but it paid well. In less than three years he had more than enough to buy six quality mares. Now all his mares were expecting, all due to foal in late April or May next year, and there were still plenty of mares whose owners would pay good money to have them covered by Chaka.
He still did some work bounty hunting and took on the odd case as a PI, these days he could be more selective. It was lucrative work, but not a lucrative as the work Ezra had put his way recently. As a security consultant, he could earn in three days as much as Buck made in a month. Something he had pointed out to his oldest friend on more than one occasion.
"Now we ain't exactly penniless you know pal," Buck pointed out. "We still own the Saloon, and even paying Raphael to run it, the old place still brings in a nice profit."
That was surely true, the Saloon was still the favoured watering hole for the Federal Building employees, and these days there seemed to be more and more of them. Buck stayed on with the ATF because he liked the fact that he made a difference in his community.
Chris had liked making a difference too. Which was why when he needed someone to work full time at the ranch, looking after the horses when he was working on other things, he used his contacts to identify a young man named Saul. Saul had just been let out on parole, he'd served three years in a juvenile facility and one in the state penitentiary for armed robbery. His case worker explained that he had been the youngest of four who pulled off a gas station robbery, only fourteen at the time, he hadn't even been armed. In the state pen he'd become involved with a programme to help rehabilitate young offenders by using horses.
Saul lived in the apartment over the garage and was devoted to the horses. He combined his ranch duties with studying.
Chris' perfect day was interrupted by the ringing of his cell phone.
Buck's phone rang. "Wilmington," he answered automatically. He waited for the caller to speak. "Yeah kid, I got that too," he responded. JD wasn't a kid anymore, he was a married man, working in Washington, doing some sort of work with computer simulations that Buck didn't even begin to understand. "You sure that's a good idea, what about Casey?"
"She's the one told me to call you," JD assured him. "We've got a month to go yet."
"I dont know, a man should be with his wife "
"I'll be there, she told me to go, I've got a ticket booked for Sacramento, I suggest you do the same - my son needs more than one godfather."
"Okay, I'll meet you at the airport."
"Buck," JD sounded hesitant. "You gonna call Vin?"
"Damn kid, that's spooky."
"I was just thinking about Vin, yeah I'm, gonna call him, Nathan, too - he'd never forgive me if I didn't."
"What me to call Ez?"
"You can try, but I bet he already knows."
"This is the Jackson house, we can't come to the phone right now, but please leave a message and we'll get back to you."
Buck couldn't help but simile; Rain did have a lovely speaking voice.
"Nate its me, Buck, give me a call on my cell when you get this, it's urgent."
His phone rang back just a few minuets later.
"Sorry Buck I was in the garden, Nate's not here, what's up?" Rain asked.
"Not sure, could be something, could be nothing, but I thought you guys should know."
So he did.
"Nate's at a training session, I'll get him to call you as soon as he gets in, but you know he'll come."
"Can you manage without him?" Buck asked
"I'm am a pediatrician Buck!"
"I know, I just meant, you know, with work and all?"
"I'll manage, Nathan needs to be there."
"JD," Ezra responded, recognising the caller ID. "I believe I know why you are calling - this report from Sacramento?"
"Of course. I have been unable to contact Buck - I presume he is rounding up the others?"
"I already have a flight booked, so since I am somewhat pushed for time, I'll say goodbye now and call you when I get there." He closed his cell phone. "She is going to kill me!" he muttered.
'She' was his wife. Staying in Las Vegas to secure a big casino contract was one thing, taking off for California the day before she and the children were due back was something else again, he had better bring back a damn good present. If he didn't make it back home before Maude arrived in town next week, it had better be a new car - at the very least!
Nathan and JD arrived at the airport together, quickly spotting Buck pacing in arrivals.
"Any of the others here yet?" Nathan asked.
"Ezra's getting a car sorted out, Chris is with him. Vin's flight's due to land in fifteen minutes."
Nathan nodded, automatically looking up at the screen and spotting the incoming Texas flight.
"How are you Buck?" JD asked.
"Fine, not that different than when I saw you last month." There was clear irritation in his voice.
"Sorry I was just "
"Nah I'm sorry kid, I'm just worried."
JD smiled, that was the Buck he knew, the over protective mamma grizzly. "I know, me an' all, I always talk to much when I'm nervous, you know that. Listen to me, there I go again."
"JD, it's okay, we'll get this sorted out."
Chris and Ezra returned and exchanged greetings, reporting that they had hired a big SUV that could cope with most terrain and was more than large enough to carry the six of them in comfort. After a coffee they all returned to the arrival area as Vin's flight was listed as landed.
JD couldn't help glancing at Chris; this would - to his knowledge - be their first meeting since his and Casey's wedding, and on that occasion they had at least been civil to each other, if not exactly warm. He longed for their friendship be get back on it's old footing. Somehow, even with them split up all over the country, it didn't feel right that Chris and Vin weren't friends anymore.
"Oh crap," Chris muttered when he spotted Vin approaching.
Tanner had a huge backpack on his shoulders, was toting a well stuffed duffel in his left hand with his rife case slung over his shoulder, and was holding the hand of a six year old girl in his right hand. Behind him a tall rangy boy of about fifteen followed them, he too had a backpack, but he was carrying his rather than wearing it.
Chris was glaring at the approaching threesome. "He brought the kids! What does he think this is, a family camping trip?"
Anything else he might have said was cut off by a high pitched shriek of delight. "Uncle Buck!"
The little girl detached herself from her father and ran toward Buck, who strode toward her, scooping her up and tossing her into the air before catching her in a full on bear hug.
"Watcha squirt, how are you?" he asked.
"I'm okay, Pa had t'bring me an' Cody, 'cause Aunt Bee's in the hospital," she explained, in a broad Texas accent.
"Good grief, does no one teach that child correct pronunciation?" Ezra lamented as he reached out for her, not to be deprived of his hug.
"Hi Uncle Ez," she greeted blithely.
"Good day Miss Grace, how are you?"
"I already told Uncle Buck, weren't y'all listenin'?"
"It is not polite to eavesdrop on other people's conversations," Ezra told her.
"He means," Nathan picked her out of Ezra's arms, "that you shouldn't listen when other people are talking. My you have grown a foot - I swear it!"
"Nah! I only grew three inches last year."
"Well you sure got heavy." He put her down.
Instantly she trotted over to JD. "Hi Uncle JD, did Aunt Casey have her baby yet?"
JD knelt down to her level. "No, we've got four whole weeks to wait yet."
Her shoulders slumped. "Oh."
While Grace and her brother were meeting and greeting their uncles, Buck and Chris greeted Vin and quizzed him about Bee.
"Nothing serious, she's having her gallstones removed, it's keyhole surgery, she's gonna stay with a friend in El Paso."
"Couldn't you leave them with a neighbour?" Chris asked.
"No time, 'sides I don't exactly have neighbours, 'cept Old Mario, and he's gonna take care of the horses."
The Tanners lived in an isolated cabin down near the Big Bend Ranch State Park. Vin's paternal aunt, Bee Longwater, a widow, had agreed to leave her home in Oklahoma and help Vin raise his children.
"So why couldn't he take care of the kids?" Chris persisted.
"If I thought he could, don't you think I'd have left them with him?" Vin snapped.
"Guys, water under the bridge," Buck cut in. "We need to get moving,"
The SUV could seat eight, that was why Ezra chose it, six men would travel together and not feel cramped, adding two children to the party changed all that, especially since Grace needed a booster seat - which the rental company supplied free of charge. Chris took one look at the back seats and climbed in behind the wheel.
"Nate, you better take the passenger seat," Buck said softly.
"I'm fine in the back," Nathan assured.
"Take it, you're the tallest."
