Buck Wilmington groaned as he lowered himself into the passenger seat. "You know I hate driving to these things." He checked himself out in the side mirror, enjoying how his blue eyes matched the color of the car.
Easing himself behind the wheel, Josiah Sanchez nodded. "Yeah." Josiah and Buck had already agreed to do all the driving in their car; neither had wanted to ride in the backseat, their long legs squashed.
"So why are we?" JD Dunne called from the backseat.
"Mr. Larabee says the ATF can't afford to send all of us on a plane anymore," Ezra Standish drawled from his seat next to JD.
"Something to do with liability insurance." Sanchez checked his mirrors and pulled out into traffic, following the black car carrying the other three members of their team.
Guilty looks abounded in the vehicle.
"Must be referrin' to the time that y'all started a fire in the luggage section," laughed Buck.
"Couldn't it be the time you pinched that flight attendant's ass and got us tossed off the plane?" Dunne shot back.
Standish cleared his throat. "I'd wager on the freak occurrence of two of you gentlemen caught in the locked bathroom at ten thousand feet."
"Hmmph," Buck said with the hint of a blush, refusing to look at Josiah. "Good thing we're drivin' this time."
The first few hours of the ten-hour trip went smoothly; traffic flowed quickly and everyone had agreed to limit the number and duration of stops. No one wanted to stay cooped up longer than absolutely necessary.
The first snag occurred on Highway 90, three and a half hours from Denver.
"I'm thirsty," JD said.
He was ignored.
"I'm thirsty," he said again, louder this time.
"We just stopped twenty minutes ago," Buck snapped. "Why didn't you get something then?" He was driving, having just relieved Josiah.
"I wasn't thirsty then," JD explained. "I am now."
"Too bad. We ain't stoppin' 'til we reach Treeport."
"That'll be too long. . . . Hey, Ez, you got any soda left?" JD called over to his seatmate. The Southerner answered with a light snore. His head lay against the window, and Dunne saw an open mouth reflected therein. "Doesn't snore, my butt. Wish I had a tape recorder." Sighing, he hopefully prompted, "Josiah?"
"Sorry, JD. I finished mine off already."
Frustrated – and still thirsty – JD fiddled with the walkie-talkie in his hand. He and Vin had brought along a set for the ride, to keep contact between the two cars – and for some fun, of course, if the drive was boring. They had also brought earpieces, just in case they wanted to have a semi-private conversation.
Making a decision, he stuck in the earpiece and keyed the radio. "Bandit to Smokey, got your ears on?"
Vin Tanner's voice came back over the radio, tinny and sarcastic. "'Course I do, they're attached to m' head." A raspy chuckle followed.
JD rolled his eyes. "Got anything to drink? I'm thirstier than a dolphin in the desert."
Buck snorted at JD's outlandish claim.
There was brief pause, then, "Sure do, Bandit. Got me some ice cold Pepsis. Want one?"
"Where ya sittin'?"
"Behind the passenger seat."
JD wondered at the questions, but answered, "Buck."
"Perfect. Roll down yer window and then tell Wilmington there's a blonde hottie in the car ahead of us and she looks single."
"Jest do it."
JD did as Vin said, and had to grab hold of the car door when Buck slammed down on the accelerator and hurtled past the lead automobile. As they flew by, an aluminum rocket launched out of the black car. The soda can sailed right through the open window and landed in JD's lap.
"Wow," JD exclaimed. He held the can out to the side, preparing to pop the tab.
"His sharpshooter skills sure come in handy," Josiah commented.
Ezra threatened, "Don't you dare open that can near me," before dropping back off to sleep.
"I don't see a blonde!" Buck yelled.
"What the hell did you do that for?" Chris Larabee called, after Vin had thrown the soda can.
Tanner shrugged. "The kid was thirsty."
Nathan Jackson smiled. "Show off."
"You know, now we'll have to stop for a bathroom break before long," Larabee remarked.
"Nah, he can jest go out the window," Vin said.
Nathan grimaced. "Chris, please get back in front of them before that happens."
"And can ya please turn that racket off?" the Texan fairly begged.
Chris had discovered a new band that he –and only he – enjoyed. They had recently come out with a new CD, and he had been playing it since the last pit stop.
Chris shook his head. "Nope. The driver gets to pick the music."
Vin snorted. "Says who?"
Chris made eye contact in the rearview mirror and smiled. "It's the rule."
"What?" Vin asked. "Who says?"
"It's just a fact, everyone knows it."
Nathan nodded back to Vin; he knew it.
"That's bullshit," Vin said.
"That's the rule," Chris answered. He continued to listen to the CD, going so far as to turn the sound up a bit.
If Larabee was intent on being an obstinate ass, Vin figured he might as well have some fun. "I read about this case in the paper."
Nathan looked over his shoulder at Vin and caught his wink. Not a fan of the band either, he decided to play along; he would rather mess with Chris than listen to that music. "What case?"
"There was a shootin' in the park on Humboldt."
Nathan said, "I heard about that one."
"What happened?" Chris wrinkled his brow in confusion, apparently trying to recall the incident.
"Someone shot one of the street performers."
"Did they find the shooter?" Playing the "straight man," Jackson tried valiantly to keep a smirk off his face.
"The mime did it," Vin said.
Guessing what must be coming, Nathan oh-so-innocently inquired, "Why didn't any of the witnesses hear anything?"
"He used a silencer," Vin deadpanned.
Chris froze for a second before groaning and slamming the heel of his hand against his head. "Why do I bother trying to have a conversation with you?"
"I don't know, Cowboy. Mebbe yer a masochist."
Larabee just scowled and returned his concentration to driving. The CD played on.
