MAIN CHARACTERS: Vin, Ezra
Editors' Note: The original version of this story first appeared in the Mag 7 zine, Let's Ride #13, published by Neon RainBow Press, Cinda Gillilan and Jody Norman, editors. When we all decided to post the stories that have appeared in the issues of Let's Ride that are more than two years old, we opted to use a generic pen name because, while Michelle Fortado and Kacey Tucker are the primary authors of this story, they had so much help from the other folks writing for the press that it just made sense to consider the story to be written by the Neon RainBow Press Collective! Resistance was futile. So, thanks to the whole Neon Gang Dori Adams, Sierra Chaves, Dana Ely, Michelle Fortado, Patricia Grace, Deyna Greywolf, Dani Martin, Erica Michaels, Karson Raine, Nina Talbot, Kacey Tucker, Rebecca Wright, and Lorin and Mary Fallon Zane. Story lasted edited 7-29-2008. Art by Shiloh
"Vin, you hear me?"
"Hear y' just fine, Buck," the ATF sniper replied.
"DPD located one of the stolen fireworks trucks. Chris said to meet them at 1221 East Green Street."
"1221 East Green, got it," Tanner replied, then flipped his cell phone shut. "Y' heard. Step on it, Ez."
Ezra Standish pulled his Jag into a tight U-turn. "Did they locate the fireworks?"
"One of the trucks, anyway," the Texan drawled.
Standish shook his head. "I do not understand it. Someone goes all the way down to Mexico to buy illegal fireworks and then hauls them back up here No doubt they planned to sell them, make themselves a tidy profit. I can understand profit. But surely they have heard these fireworks are dangerous. You would think that whoever bought the damn things would have dumped them by now."
"An' lose all that money?" Vin asked. "'Sides, I doubt they believed the news reports."
"But they have to know that if someone dies while using these things they will be held accountable."
"Yer assumin' they care," Tanner said.
Ezra simply shook his head. "I just wish we knew how many truckloads were sold."
"Or at least how many were headed for Colorado," Vin added. "Hell, maybe these guys already took 'em back t' Mexico, or dumped 'em."
"But you do not think so, do you?"
"Nope, I don't think so."
The two men fell into a nervous silence. They had two days before the Fourth of July to locate several truckloads of unstable fireworks. If not, and some families and kids ended up with them Well, neither man wanted to carry that speculation too far.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin saw the faint flash of the blue patrol car lights and pointed. Ezra slowed, weaving past the gathering crowd of people, finally parking near the patrol cars.
Climbing out, Ezra smoothed down his light jacket, and watched Vin settle an old slouch hat on his head.
There are some definite advantages to one of those things on a day like this, the well-dressed man thought, squinting in the hot July sun. He followed Vin to where the officers stood near an empty truck cab.
"Anything?" Tanner asked.
"No fireworks," the ranking officer said, holding out a piece of paper. "But we found this. Looks like it might be where they delivered the load."
Vin accepted the proffered note and glanced at the address. "I know this place. It's out by the ridin' academy and stables."
"I don't have to tell you what could happen if someone tries using those around a bunch of little kids and their families," the older officer said.
Vin shook his head as Ezra said, "We'll find them. With all the bulletins on the radio and TV, people have to know it's not safe to purchase fireworks from Mexico."
"I hope you're right," the younger officer said.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
The two ATF agents walked around the large indoor and outdoor riding arenas. In each, groups of children rode in circles round the rail, learning the basics of western or English horsemanship. Vin couldn't help but grin at all the tiny bouncing behinds.
When they reached the last arena, laid out under a corrugated metal roof, a young woman stepped away from the ring and walked up to join them. She was of average height, but that's where "average" left off.
Long red-blond hair was held back in a thick pony tail, and pale green eyes stared out of a lightly tanned and freckled face that looked like a vacation poster for the Emerald Isle. She smiled at the agents. "Can I help you, gentlemen?"
"Uh " Standish managed to stutter.
"Are you here to enroll your children?" Her southern drawl was soft and endearing.
"No, ma'am," Vin said, slipping off his hat. "We're ATF agents." He removed his badge and showed it to her.
"ATF?" she asked, placing her hands on perfectly proportioned hips that crowned long legs snugly surrounded by blue jeans. "Is there some kind of trouble here?"