Vin, Cody and JD took the third row seats, while Ezra and Buck squeezed in either side of Grace in the second row. Vin must have said something to both children, because unless spoken to they said very little. While Chris drove up into the El Dorado national forest, Cory played on his Game Boy while listening to his I-pod and Grace listened to 'Heidi' on another one. Three hours after they left, Chris pulled up in the tiny town with the comforting name of Volcano Springs.
Volcano Springs, might have claimed to have a population of 157, but Chris reckoned that was way too optimistic. On one side of the street there was a general store-come- gas station, with two pumps, and a diner. Opposite this was a bar and a post office - which only opened two days a week - and set slightly back from the road, a small, rather rundown church. Volcano Springs was a dead end. Just after you passed the bar, the black top turned into dirt and there was just a large open area where various vehicles, mostly SUVs, were parked. A number of dirt trails disappeared into the forest from here.
Chris pulled up next to the older model Ford van with the University of California Berkeley seal on the side. Not far off were SUVs of the El Dorado country sheriffs department, the state troopers and the forestry service. On the far side was an anonymous looking grey sedan, it looked very out of place in this edge of nowhere location.
"You two stay here, Vin instructed his family firmly as the adults exited the vehicle.
Chris led his former team over to where he saw a man in uniform standing in the shade, speaking to a worried looking, middle aged woman.
Can I help you sir? the young deputy turned to face the new arrivals.
That depends on whether youve found Dr Sanchez and his party yet.
Oh, no not yet. Do you know Dr Sanchez?
We do, Chris replied.
And you are?
Buck ducked in front of Chris and extended his hand, while holding up his badge in the other. Special Agent Buck Wilmington, senior field agent, ATF, Denver and this is He nodded at JD.
Special Agent JD Dunne, ATF, Washington DC.
Vin Tanner, Texas Ranger.
Nathan Jackson, Ash Creek, Fire Department. Nathan didnt bother to mention that Ash Creek only had a population of about 4500 and the fire department was entirely voluntary.
The deputy turned to look at Ezra and Chris.
Ezra P Standish, I work in security, Ezra introduced himself, managing to make security sound as if he was some kind of spy, rather than a private consultant.
Im in charge, Chris stated darkly.
Before anyone asked any more questions Buck took the lead again. Deputy Reegan, he hoped hed read the mans name tape right, because he wasnt about to pull his glasses out.
Keegan, the man corrected.
Sorry. Deputy Keegan, Josiah is a good friend of ours and we want to help find him and the students of course, he added hurriedly.
Im glad to hear it, the woman cut in dryly. Im Monica Rhys by the way, Berkeley Collage.
Delighted to meet you maam, Im only sorry it is under such trying circumstances. Ezra extended his hand. Perhaps you could furnish us with more details?
She visibly softened under this onslaught of southern charm. Yes of course. Dr Sanchez teaches the psychology section of our basic anthropology course. He believes that to even begin to understand humans and their culture you first need to understand human nature at its most basic level the fight for survival. So at the beginning of every year, he brings small groups of his freshmen out here for a weeks wilderness survival experience, only theyre two days overdue and thats never happened before.
She suddenly looked very vulnerable and lost and Ezra wondered just what her relationship with Josiah was. Like Chris, Josiah hadnt been able to face the prospect of working behind a desk. So rather than wait to reach the mandatory retirement age for field agents, he took early retirement and went back to school to teach while he got his doctorate in psychology. He loved the teaching so much he had stayed on permanently.
Well dont you worry darlin we're here now and if anyone can find them, we can, Buck assured her.
Deputy Keegan was looking worried. Gentlemen, we appreciate your help, but we have professional search and rescue teams looking for them. I cant permit a bunch of civilians to go in and get lost as well.
Who you callin civilian boy? Vin all but snarled, as far as he was concerned they were wasting time and daylight.
Well sir, umm
In case you weren't listening; Im a Texas Ranger, them two are federal agents. He pointed to Buck and JD. Nates the best damn EMT youll ever meet. Chris used to be a Navy SEAL and Ezra well let's just say he can look after himself. Leaving Ezra as an enigma had always worked well for them in the old days. "Josiah's in trouble and we're wasting time standin' here jawin'."
"Sir I can't permit you " The deputy protested again.
"I'm a federal agent and if I say we're joining the search, that's what we're doing," Buck informed him firmly, then he turned to Chris. "What do you want to do now? His job was to use his federal authority to get past the local law, but come what may, Chris would always be their leader.
Chris gave his old friend a small smile, acknowledging the transfer of power, then turned to the others. "Un-hitch the trailer and unload," he commanded.
One of the reasons it took them so long to get to the little town in the middle of the mountains was their need for any camping equipment they couldn't carry on the aircraft. They had been going to rent the equipment, but Ezra pointed out that they could purchase army surplus equipment for less than it could cost to rent and it would probably be more suitable to their needs. They did have to rent a U-haul trailer to transport it all.
"Tanner whatever you're gonna do with them kids you better do it quick."
Vin visibly stiffened, but said nothing. "Cody!" he called as he approached the Explorer.
The teen's head poked out of the window. "Yeah Vin?"
"You got a place to stay yet?"
"Sure do - would you believe the cell actually works up here?"
"Dude ranch, back down the road, I rented a cabin in your name. I err "
"Told them it was fer two adults and one kid. Reckon theyre less likely t' kick up a fuss about me lookin' after Gracy if'n they think I'm eighteen."
"Yer probably right, let's go." By now all the men's things were out and the trailer was unhitched.
Chris had been watching the exchange between father and son with interest. Cody was very much like his father - which considering that they weren't related by blood in any way and hadn't met until the boy was eight - was a tribute to Vin's parenting skills. He was going to comment on how alike Vin and Cody were, when it occurred to him that had he been paying attention at JD's wedding, not to mention Ezra's or one of a dozen other team gatherings he had attended, he'd know this.
It was his fault they had fallen out, though it had taken him years to admit this. Vin wasn't blameless, but Chris had been warned - repeatedly - that he was driving Vin away, but he just wouldn't listen. When the inevitable happened and Vin's life fell apart, he left Denver, he left the 'family' he felt he could no longer rely on to support him. In Vin's eyes, that was Chris' fault and that was the beginning of the end for Team Seven.
Vin turned to check the trailer really was out of the way, before getting ready to back out.
"He's a smart kid," Chris commented when he found himself looking into Vin's eyes and felt compelled to say something.
"Yeah he is, top of his class, all of his classes."
I should know that, I bet the others know that. Chris rebuked himself. "Don't take too long, we'll be ready when you get back."
"I'll be back before you're ready," Vin snapped angrily and slammed the door shut.
Way to go Larabee, you managed to start a normal, friendly conversation and then cut him off! Good work, really top notch! You ass hole! Chris mentally kicked himself as Vin sped away.
As they pulled out of the town and headed for the ranch Vin spoke to his children. "Grace you mind yer brother and them folks at the ranch."
"Yes sir," she replied.
"Cody, you keep the credit card, tell them to put all your expenses on the tab. Get my wallet, take out a $100 - for soda's and such, but don't go mad, I ain't "
"Made of money," Grace completed her fathers often used expression. "Can we go ridin'?"
"Sure darlin' but no showin' off to them tourists." Both of his children rode as if they were born on a horse.
"Pa?" Grace asked, in a more hesitant voice.
"You will find Uncle Joe, won't you?"
Vin glanced as his son, letting him see the worry that he was hiding from the six year old. "Sure we will, don't you worry."
Despite his claim that he'd be back before they were ready to leave, the others had time to kill while they waited for Vin's return.
"So Ez, did you get the big contract?" JD asked.
Ezra beamed, gold tooth glinting in the sun. "Most assuredly."
"Hell, you're gonna be making so much money you could buy the ATF!" Buck quipped.
"Not quite, but we shall be 'comfortable'."
"Ezra you were already rich before you got two million in damages, if you get any more 'comfortable' you'll buying you own country." Chris flashed a rare grin at the former undercover agent. "That damn reporter did you a favour."