A few minutes later, Nathan spotted a sign by the side of the road. "'Excessive engine braking noise prohibited.' Now what is that supposed to mean?" Jackson asked. "We can't brake?"
"Guessin' ya can if yer quiet about it," Vin said.
"So in the event of a car stopping short in front of us, we gotta crash into it rather than slam on the brakes?"
Vin wrinkled his brow. "Don't seem right, does it?"
"Nope. Damn stupid, in fact."
"Listen up, Laurel and Hardy," Chris interrupted. "You better knock that shit off."
"And if'n we don't?" Vin egged.
"Don't make me stop this car," warned Larabee with a growl.
"Are we there yet?" Nathan asked.
"How 'bout you keep the car between the lines, Buck?" JD said, hanging over the front seat between Sanchez and Wilmington.
"I always thought they was more of a suggestion myself." He took the next exit and they stopped at a gas station to fuel the cars up and empty themselves out.
Everyone got out, stretched their bodies and wandered around the lot.
"How much longer before this excruciating agony ends?" Standish groaned as he bent over to loosen his back muscles.
"Three hours, give or take," Josiah answered.
"Smoke 'em if ya got 'em," Nathan quipped.
Vin smiled and took out a pack of candy cigarettes. He pulled one out and offered the box to JD. The younger man grinned and accepted one.
"Why did we have to bring them along?" Larabee asked no one in particular.
Josiah laughed at Chris' expression. "I think Travis wanted the entire team to go."
"You could have fired them both," Ezra suggested.
"Don't think I didn't consider that very thing," Chris said, giving the evil eye at his two youngest team members, happily munching on their sweets. "Too much paperwork."
Two cars – one black and one blue – were parked alongside the road. Seven men roamed around them.
"Well, they did say the hotel was off the beaten track," Wilmington offered feebly.
Ezra eyed the unkempt and weed-ridden dirt road skeptically. "I would have to say it looks pretty damn beaten to me. Perhaps even the road we should not have taken."
JD nodded. "I think we're lost."
"Where did we go wrong?" Chris asked, then he called over his shoulder, "Shut up, Vin."
"I didn't say anythin'."
"You were thinkin' it."
Vin conceded the point. He had been thinking it.
JD shook his head at their desolate surroundings. "Now what?"
Chris made an executive decision. "I think we should double back and see where we went off course."
"I'll drive," Josiah volunteered.
"You don't trust me?" Buck asked him, hurtful expression intact.
"Uh, Buck, why don't you look around and see where your driving got us?" Dunne spread his arms wide.
"The directions were straight off my computer," Buck protested.
"I know the kind of sites you visit, Bucklin," Vin said. "I don't think they give drivin' directions."
Buck smiled widely with a dazed look in his eyes. "That Roxie sure knows her way around," he agreed.
Larabee slapped Buck on the back, knocking him out of his stupor. "Everyone get in the cars, let's go."
When Josiah swung the car around, a loud popping sound filled the oppressive silence inside the vehicle.
"What the hell was that?" Buck asked.
"I believe that was the sound of a blown tire," Ezra drawled.
"Told you I shoulda drove."
Sanchez growled as he stopped the car. The other vehicle stopped alongside. Everyone got out and stared at the rapidly flattening rubber circle.
"Aw, hell," Vin said. "This bites."
"Yep. Let's get it changed," Chris replied. He took the keys, popped the trunk of the incapacitated vehicle, and started tossing out luggage to get to the spare tire.
Wilmington oofed as he caught a suitcase. "Damn, Ez, what do you have in here?" He rubbed his chest where the bag had hit.
"Only the essentials, I assure you."
"Jack," Larabee said, handing it back.
"Thanks, Jill," JD joked.
Buck grabbed it from Chris before an assault could occur. He strode to the side of the car, sliding the device beneath.
"Don't put it there," Nathan said. "That's the wrong place."
"I've changed tires before, Nate," Buck declared. "I think I know where the jack goes."
"Not there, brother," Sanchez added. "That will dent the frame."
"It will not."
Vin reached down and snatched the jack. "Here." He shoved it under the car.
"All you ladies agree on that spot?" Chris snarled. He held the tire iron at his side.
They nodded, eyeballing the tire iron gripped tightly in their friend's hand.
"Good. Now jack up the car and let's get this over with."
Josiah wielded the tire iron, making short work of the chore.
Vin packed the now flat tire into the spare's compartment and placed the jack and iron on top. Buck and Nathan loaded the bags back in, and they were ready to go. This time, the cars were driven slowly and carefully off of the overrun road.
A while later, they were back at the gas station.
"I'm going in to ask for directions," Josiah announced, parking the car.
"Dude!" JD exclaimed.
"You can't do that."
"Why not?" Josiah's blue eyes were wide in confusion.
"You're breakin' the code."
"The man code," JD stated, as if it were obvious.
"Forgive me, but I think us finding the place before we die or shoot each other is more important." He got out and went inside.
JD looked at Ezra. "He broke the code," he whispered painfully.
Ezra shrugged. "Nothing we can do for him now."
Sanchez emerged from the station with a map in his hand and a smile on his face. He held the paper aloft to show Larabee, Tanner, and Jackson he knew the way, and then got back in his car.
"Seems breaking the code might've saved our necks." Josiah smirked.
"You'll see," cautioned JD. "It'll come back to haunt you."
But level heads – and good directions – prevailed, landing them at the hotel within two hours.
Unloading his bags from the trunk of the car, Ezra muttered, "I will be chartering a private plane to take me home."
"I'll give ya the rest of m' candy cigarettes if'n ya take me with ya," Vin pleaded in a whisper.