The Next Day:
Sippin' Whiskey II

by Heather

ATF Alternate Universe

Sequel to Sippin' Whiskey


SEVEN

Nathan threw the preacher a curious gaze, the question remained unasked. Sanchez only nodded a slight smile creased his rugged features. Jackson bit back the sudden relief that threatened to vocalize itself. The gambler had done it. Twice now the slippery conartist had wove his way through the tight net that ensnared the other ATF members. The medic knew, the southerner to be a slithering amoral unethical pain in the butt but one endearing character flaw was his ability to sleaze his way out of trouble.

What he did with his freedom remained to be seen. A few years ago he would have run and kept running, never looking back. Now, today he came back. It saddened Jackson to find himself slightly surprised. He knew the gambler tried his best to be loyal and trustworthy but as Josiah always said Ď you canít change the stripes on a cat.í Jackson always figured those stripes would lead Ezra away from the group. Standish was so ethically crooked he could not walk a straight line. Funny he had chose law enforcement to ply his trade. The man was exceptional at undercover work , very good, very believable, probably because he understood the motivations of his marks. He liked Standish considered him to be a friend. A year ago Jackson could not be in the same room with the knavish conman but the southerner had a certain charm, and when he tentatively offered his friendship Jackson grabbed it.

Ezra came back. The black sheep, the red headed step child to this family of seven returned. He came back to help. Jackson could only imagine the determination and loyalty that drove the gambler. Two days ago the others beat him black and blue for pulling the same stunt, under similar conditions. Jackson understood Ezraís trepidation, his fear of leaving. He heard the argument between Chris and Ezra and did not believe it to be the set up it turned out to be, luring the sergeant over to them. Standish did not want to leave, he would rather suffer or die with his friends than survive alone. Nathan wanted to peek back out the window to offer support to the conniving conman, but he did not, he kept his seat. He would not blow Ezraís return.

Standish sat back on the cot in the apartment in the barn. He shivered pulling the ice bobbed socks from swollen frozen feet. His fingers felt thick as if he wore gloves. In the heat of the apartment his toes and fingers began to tingle and then burn. Fingers and toes seemed to swell painfully, gawd it hurt. He numbly dug through the tiny selection of clothes the others had shoved at him the night before. He found another pair of wool socks and gingerly pulled them over sore battered feet. He found discarded wool lined boots under the bed. They stopped mid calf. He shucked on an old barn coat. His nose wrinkled at the odor. A manure pile smelled better than he did right now. He stood before the stove trying to warm himself back up, watching the silhouette of the main house through the snow storm. Did the sun ever shine in this God forsaken state? He needed a plan.

Standish stared transfixed at the log house. He had seen plenty of beautiful homes in his life time and even lived within some of the most prestigious manors in the south. This simple log home offered more than any house he had ever lived in as a child or adult. His friends sat trapped in there, his friends. It felt strange to even considered them friends, he did not particularly trust them, nor they him. They all had their reasons, all had their excuses. The bottom line remained unchanged, when things crumbled apart the others helped pick each other back up. Helped get each other back on their feet. Standish fell into that realm, though mostly as an afterthought. He pulled himself back from their game on his own accord, but it felt reassuring to have someone think of him as well.

The alien tendrils of friendship did not belong at the gaming tables. He refused them, shied from them and observed them wearily. He watched the others interact and envied them. To relate to someone outside the working world meant they were a mark. Worse yet, it meant he was a mark, a potential victim to a scam or con. He had been the mark of glass friendships,as false as the perpetuators that had lulled him in as a child and working adult. He had been nearly shattered by such underhanded tactics but bounced back as most kids did when left tattered and hurt. He acquired the ability to turn the tables make victims of the potential attackers. He learned to wreak his havoc before they burned him. A hard lesson, very hard for someone who always skirted the outer fringes of groups, when all that was desired was to belong. To have value not just to himself but to others.