"Did y' see a medium-sized, cream-colored truck here earlier this mornin'?" the Texan asked. "The sides would've been painted with a circus clown-face."
She nodded. "Yes. Yes, I did. They were unloading some boxes."
"We're lookin' for someone sellin' illegal fireworks," Vin said, looking at his silent partner. "They're defective, an' could kill somebody."
The young woman bobbed her head. "Well, I don't know if that's what it was, but there were three men here this mornin' with a truck like that. Some of the kid's parents were buyin' boxes from 'em, but I didn't see what was in them. They stored a bunch of them in the academy owner's office. I was too busy with a class to really see what it was."
"Do you know where these men went?" Ezra asked, finally finding his voice.
"Well, I don't know about all of 'em, but one of the guys works here. He's out back, or he was about ten minutes ago."
"Where?" Vin asked, reaching out to rest his hand lightly on her arm.
She hiked her head over her shoulder. "Right back there the rental horse corrals."
The two men set out at a jog, moving back past the regular stalls to corrals, empty at the moment. In the distance they caught sight of a man saddling a tall chestnut gelding.
"Hey! You!" Ezra called. "Federal agents! We want to talk to you!"
The man's head snapped around and he stared at the rapidly approaching agents for a moment, then swung up into the saddle and kicked the gelding's flanks. The chestnut gave a grunt, stomped a rear hoof, and set out at a slow trot.
Vin looked around for another mount while Ezra drew his Walther P99 and took aim at the man.
"Freeze!" Standish yelled.
The man leaned over the horse's neck and kicked at the gelding's flanks again. The horse picked up the speed to a fast lope.
"You'll hit the horse," Vin snapped, running for the only animal still stabled in the area.
Throwing open the door to the stall, Tanner gave the waiting mount a quick once over.
Standish watched the fleeing man, noting the direction he was taking. "Come on!" he yelled at his partner. "Let's get back to the Jag!"
Vin reached for the bridle hanging nearby, fought the bit into the animal's mouth and tightened the throat latch. Tossing the reins over the piebald pinto's head, he tugged the animal out of the stall.
Standish took one look at the beast and burst into laughter.
"What 'n the hell's wrong with ya?" Vin asked, stepping over the animal's back to straddle it. His feet touched firmly on both sides. The Shetland lowered its head, snaking it toward Standish who continued to laugh her ears laid back and an evil look in her eye.
"What is that creature, an overgrown dog?" Standish managed to gasp.
"A pony," Vin said, sitting down on the animal's bare back and grabbing a handful of its mane.
"Vin, you'll never catch him on that thing!"
"Watch me," the Texan said, burying his boot heels in the animal's side.
The pinto pooped and skittered out to the trail at a fast trot, Vin bouncing wildly on her back.
Ezra was sure the sniper had gone insane. The mare looked like a cross between a goat and a Great Dane, but if Vin wanted to make a fool out of himself, who was he to stop him? The undercover man turned back toward the Jag, jogging and snickering all the way.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
Vin was beginning to doubt the wisdom of his decision to try and catch the fleeing man with the Shetland. The pony was impossible to control, and the Texan slid dangerously from side to side. But the pinto did seem to have a clear idea what Tanner wanted, and doggedly followed the taller chestnut.
The Texan urged the mare on. He was closing on the larger horse.
The man, catching sight of the agent and the Shetland, slapped the end of his reins across the gelding's withers, making him crow-hop.
Vin watched. He was going to catch the guy. Now all he had to do was stop the pony.
Pulling back on the reins, Vin tried to slow the Shetland before she barreled into the taller horse, but it was a useless effort.
The pony hit the chestnut broadside, sending the man and Vin flying off their mounts in opposite directions. The grinding of tires in the dirt made Tanner contort himself into a ball.
The Jag skidded to a stop no more than three feet away.
Ezra lunged from the Jag, his gun in hand, while the dust settled on Vin. The two horses reared, the chestnut squealing loudly while the pinto merely grunted.
Vin scrambled to his feet and staggered after his partner.
"Federal agents, freeze!" Standish yelled at the man, who was trying to stagger off.
"All right, all right," he moaned, raising his arms away from his body. "Damn that goat anyway!"
Standish quickly checked the man and, finding no weapons, returned his own to its holster and handcuffed the suspect.