Ezra's smile lost some of its sheen. "I'd give it all up tomorrow to regain my anonymity and return to my former profession - provided the same God who performed this miracle did something similar for most of you."
"Yeah, I hear you," Chris agreed.
Ezra's career as one of the best undercover agents was destroyed by one over eager TV reporter, trying to make a name for themselves as an investigative journalist. The result of this idiot's quest for fame was that Ezra became the victim of the 21st century disease - celebrity! The reporter had not only put Ezra's face on millions of TV screens, he had even identified him as an undercover federal agent! Those few seconds ended his career as it had been. The ATF offered him other work, including fieldwork, but it somehow didn't have the same appeal. Especially as Team Seven wasn't the same with Vin and Josiah gone. He'd sued the TV company of course and won a hefty seven figure sum. With this financial cushion and firmly resisting his mothers 'wonderful investment opportunities' he had set himself up as a security consultant in Las Vegas, where he could also indulge his passion for poker on a semi professional level. In a few short years he'd built a thriving and prestigious business.
"So it was worth it - not going to China with Lilu and the girls?" Buck asked.
Ezra had met and married his wife Lilu not long after he arrived in Las Vegas, her real name was Li Pong, but she was known to all as Lilu. A fully qualified accountant, she had been sponsored by her US born uncle to work in America, the trouble was when she arrived her uncle was nowhere to be found and she was jobless and penniless, her qualifications unrecognised. Ezra met her when she came to clean his serviced apartment. That was three years ago, now they were married, living in a huge house outside the city. One of the reasons her family had been so happy for her uncle to take her to America was that Lilu couldn't have children. In the remote, traditional, rural area of China she came from, that brought great shame on her family. For Lilu and Ezra, this sadness had been relieved when they adopted two little girls from China.
"I believe so, at least I hope so. Lilu's father is very old, I hope I have not missed my only opportunity to meet him."
"Did she want you to go?" Buck asked.
"She wanted me to stay and make the deal," Ezra admitted.
"Always do what the woman what in these situations, its by far the safest way," Nathan told him wisely.
"And there speaks a man who knows," Buck stated confidently.
"And you don't?" Nathan accused.
"Meaning?" Buck asked.
"Meaning Inez is in charge, and you know it."
Everyone knew Inez ruled the Wilmington house - there were spectacular arguments, Inez shouted in Spanish, Buck - who understood most of what she said - always shouted back in English, but in the end he always gave in and always brought her 'make up' presents.
"Wouldn't have it any other way," Buck conceded with a wry grin. The fact that his 'girls' all most always sided and sympathised with their beleaguered father helped a lot.
Vin drove up at speed, pulling his backpack on even before he was fully out of the door.
"What are we waiting for?" he asked, striding toward them.
"Only you," Buck told him with a smile as he picked up his own pack.
While Vin was away, they had quizzed Miss Rhys and Deputy Keegan. Before she left, Monica had spoken to as many students as she could find who had participated in one of Josiah's expeditions in the past. Sadly all she had discovered was that they had all camped in different locations. The only common factor was that they had walked for two days, camped for three nights and then hiked out. The return hike only took a day and they had apparently walked in a circle. All of them stated they had left the clearing where the van was parked, by the only single track trail running down hill.
Keegan confirmed that the other search party had followed this trial. Vin had cursed when he heard that, knowing that they had in all likelihood destroyed most of the clues that might have put him on Josiah's trail. Keegan also supplied the radio frequencies being used by the other search party.
"Oh and watch yourselves around any overhangs, we had a small quake a few days ago," Keegan had told them, almost as an afterthought.
"How small does he call small?" Vin asked as they set off.
"He reckoned a five, maybe five point five."
"Pretty small by California standards," Vin confirmed.
The trial wasn't wide enough for anything with four wheels and about a mile in it narrowed even further, they were forced to walk in single file, hemmed in on both sides by heavy undergrowth, thus they could be fairly confident they were going the right direction. After four hours they arrived at a small clearing, were the trail split into three.
"Any ideas?" Chris asked Vin.
Vin put his pack down and began to prowl while the others stood still and waited, they knew better than to move and risk destroying any evidence.
"Well the search party went this way, along the main trail - it's like a herd of elephants passed by, any trail Josiah's party left is long gone."
"What about the other trails?" JD asked.
"Well folk have been down them in the last few days, all kinds of tracks, nothing to say who they were."
Vin continued to study the ground, then suddenly he stopped. Squatting down, he pulled something from under a bush.
"What you got?" Nathan asked.
"Batteries." Vin walked back to them. "Or at least part of a the packaging."
"Camera, I-pod, phone, could be from anything." JD commented.
Vin squinted at it. "There's a price sticker on it, got something' written on the corner of it, can't tell what."
"Give it here." Buck held out his hand. With the other hand he pulled out his glasses.
"Why the hell dont you get contacts?" Chris asked.
"'Cause I only need the damn things for reading, and besides they make great " He held the spectacles close to the tiny shred of black and orange cardboard. "magnifying glasses. Uni Av, it says, Uni Av, University Avenue?" He looked up.
"University Avenue is one of the main streets in Berkley," JD confirmed.
"How the hell do you know that?" Vin asked.
"Berkley offered me a scholarship, I wasn't ever gonna go, it was too far from Mom and besides I really wanted to go to MIT, but they offered me a free trip out there to have a look around." He shrugged. "I'd never even left Boston before that."
"Enough reminiscing, this must have come from one of the students, which means?" Chris looked pointedly at Vin.
"That way." Vin picked up his pack and led them down the narrowest of the trails.
Only two hours further on, they were forced to stop as the last of the light began to fade. Falling back into their old routines - Nathan and Buck cleared the ground of obstacles, JD and Vin collected firewood. Chris filled the canteens from the stream they had stopped by, while Ezra unrolled bedrolls. He had wanted to purchase individual tents, but Vin insisted the weather wasn't going to break anytime soon, so they didn't need them. That hadn't stopped Ezra complaining.
"Yer getting soft," Chris had chided.
"I was always 'soft', now I am rich and soft."
In no time they had a fire going and water heating over it, ready to pour into their freeze dried meals.
"What are we eating?" Nathan asked, eyeing the foil pack suspiciously.
"Chicken Noodle Hotpot," JD told him.
"Oh dear God has it come to this," Ezra commented with clear disdain.
"It's not that bad." Nathan was reading the back of the package. "Plenty of carbs, not much fat, little too much salt."
"Nate!" Chris warned.
Had Josiah known his former colleagues were so close, he would have been more confident of rescue, as it was he concentrated on keeping the half dozen young men and woman with him alive.
They had been walking down a moderately steep slope, on their way home, after a successful expedition. Suddenly the ground began to shake and before anyone could react, it simply fell away beneath them swallowing the seven of them like some malevolent land locked whale.
Josiah wasn't able to tell how far he fell, all he knew was he'd landed. It was dark, very, very dark and he was lying on something that was soft in places and hard and spiky in others. Someone groaned.
"Can you get off me?" someone else asked. It was then that Josiah realised the soft/hard/spiky thing he was lying on was someone's backpack.
"Sorry," he muttered rolling to his left on to his hands and knees. "Call out your names, tell me how you are," he instructed, not daring to move any more in case he stood on someone.
A couple of students found flashlights in their packs as they began to call out. A boy called Scott seemed to be the worst injured, he though he had a broken leg. Two students, Dean and Sasha, didn't respond.
"Where are they?" Josiah asked urgently.
Dean was unconscious, blood running freely down one side of his face. Sasha seemed to be awake, but was clearly disoriented.
It quickly became evident that they were in a mineshaft. The earthquake had apparently caused the roof to collapse, whether their extra weight had caused the roof to give way, or if it was just bad luck was something they would probably never know. Since they had been on their way home, there were only limited supplies in their packs. They did have a first aid kit, along with several half drunk bottles of water, some trail mix, a few cell phones and radio - neither of which worked. At least they had sleeping bags and extra clothes. Their greatest good fortune was to have two flashlights that still worked.
Well at least their assignment reports should be interesting, Sanchez silently commented to himself. I wanted to teach them about human nature, can't think of a better situation in which to see the best and the worst of human nature, than this.
Above them the sky was a tantalisingly close square of pale light. It looked close enough to climb out to, but in reality was much too far to even attempt. With no rope, or help from above, even the fittest of the boys couldn't have made it very far up the loose sides and rotting boards of the shaft. From the their position, three tunnels stretched away. The more able of the students were give the flashlights and sent to explore these tunnels one at a time. Two were short and blocked off, either by man or nature. The third was much longer and eventually lead them to patch of light that held the promise of escape.
"Doctor Sanchez, we found a way out, but there's a problem," Danny explained as he and Namita finally returned.
"What kind of a problem?" he asked
"Its locked, there's a huge gate across the entrance and it's padlocked."
Josiah sighed. "Any chance it's old and rusty?" Hoping there was a chance he could break it.
"Sorry sir, it looks brand new."
They was little they could do but move everyone closer to the entrance, lay out their tents on the ground and use the sleeping bags to make the injured as comfortable as possible. They pooled their food and water, and rationed it. By the time they had done this, it was almost dark. Dean had regained consciousness, but kept nodding off, Sasha was more alert, but had what appeared to be a broken wrist. They all had some injuries, Josiah himself had a badly grazed arm. All in all he considered they were very lucky no one had been killed or seriously injured.
Since they had to save battery power, once it got dark, they sat or lay in darkness.
"Doctor Sanchez?" one of his students called in the dark.
"Has anything like this ever happened to you before?"
He had to stop and think about that. "Once, when I worked in Denver, two of my colleagues and I found ourselves trapped in a remote storm drain."
"How'd that happen?" Someone called.
"What were you doing in Denver sir?" Another voice asked.
Josiah lay back and looked at the tiny patch of star filled sky he could see through the trees. "I was a Federal Agent, with the ATF and Buck and Ezra and I had been following a particularly unsavoury character who was supplying guns to neo-nazis."
"No way sir! You were a Fed, like a real gun carrying fed?"
"Way cool sir, I mean you're already the coolest professor on campus."
Josiah snorted. "You're all freshman, you've only been there four days, how would you know?"
"Oh everyone says so," Diane told him confidently.
"So how did you get out of the ditch?"
"No first tell us how you ended up in it?"
This question was from Scott, the boy with the broken leg.
"How are you doing son?" Josiah asked.
"I'm okay sir, tell us the story?"
It was clear the boy was in pain and needed distracting. "Well "
He told them how they had identified their quarry, how Ezra had made the 'buy' but the man had got away. There had followed a protracted car chase in a violent and sudden summer storm, both cars went off the road into the drainage ditch.
"The bad guy didn't have Buck at the wheel and overturned in the water, he drowned. We on the other hand did have Buck behind the wheel and managed to stay upright, but were trapped on the roof of our SUV until help arrived. No food, no drinkable water and no working cell phone."
"How long were you there?"
"Fourteen hours - you should have heard Ezra bitch and whine and complain!"
"So how did you get out?"
"Our friends found us - just like they will this time."
"Our friends couldn't find us," Danny stated confidently. "Not unless we got lost at the nearest Pizza Hut."
"He meant his friends," Namita corrected. "Didnt you Sir?"
"I did. If I know Buck and JD and Ezra, as soon as we are reported overdue, they'll pick it up and before you know it they'll all be here."
"Even though you don't work together anymore?"
"Yes, we were, a family or maybe even a tribe, we may have been split up and dispersed all over the country but those bonds can't be broken."
For much of the first evening JD worked on 'the plan'. This was the plan the others had formulated while Vin was away settling his children in at the ranch. They had filled Tanner in on it as they walked, since he was integral to it. Thankfully he approved and leant his expertise. JD worked on his ultra slim, ultra light palmtop, utilizing its satellite connection to connect to his database in DC. This was why they were all here, they knew Josiah, knew him better than anyone. The other search teams had little to go on and were thus forced to work methodically in a traditional grid pattern.
JD's job in Washington - a job he was told he either accepted or he left the ATF - was computer modelling, he developed and modified computer programs for all the federal law enforcement agencies. His programs help to predict future trends in all kinds of criminal activity and develop strategies to combat them. It paid well and in truth he enjoyed the work, but it wasn't the same a being a field agent.
Casey was conflicted, she was happy her husband was now in a nine to five job but she missed the feeling of being part of a huge family. Much of that conflict was resolved when they decided it was time to start a family. Now she knew she was happy JD was no longer risking his life and working long, unpredictable hours.
Come morning 'the plan' was ready to go.
"Okay," JD announced. "We know Josiah, and we have all studied the terrain. Are we all agreed this is his most likely route?" He looked up, everyone nodded.
"So we split up." Chris now took over the briefing. "Me and Ezra ll go with Vin and follow their trail. Buck, you and the others cut across country to this trail." He pointed to the old mine track that was marked on the federal map, but no longer appeared on modern hiking maps. "This is his mostly likely route out, it's that or retrace his steps."
"That's not Josiah's style," Nathan commented.
"Right, the other alternative is this route." Chris pointed to the map. "It's very steep, not the kind of terrain I'd want to take a half dozen, tired and inexperienced college kids into."
"Plus its where the official search parties are looking," Buck noted.
Chris nodded and looked around at the others. "We use the satellite phones to keep in contact - JD?"
"Oh, right." JD pulled the two phones out. Satellite phones had become a lot smaller over recent years, but they were still bulkier than cell phones. "I've tuned them into the USGS satellite, it's basically right above us, watching for earthquakes and stuff, so all you have to do is point it at the sky. We only have limited battery power so I suggest turning them on for five minutes every hour, on the hour? I also have mini GPS locators for everyone."
"Agreed," Chris confirmed checking his watch. "I have oh five, twenty three."
Everyone else checked their watch, Ezra muttering about five in the morning being the middle of the night. With that done they split up and set out.
While concentrating on getting everyone down to the tunnel entrance neither Josiah or his students had bothered to explore any of the small, fairly low, side tunnels that branched off what was clearly the main access tunnel of the mine. In the morning, Josiah took a flashlight and did some exploring of his own.
What he found was disturbing. At the back of the three smallest, shortest tunnels he found black plastic refuse sacks. In these were up to eight plastic wrapped bundles, each weighing about two pounds. Pushing the blade of his pocketknife into one of these he pulled it back and tasted residue on the blade, it was heroin. Whoever left it there would be back. Their predicament had been bad, now it was a whole lot worse.
They explored every tunnel, considered every possible way to get back up the crumbling shaft down which they had fallen, but it was impossible. The shaft was too high and the sides too unstable the only other way out was the though the gate and it was, heavy, well secured, in good condition and locked. Silently Josiah wished he had paid attention when Ezra tried to teach JD how to pick a lock. Too late now, he silently lamented. All he could do was concentrate on keeping them alive and hope someone found them before the drug dealers came back.
The two students with head injuries were improving, although the both had vomited several times, which seriously depleted their water supply. Scott, the boy with the broken leg was putting on a brave face, but he was in lot of pain and there was precious little anyone could do for him. Their main problem was water. What they were carrying and had survived the fall wouldn't last long so finding more was the top priority. At the back of one tunnel they found a small amount of water dripping though the rocks onto the floor. A canteen placed under it to catch the drips took over two hours to fill, but it was all they had.
Without a trail to follow Buck, JD and Nathan were using the GPS locater and some old-fashioned map navigation, to reach the old trail. It wasnt easy going, the terrain was rough and the vegetation dense, but they were making progress. By noon they were more than half way to their goal when Buck held up his hand.