Vin pushed some of the dust off his red denim jacket and glared at his partner. "What 'n the hell were y' thinkin', Ez? Y' could've run me over!"
"Sorry," the undercover man said. "I didn't think you were going to ram our suspect. Isn't that dangerous for the horses?"
"It wasn't my idea!" Vin defended.
"Mr. Tanner, you were the one holding the reins, weren't you?"
"I was holdin' on all right, but that damned pony was in the driver's seat!"
The two agents turned to find the pretty young woman jogging behind a little girl, both of them headed their way and obviously upset. "Tank, what're you doin'?"
The girl, no more than seven, walked straight up to the pinto and grabbed the bridle. Vin started to snatch her out of the range of the pony's teeth, but the smile on the woman's face stopped him.
"You were a bad pony," the girl scolded.
The Shetland lowered her head and pressed her muzzle against the girl's shoulder.
"Sayin' you're sorry won't help. You know you aren't supposed to tackle the other horses anymore."
"Tackle?" Standish mouthed. Vin shrugged, rubbing his bruised backside.
The little girl turned big green eyes on the two agents. "You should've asked to ride Tank first."
"Uh, I'm right sorry, ma'am," Vin said, looking appropriately ashamed. "But I'm a federal agent, an' I needed t' borrow your pony t' catch this man."
"Oh," the little girl said. "Well okay. Tank's a good pony most of the time." She poked the mare in the ribs and the pinto grunted contentedly. "She likes to tackle the other horses."
"I found that out," Vin mumbled, shooting the pinto a hot look.
"Honey, why don't you take Tank back to her stall now," the woman said and the little girl grabbed a handful of the pony's mane, pulled herself up onto the animal's back, and reined her back toward the corral.
"Y' sure that's safe?" Vin asked, watching the two of them pick up speed.
The woman laughed. "Oh, yes. Annie and Tank have been together for seven years now. Tank wouldn't do anything to hurt her."
"Hope you're right, ma'am," Vin said, his skepticism clear as he tried to covertly massage his backside. "How'd that pinto ever get a name like Tank?"
"She was raised around three goats and, unfortunately, picked up their habit of butting. Since she's bigger than the goats, she'd just bowl them right over, like a tank. That's also my husband's nickname, so it's sort of like a family joke."
"I see," the Texan said.
"Husband?" Ezra mumbled sadly.
"My husband's Randy 'Tank' McCorkin."
The two agents looked at the woman. "Of the Denver Broncos?" Standish asked.
"The very same."
"Well, I'll be," Vin said, grinning. "I watched your husband play when he was at A&M. He's a great defensive end."
"A shame you cannot say the same," Ezra said and snickered, his gaze dropping to Vin's rear.
* ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ *
"Well?" Chris asked the men as they lounged in his office, taking advantage of the additional wall unit spilling cool air into the room.
"Well, he's willin' t' tell us where the other two trucks are if we go easy on 'im. Buck and JD are roundin' his two brothers up right now. Seems there was three trucks total, but they'd only sold 'bout a third 'a the first load."
"With Jill McCorkin's help the woman out at the stable we were able to locate all but one of the boxes."
"That's not too bad," Chris said with a small smile. "Oh, and Vin?"
"Next time you get the urge to join the rodeo, make sure you get a horse that fits." He burst into laughter.
Vin blushed and frowned. "How'd y' hear 'bout that?" he asked, leveling a smoldering glare on the undercover man.
"Oh, I didn't hear about it. I saw it," Larabee replied.
"Saw it?" the Texan said softly, his blush deepening.
"Seems one of the parents at the stables had a video camera and caught your ride. One of the news stations got a hold of it, and they showed it on the five o'clock news, along with another warning about the fireworks," the blond explained.
Vin's face paled. Chris tried not to laugh at the horror-stricken Texan, but he couldn't hold it in.
"Ah, come now, Mr. Tanner, it was all for a good cause," Ezra offered.
"An' I suppose you'd like a little public humiliation?" Vin shot back at Standish.
"Travis even called me about it," Larabee said, rubbing the tears out of his eyes.
"Travis?" Vin squeaked. "What'd he say?" he asked, looking miserable.
"That if the ATF ever gets a mounted division, you'd better not put in for a transfer!"