Time to take a break, he announced breathlessly.
Thanks, Nathan panted.
You guys are getting soft, JD announced, he was perspiring, but otherwise looked fine.
Kid I still run every damn morning, six miles minimum, Buck told him indignantly. But after forty, everything starts to fall apart.
Especially when youre fifty, JD reminded.
Hes right, Nathan told JD firmly. So dont make fun, you have all this to look forward to.
That and two a.m. feeds, Buck reminded.
Colic, Nathan added.
Ahhh, the toxic green ones, they are a real treat! Buck added with glee.
Let's not forget the smell of baby puke on your shoulder, that stays with you all day!
Then theres potty training, the terrible twos, shots.
So kid, looking forward to parenthood?
Shut up, JD fumed, knowing he was defeated.
Ignoring this, Buck turned to Nathan. So how are the boys? he asked, even though the Wilmington and Jackson clans had had family barbecue only three weeks ago.
Theyre four, what do you think?
Buck winced dramatically. So into everything, asking questions all the time, you cant get them to take an afternoon nap anymore and when you drop them off at day care they act as if they dont need you and cant wait for you to leave?
Thats about it, times three.
When Rain had first found out she was pregnant, the plan was for her to quit work and become a full time mum for a few years. That was until the scan, the one that found not one tiny heart beating in her belly, not two, but three.
What the hell do you mean triplets! Dr Rain Jackson had fumed at the midwife. Give me that thing!
As Nathan looked on in shock and even terror, his wife moved the scanner over her own stomach, scrutinising the monitor screen.
Oh good grief, she finally gasped, handing the instrument back to the midwife.
They could raise a family on what Nathan earned, but Rain was making a good deal more than him, in the end it just didnt seem logical for her to give up her job, not with three hungry mouths to feed. So, reluctantly, Nathan had quit the job he loved to raise his sons. The family now lived in the tiny town of Ash Creek, outside Boulder. Rain was a full partner in a prestigious pediatric practice it the town, earning even more than when they lived in Denver. Nathan raised the children, took care of the house, coached little league baseball and refereed mini soccer. In addition to all this, he was a member of the local volunteer fire force.
Nathan looked back at JD. Sorry, we dont mean to scare you JD, were just kidding, Nathan assured.
I know, I just hope shes okay, when the time comes, shes so small.
JD, that wife of yours is a hell of a lot tougher and stronger then she looks, and dont you forget it, Buck reminded.
I know that, but I still worry.
Wouldnt be normal if you didnt.
Vin was moving fast, a lot faster than any man in his fourth decade should be moving. Had he just been following Josiah, he might have been forced to slow down. The man knew how to move and leave the minimum of evidence behind, without even trying; but twelve college students couldnt walk over a stone desert and not leave a trail, let alone a forest.
Tanner! Chris called to him.
Slow up, you may be superman but were not.
Dont even think it! Chris warned. Were more then fit enough, were just not you.
This aint no Sunday afternoon hike you know? For all we know theyre lying in some ravine, bleeding to death, or had you forgotten?
Of course I havent forgotten! Chris snapped.
Ezra groaned inwardly, if these two were going to snipe and grouse all the way, it was going to be a very long trip.
Gentlemen, perhaps we could stop talking and resume walking? Ezra suggested, they would find it harder to argue, if they were walking, especially if Chris was out of breath.
"Sure, let's keep going." With that Vin turned and continued at his original pace.
"Bastard," Chris muttered, as he set out after him.
Ezra just shook his head and followed him - this was definitely going to be a very long walk.
The three of them had been going for about two hours, in that time they had called the others twice. Buck reported that they were making good progress toward the old mine track. Half an hour after the second call, Vin suddenly stopped, waiting for the others to catch up with out being asked.
"What is it?" Chris asked?
"Second trail, going that way." He pointed off to his left.
Vin ventured a few yards along this new trail, moving carefully, checking the signs.
"Well?" Chris called.
Vin held up a hand, clearly signalling 'hold on a moment'. Finally returned to them.
"It's them, they came back along this trail we've been following, then cut off this way." He squatted down, examining the tracks again. "Yeah, they weren't carrying so much this time."
"So which one do we follow?" Ezra asked.
"No way to know," Vin admitted. "Toss for it?"
"Now who's not taking this seriously?" Chris growled.
"Look they came this way, they didn't come back, that proves nothing."
"Or something happened to them somewhere down this trail and they're waiting for us to come and help them!" Chris was now practically in Vin's face.
"Gentlemen, whatever we do, perhaps we should make a decision and do it, not argue like petulant children?"
Both men turned to Ezra, who had put on his best poker face and waited for an answer.
"Toss a damn coin then," Chris told Ezra curtly. "Heads we carry on, tails we follow the new trail."
Namita Shama was small, you could even call her petite. After a week of unaccustomed physical exertion and now nearly four days with nothing to eat but a little trail mix and a few broken cookies, she was even slimmer then before. She stood and looked at their prison bars. Where the iron gate met the mine entrance, the wall wasn't regular, there was a larger gap at the top then at the bottom. The more she looked at this gap the more she was convinced she could just about fit through, with some help. The others were all for her plan, but it took her some time to convince Dr Sanchez. Eventually, wearing nothing but her underwear, Dr Sanchez lifted her up on to the shoulders of the other boys and 'fed' her through the small gap in their prison walls. It took some doing, she got stuck once, and picked up some cuts and grazes or rather she picked up some additional cuts and grazes, but she made it, she was outside.
After pulling her clothes back on she quickly scouted the area. Finding a clear running stream just a few yards away, she collected all the canteens and water bottles they had and filled them.
"What else have you found," Josiah asked her.
"I think there's a track, running up that way." She pointed to her left, to the north. "Its a bit over grown, but it looks like someone's been using it.
I'm fairly sure that is the trail we were going to join further up, the one that leads back into town. Youll have to go for help, Josiah told her. He didnt like the idea of sending the frail looking, city girl out into the wilderness alone, but there was no other option. Itll lead you back to the town, eventually, but its a good days hike.
"I'll be fine, I'll bring help," she assured. "Don't worry about me."
"Good luck child." Josiah and the others waved her off. Don't worry? Easier said than done.
"I think I can see it," JD announced, forging ahead though the undergrowth.
"JD be careful!" Nathan shouted, but it was no good, JD was throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of his goal - just as he always had when he was a field agent. "If he gets a rash from Poison Oak, it's his own fault," Nathan muttered as he followed, with due caution.
"You know you dont mean it - besides by the time the rash comes out, we'll be out of here." Buck gave Nathan a reassuring pat on the back and favoured him with one of his best grins.
"Damn well hope so!"
"Come on guys, this is it, has to be!" JD called from somewhere ahead of them."
"Kid always did have too much energy." Buck shook his head as he headed in the direction of the voice.
"Look who's talking," Nathan pointed out.
"I've slowed up some and I'm not too proud to admit it."
"Kids 'll do that to you."
With Buck in the lead the two older men continued to follow the path of destruction JD had left in his wake, both happy to note there didn't seem to be any Poison Oak or any other similarly vicious plants in the vicinity.
"Down here!" JD called, just as Buck's foot came down on nothing.
"Fuck!" Buck exclaimed as he tried to bring his other foot forward to steady himself, only for it to tangle in some vine like plant. He pitched forward, almost doing a somersault down the short but steep bank in front of him, arriving at JD's feet in a heap.
"Buck!" Nathan shouted. "Don't move!"
"Oh stop fussing," Buck rebuked, as he disentangled himself from his backpack and pulled himself to his feet. "It wasn't that far, I'm okay - sort of."
Nathan arrived safely at the bottom of the bank, having abandoned pride and slid down on his backside.
"Jeez Buck, you okay?" JD asked.
"I'll be the judge of that," Nathan all but growled at him.
Ten minutes later, Nathan finished putting a dressing on the open graze on Buck's knee and re-checked the one on his hand, confirming it wasn't bleeding and didn't need a dressing. "Here, take these." He held out two tablets and Buck's own water bottle.
"What are they?"
"Anti-inflammatorys, you'll be grateful you took them tomorrow morning."
Buck shook his head and took the offered medication. "This is no job for a respectable father of six," he muttered.
"You sure you didnt hit your head," JD asked.
"Yes - why?"
"'Cause you only have five children," Nathan reminded him.
Buck just grinned at him, with a look that held a hint of guilt.
"Oh no, not again, she can't be. Is she?"
"Four months gone, all fine," Buck admitted.
"Inez is having another baby?" JD asked, seeking conformation. Buck nodded. "Have you no self control?"
"What can I do? I married a strict Catholic."
Nathan shook his had, though he was grinning. "There are ways around that you know?"
"And we tried, we really did, but," He grinned and gave his eyebrows a suggestive waggle. "She finds me irresistible."
JD shook his head and then thrust his hand out and they shook. "Congratulations, what are you hoping for? A boy this time I bet?"
"So long as it's healthy, I really don't mind. A boy would be nice, can't deny that, but those girls, they just light up my life - you know?"
"Until they hit high school and want to start dating," Nathan reminded.
"Over my dead body! I was a high school boy once - for a whole four years - and I know how they think! No way is one of those coming near one of my angels, never!"
"Congratulations Buck." Nathan shook his hand. "I'll remind you that you said that, when my three come calling on prom night."
"No exceptions," Buck told him firmly. "Come on let's get going."
The coin toss had come down heads, thus Chris, Vin and Ezra had continued on their way with Vin in the lead and Ezra bring up the rear. For the most part they walked in tense silence. Ezra was beginning to get tired of the whole situation and had more or less resolved to try and force the two of them to confront their 'issues' when the Vin came to a halt.
"What is it?" Chris asked.
Chris came to stand beside Vin. Before them was small clearing, they could clearly hear running water, probably somewhere under the trees on the far side. There were four yellowed marks on the grass where the tents had been and an area of flattened grass surrounding a square of more yellowed grass.
"Right, Ezra get a GPS fix and up load it ready to send to JD when we next check in, which will be " he checked his watch. "in ten minutes. "Vin check the perimeter for tracks, I'll check out the camp site," Chris ordered.
The others just nodded their understanding and set about their assigned tasks, as if nothing had ever changed and Chris as still the undisputed leader of Team Seven - which he was and always would be.
The camp site clearly was the one they were looking for, but other than that there was little Chris could discover - Josiah had clearly taught them well, there was no litter, the square of yellowed grass in the centre covered a fresh fire pit. Vin was still prowling around the perimeter as Ezra called Buck's team and reported their finding.
"We found the mine track," JD reported "and it looks like someone's been up and down it with few ATVs recently."
"You sure about that?" Chris asked.
"Buck is, here talk to him."
"Chris?" Buck took the phone.
"Yeah, what did you find?"
"ATV tracks, several sets, my guess they went down, then came back. I don't think this is a regular thing, there's plenty of evidence this is the first time this track's been used in a long time."
"Did JD send you our position?"
"Send us yours, then follow the track, see where it takes you. Keep your phone on."
"Will do, speak to you as soon as we find something, bye."
Namita was tired, hungry and scared, but she kept going. The track ran uphill most of the time, but where it did run downhill, she picked up her speed to a jog. Although she kept looking at her watch, she had little concept of the passing of time. In the end she walked and jogged for almost six hours without a break. When they set out from the car park a week ago, and that day seemed like an age away now, she would have said she couldn't possibly walk for six hours without a break. If she hadn't seen them when she did, she wasn't sure she could have kept going, her head hurt, her legs were beginning to turn to jelly and she seemed to be having problems with her vision because she was sure she could see figures running toward her.
"Hello? Miss?" Someone shouted.
She looked up and tried to make her brain engage past putting one foot in front of another. Drug dealers! What if it was them? She stopped, frozen where she was, trying to remember Dr Sanchez's instructions if she was suspicious. The three men were almost on top of her, in the lead was a tall black man, he reached her first.
"Miss? Are you alright?" he asked.
"I, um, that is yes, but I am lost, I need to get back to the town, can you tell me were it is?" She didn't want to give away any information if these were the bad guys.
"Why don't you take a seat, here on this bank?" He pointed to a mossy mound at the side of the track.
She didn't want to antagonise him or his friends, so she let him lead her over to the mound and sat down. He offered her some water, having seen the empty bottle she was still carrying.
"Thanks," she acknowledged quietly.
"I'm Nathan, and this is JD and the big ugly one is Buck," Nathan pointed to each of the others in turn.
"Ugly?" Buck spluttered with indignation.
Namita was feeling more coherent, now she was off her feet and had something to drink.
"Are you hungry?" Nathan asked. She nodded. "Here, take this." He handed her a granola bar.
"Did you say your name was Buck?" she asked, looking up suddenly, Buck wasn't that common a name, she remembered the story Dr Sanchez had told them about the car in the drain.
"Do you know someone called Ezra?"
"Sure do, and I'm guessing you know our friend Josiah Sanchez." Buck was now squatting down in front of her. "Right?"
"Oh yes, thank you God," she breathed.
Vin had found what seemed to be the most recent set of tracks leaving the campsite. That they seemed to be heading in the general direction of the mine track, added to his conviction that these were the ones to follow. Half an hour later, when they checked in and re checked their positions, it was clear their routes were converging. Half an hour later the three of them came upon a recent landslide, probably caused by the earthquake. The tracks they were following went under it, so they had to detour around it, hoping to pick up the trail on the far side. It was slow going, making their way up the loose slope. Ezra was tired, dirty and worried, to make matters worse, Chris and Vin had resumed sniping at each other. As they finally crested the ridge, he'd had just about enough.
"That's it!" Ezra exploded. "You two used to be the best of friends, you should be the best of friends, you still could be - but no, you are content to spend your years behaving like a pair of cheerleaders having a hissy fit! You made mistakes - both of you " he added quickly before either man could speak, although in truth they were standing there, staring at him, like a pair of lightning struck trout. "Vin - you made a bad choice, we all know love can blind a man, so that is forgivable. We all knew Charlotte was a conniving, selfish, manipulative, bitch - and I say this as the son of a conniving, selfish, manipulative, bitch, so I know better than most - and we told you so, but you wouldn't or perhaps couldn't listen, so we let it drop." Ezra turned his attention to Chris, before Vin could speak. "But not you Mr Larabee, oh no, you knew what was best for Vin, you knew better than him how he should be living his life, and you told him so - over and over again. You were warned what might happen if you didn't back off, but you just had to keep picking that sore until it was an open wound. So when the aforementioned bitch left your best friend with a six month baby and a new stepson, you weren't there for him."
"Ezra this is none of your business!" Chris snapped.
"On the contrary it is very much my business. You are both my friends, you are both godfathers to my children, you are both part of this 'family' we still have, except you two are spoiling the party - literally and metaphorically - and it has to stop. We need to find Josiah, and to do that we need to be a team and we can't do that with you two acting like children!"
"Ezra, back off," Vin snarled.
"No, not this time, all you two have to do is set aside this damn pride of yours and admit you made mistakes. You're both angry, you both have reason to be angry - but not with each other, yet you persist on taking your anger out on each other." Ezra looked Vin in the eye. "It is not Chris' fault Charlotte used you and left you with two children to raise. It was your choice to leave Denver, no one made you do it, you know we would have helped with the children, you only had to ask, pride is a fine thing - in moderation - but it wouldn't hurt you to ask for help, once in a while."
He turned away from a fuming, stunned Vin to face Chris, fixing him with as steely a glare as any Chris could muster. "It was not Vin's fault that bomb went off before you could get out, it's not his fault you lost sight in one eye and it wasn't his fault they withdrew your field agent status. So the pair of you, just grow up and get over it!"
There was no sound, even the wildlife seemed to have fallen into shocked silence. Vin and Chris stared at Ezra, who was doing his best to look cool, calm and collected, though his heart was racing, his stomach had butterflies in it and his legs felt like jelly.
Vin opened his mouth, as if to speak, then closed it again. Chris was glaring.
"Mr Larabee, I assure you, after all these years I am immune to the glare," Ezra told him, his voice a lot steadier than he felt, though in the truth - now that his left eye didn't focus on you - the Larabee glare had lost some of its power.
Before Chris could explode, and Ezra just knew he was about to, the satellite phone rang.
"What?" Chris snapped in to it.
"Chris?" It was JD. "We got a lead on them, so listen up."
Namita explained that the mine was at the end of the track - not unsurprising. According to the map it would take them about three or four hours to get there - if they stayed on the track.
"Can we cut across country?" Buck asked.
JD scrutinised his map. "Reckon so, but it'll be steep."
"Figures, can you get us a GPS plot to the end of the track, so us old guys don't get lost?"
JD looked up. "What about me?"
"Someone needs to say on the track with Miss Shama here." He smiled at Namita. "There are injured, so Nathan needs to be there, and you're a hell of a lot better with that thing than me." Buck pointed to the phone and GPS handset.
JD took a moment to check Buck's logic, but couldn't fault it. "Yeah, I guess, but if I've got the phone you'll be out of contact, unless the radio decides to work, which looking at the terrain, I doubt."
"Call Chris, give them the position, have them meet us, they've got a phone."
"Okay, I guess."
"We'll call you when Chris and the others get there."
As the map had indicated, the mine was in a deep depression, with a fast flowing stream at the bottom, or at least, they presumed it was. Buck and Nathan had re-joined the old mine track about fifty yards from its end.
"Josiah!" Buck shouted, looking around the small clearing where the trail ended in a confusion of ATV tracks
"Here," Josiah called. "Up here!"
Buck and Nathan started running up the steep slope toward the small stand of trees that hid the mine's entrance.
"Damn it's good to see you," Buck gasped, reaching through the bars to shake Josiah's hand.
"Likewise my friend."
Nathan came up behind Buck to greet his best friend. "Good to see you brother."
"I knew you would find me. Have you got some way to get this open?" Josiah gave the bars a slight rattle.
"Ezra's on his way," Nathan told him with a grin. "How are you all doing? Namita said "
"You found her?"
"Oh, yes, well she found us. She's safe with JD," Buck told him. "He's going to call the locals, get some more help out here."
"So how are you all doing?" Nathan asked again.
While Nathan and Josiah discussed the injured, Buck took canteens from the students and headed down to the stream to get more fresh water.
"Have you got the key?" one of the students asked as he was handed some water though the bars.
"Or bolt cutters?" someone else asked.
"No, just an Ezra," Buck told him. He'd seen Chris and the others approaching while he was filling the canteens.
"What's an Ezra?"
"That's Mr Standish, to you."
Ezra strolled up the hill with as much dignity as he could muster. As he approached he was pulling out the little leather pouch containing his lock pick. He rarely needed them these days, but he still carried them at all times, he would put them in his pocket in the morning along with his wallet, car keys and cell phone, just as he always had, it was part of his routine.
"You can really do that?" the boy asked, as Ezra began to manipulate the lock. "I though that only worked in the movies."
The padlock was big and new, but it wasn't complicated and yielded to Ezra's skilled hands in no more than a minute. With the lock gone, Ezra pulled the chain away as Josiah and one or two of the boys pushed the gate open.
"Wow man, that is so cool!" one of the boys congratulated.
"Thank you." Ezra gave a small bow, as the other students filed past him.
There were greetings all around, then while Nathan entered the tunnel to begin to tend to the most seriously injured. Buck finally got a chance to hug Josiah, needing that last reassurance that he was really safe and well.
"Good to see you as it is, have to say, you're a mite ripe there pal," Buck told him as they parted.
"I don't doubt it. Did Namita tell you about the drugs?"
Buck nodded. "Yeah, we've got a GPS fix on this place and JD 'll send the in the cavalry.
Josiah turned to greet Chris and Vin and then seemed to pull up short. "What happened to you two?" he asked, staring at them.
"What's that meant to mean?" Chris asked
"Something happened to them?" Buck turned to look at Chris and Vin, they had looked okay to him, yet now he took a second look, they did look a little - stunned?
"Nothing," Chris growled.
Vin just glared at Ezra.
"Ezra?" Nathan asked, coming out of the tunnel. "Is something wrong, is someone hurt?"
"There has been something 'wrong' with those two for the past seven years," Ezra told him. "But no one is in need of medical attention - at least not this time."
"There ain't nothing wrong with us," Vin assured, defensively
Ignoring Vin, Josiah turned to Ezra. "Why do they look like the sky just fell on them?"
"Josiah," Chris all but snarled. "Drop it."
Studiously ignoring this, Ezra continued. "Have you ever had to spend any time alone with them?" Ezra asked, clearly exasperated.
"Not if I can help it," Buck admitted.
"After the best part of a day, I was left with two options. One of which was to shoot the pair of them. I chose the lesser of two evils."
"Which was?" Nathan asked.
"He told them," Josiah stated as the truth hit him.
"Just so. The reaction was interesting, a real Kodak moment, I only wish I had thought to take a picture."
"Told them? Told them what?" Buck asked.
"What we have all wanted to tell them for the past seven years," Josiah informed him " - right?"
"Meaning?" Buck asked.
"I wish I'd been there to see that," Josiah told Ezra with a shake of his head.
"Told them what?" Buck asked, placing his hands on Ezra's shoulders and turning him so they were face to face. "I'm tired, hot, dirty, hungry, my leg aches and I want to go home, so, in English - preferably in words of one syllable - what did you tell them?"
"He told them to grow up and stop acting like spoiled teenagers," Josiah supplied, with clear admiration in his voice.
"You didn't?" Buck gasped, looking back at Ezra in awe. "And you're still alive?"
"Wish I'd done it years ago, do you think it worked?" Nathan asked.
"I really can't say, they haven't said a word to each other since."
"Are you four finished?" Chris asked, darkly.
"We do have a job to do here," Vin reminded.
Josiah just laughed, slapped Ezra on the back and shook his hand. Grinning he turned those of his students still on their feet. "Well boys and girls, I do hope you were all watching that, they'll be questions later."
"Doctor Sanchez, can we go home now?" one of them asked.
"I'm sure help is on the way," he assured.
Chris pulled out his phone, intending to call JD, when the phone began to ring.
"Chris?" JD answered intently. "Have you met up with Buck and Nathan, what about Josiah?"
"Yes and yes, did you get hold of anyone yet?"
"Yes, but it will take them some time to get there and in the mean time we've got trouble."
"Four guys on ATV's heading your way, all armed."
Chris beckoned to Buck as he spoke. "Did they see you?"
"No, we heard them coming and managed to get out of sight."
"How much time do we have?"
"They were going pretty fast not long ago."
"Keep the locals updated, call if you have any new intel."
"We'll deal with the others."
He hung up and looked at Buck. "You get all that?"
"Get Josiah and the kids out of sight. Nathan?" he called.
"We've got trouble we need to move everyone out of the mine and out of sight, what do you need?"
Nathan didn't protest or ask questions, he just issued instructions. It was just like old times, with JD providing the communications, intelligence and surveillance and the rest of the team going into action as if they had never been apart. Buck, JD and Vin, as lawmen, were the only one's allowed to fly with guns. Knowing that Chris, as a bounty hunter, was licensed to a carry a gun in California, Buck had brought his personal revolver as well as his service weapon - just in case.
Chris told Vin to pick his spot and then deployed his men accordingly, so that no one would be in Vin's way, and making best use of the land and the cover available - it was as if Team Seven had never broken up. Now he stood in the shadow of a large pine tree, Vin was some way above him, straddling one of the thicker branches, checking his sights.
"Always did like Buck's old .45," Chris commented as he checked the weapon.
"Can't beat a good .45," Vin agreed.
"It's got stopping power."
"About what Ezra said "
"Yeah, about that. The thing is, what you said about Charlotte, you were right."
"That's not what I meant, I've been acting like , well you know and it was dumb."
"No dumber than me cowboy."
"So we're okay now?"
"Good job Josiah can't hear us."
"He'd want us to 'talk about it'."
"We just did that."
To be sure of a conviction, they needed to see the men with the drugs. So they let them drive up, park, pull out flashlights and head into the mine - still armed. Buck and Vin had erased any evidence that someone had been in there, or at least as much as possible, before Ezra had carefully relocated the gate. It would be best if the men were not on their guard when they came back out, hopefully any evidence they missed wouldn't be noticed in the darkness and shadows.
A few minutes after they entered the tunnel, they came back out, each carrying three of the packages.
"Looks like they have a big order to fill," Ezra commented.
"I'm 'so' sad to say, they won't be delivering." Buck looked over to where Chris was hiding, it had been a long time since they'd done this, even longer since they'd done it with no radio or surveillance. Chris stepped out of the shadows and gave him the signal. The same signal Team Seven had always used, the same one Buck and Chris had used in the police and the same one they had learnt in the SEALs, it didn't matter how may years had past, it wasn't something they would ever forget.
"Game on," he told Ezra. "Keep back."
"I am more than capable of assisting," Ezra informed him.
"You're not armed," Buck reminded him. Then he looked over his shoulder and grinned. "Besides, there's only four of them, since when did odds of four to three bother us?"
What ever Ezra was going to say was lost when Vin fired. One shot hit the ground between the feet of the man who had been in the lead when they rode up, it was a good bet he was the leader.
At that very moment Buck and Chris broke cover.
"Drop your weapons!" Chris ordered.
"Federal Agents," Buck shouted, admittedly the only other federal agent in the area was JD, who was some way away, but it sounded good and was technically true.
"Fuck!" one of the men shouted, raising his gun.
A second rifle shot and the gun flew out of his hand. Buck and Chris fired simultaneously, both hitting the trees behind the men and missing them by fraction of an inch
"I said drop them!" Chris shouted. "Or are you gonna make us do this the hard way?"
Slowly the men lowered their guns.
"Drop them and kick them away!" Buck ordered as he got closer. The men complied.
Chris signalled to the others as he approached.
"You four, back into the mine," Buck ordered.
"You're not gonna cuff us?" the man they had identified as the probable leader asked.
Ezra re-attached the padlock. "Silly me, I didn't bring them on a search and rescue mission."
"Search and rescue - you weren't looking for us?"
"Why the hell would anyone want to look for you?" Chris asked. "Local law will be along to collect you later."
Chris turned away from the guy, had he turned to his left, he might have seen what was coming, but he turned right, toward Josiah, turning his blind left eye to the gate.
"Chris!" Nathan shouted.
Something flew though the air and the man yelped. As everyone turned back they saw a clasp knife fall to the floor as the man stared down at his hand, which now had a scalpel sticking out of it. Buck and Vin, who had climbed down from the tree, raised their guns.
Chris swallowed. "Thanks Nate."
"My pleasure, good to know I can still do that."
"What the hell were you doing with a scalpel in your hand anyway?" Vin asked.
"I'll show you. Once I deal with him."
The drug dealer complained bitterly that he had to put his hand though the bars to receive treatment.
"Stop complaining, you're not bleeding that much, it was sterile blade - mind you "
"What?" the man asked.
"You can't be too careful." With that Nathan poured some peroxide onto the small wound, making the man yelp.
"Oh quit being such a baby," Buck chided, "My six year old's braver than that."
Once Nathan had finished, Ezra stepped up. "Since we can't be sure you gentlemen don't have more keys to this." He picked up the padlock. "We need to ensure you can't use it - Mr Jackson, would you do the honours?"
"My pleasure Mr Standish. First of all a little medical super glue." He twisted the top of a small tube of purple fluid and squeezed it in to the keyhole. "And just in case you managed to work that free." He took the razor sharp scalpel and jammed it into the keyhole, broke off the blade and added more super glue.
"That should hold you," Nathan smiled told them happily.
"True, but only we get to say it, so shut the fuck up!" Chris snarled.
It took nearly an hour for a rescue helicopter to find them and air lift out the three most seriously injured students. In the next four hours everyone else was evacuated using the smugglers own ATV's and others from the town. Josiah finally let Nathan take a look at him and agreed to go to the local hospital for a check up.
"After all, you need set an example, Dr Sanchez." Nathan had reminded him.
It was at the hospital that Monica Rhys met them again. She ran up to Josiah as he buttoning up the cuff of the shirt Buck has loaned him, making sure it covered the dressing on his fore arm. He really hadn't suffered any serious injury, but the graze on his arm was inflamed and possibly infected.
"Dr Sanchez!" she called. "Oh thank God. The police told me what happened. Are you really alright?"
"Yes, I'm fine, a lot better than some of the students."
"Yes your friend Mr Jackson filled me in. Now don't you worry, I've managed to contact the Dean's office, they'll deal with the families."
"I appreciate that Monica. It's lovely to see you, even under these circumstances."
Monica looked around, noticing Chris and Vin standing a little way off. "I was so worried Josiah," she all but whispered.
"It's all okay now, thanks to you."
"Me? It was your friends who found you."
"No one would have found us if you hadn't raised the alarm so promptly. If we'd have been there when those men came back well I think you can imagine what might have happened. The guys got to us in the nick of time - thanks to you." He bent forward and kissed her forehead.
"Josiah!" she hissed. "People can see us, students." Two of the students were sitting in the corridor, having been given the all clear.
"So? Monica we are both consenting adults."
"I know but, oh hell!" She returned his kiss, on the lips. "Now I have things to do, where are you staying?"
"Not sure, somewhere local, for tonight."
Josiah watched Monica walk away, heading for the students, then turned and walked toward Chris and Vin.
"So you and Miss ?" Chris began.
"Rhys," Josiah supplied. "And we are," he paused, trying to come up with the right phrase. "Exploring things."
"Things?" Vin asked.
"That need exploring. Do you have any idea where I can find a bed?"
"I've got a cabin at the dude ranch down the road, Buck's trying to get another one, so we can all stay together." Vin patted Josiah's shoulder. "It's good to have you back."
"It's good to have you back too - both of you."
"It's good to have us back?" Chris asked.
"The two of you, the real you, not the pair of strangers we've had for the last seven years. You know, if I'd know all it took was for someone to just tell you to quit it, I'd have done it years ago. We need to talk about this."
"No we don't" Chris stated firmly. "You need to get some sleep, actually we all need to get some sleep, except Vin."
"Me? Why not me? Why dont I get some sleep?"
"Because your children need you." Chris grinned at him.
"Oh shit, the kids."
"Grace and Cody are here? Where?" Josiah asked.
"At the dude ranch."
"Pa!" Grace shouted, jumping down from the porch of their rented cabin. "You found him!"
With that she dashed past her father and flung her self at her Uncle Joe, firing questions at him nineteen to the dozen.
"She ever remind you of someone?" Chris asked Vin as he climbed down from the car.
"Why do you think I try to keep her and JD apart as much as possible," Vin told him with a smile.
Grace was eventually persuaded to let Josiah get some rest in the large cabin Buck had rented. Exhausted, he wasn't the only one looking for an early night, by nine the only person still up was Cody.
"Make sure you get the lights son," Vin reminded as he headed to bed.