He had value with these men, his co-workers he provided a necessary skill. Develop a friendship, no, he had not meant to, but when Chris and Buck struck out at him, and Josiah ignored him he realized quite painfully he had molded a binding tie with these hardened men. He never recognized it until those punches landed and the icy stares drilled him. They hurt more than any physical blow he had every received in his life. They hurt as much as when his mother left him on door steps of strangers, promising a quick return knowing she lied to him. Despite his best efforts he had been pulled into the scam of camaraderie only to be caustically pushed back outside it. Things never changed. They used him, he used people, a balance of sort, a symmetry, he only wished it were different.

He stood huddled over the wood stove trying to thaw frozen hands and feet. He needed a plan. He wanted back in the house. He wanted to face the uneven odds with the others, face the fear that now gripped him with the others not as an outsider. He did not want to be safe when the others lay within the grasp of potential madmen. He wanted in, they ordered him out. He would throw these damn cards out and start with another deck. The cards just were not falling his way.

A rustling at the door grabbed his attention, panic he jumped back ready to fight. The door pushed open slowly. Diablo. The old dog limped stiffly into the relative warmth of the small apartment. Standish smiled relieved. He squatted down enticing the genteel animal to him. The old dog settled down on the wood floor infront of the stove thumping his tail. Standish absently petted the dog, trying to devise a plan. Three gunmen verse a half frozen gambler and an old dog, the odds were definitely not in the houses favor. It was time for a new deck and a new game.

The Colonel, the corporal and the sergeant stood before the six captives. Tanner still lay curled on the floor, his shallow rhythmic breathing indicating unconsciousness or sleep. The colonel had not been bestowed with the virtue of patience. He wanted his revenge, he had waited so long. The storm outside still raged. The longer he held these men the more likely the chance for another escape attempt. He was not worried about the southerner. The man should already be incapacitated from the cold, there was no worry from that front. Norton wanted the Travisís here, but they would not venture out in this howling gale. The colonel would not sit idly. He was a man of action. He would make Larabee pay, his plan would still be carried out, that much he knew, it was just delayed.

He scrutinized the legendary men infront of him. The ATF Team, The Magnificent Seven. One would become his pawn for now while he waited. He ignored Larabee, Tanner and the preacher. Larabee would suffer enough just having to sit by helplessly, Tanner would only pass out, the preacher had incredible physical strength and therefore restraint would prove difficult. Wilmington and Jackson would be deviant, and not experience the fear and terror he wanted to see. His cold eyes lingered on the youngest member. Perfect.

The six men recognized the satisfied glare linger and rest on Dunne. Buck and Jackson protectively pushed the kid back against the wall, shielding the computer whiz with their shoulders. It was a futile attempt, they knew it but had to try something. Larabee shot Norton a deathly warning, Ďleaveíim aloneí Wilmington and Jackson practically sat on top of JD to keep him out of harms way. Buck would kill Norton with his bare hands.

Josiah peered back out the window. Everyone thinking the same thing, Ďwhere the hell was Ezra?í

"Get the boy." The colonel ordered. The corporal stepped forward. The hard lines on his clean shaven face paled compared to the dead hazel eyes. He followed orders, he did not think, he did not respond as a normal soldier, he was a machine dedicated, loyal and fierce. He would follow the colonel to hell and back, he already had, and would do so again. The significance of Dunneís life meant no more to him than the existence of a squashed spider. The boy was and ends to a means. Revenge did not motivate the soldier, the colonelís trust and praise was all that the corporal sought. If torturing the young man would get him these rewards then he would perform his duties with no hesitation. He stepped forward. Smoke and flame outside the window caught his attention. He paused in carrying out his orders.

"Colonel?" His voice matched his eyes and face. No emotion. Norton saw the flames, smoke billowed from an old Chevy. The vehicle moved closer to the house, slowly picking up speed, the old snow blade slightly raised off the ground. It headed toward them, toward the wall the six men sat against.

Norton and Josiah came to the same conclusion roughly the same time. Standish. Sanchez questioned the younger manís sanity. Sending a flaming truck in their direction was not his idea of a rescue. The colonel barked at the sergeant, "Watch them." He and the corporal grabbed their weapons and headed out the front door. They might have another pawn to play with after all.

Sanchez watched with growing apprehension at the dangerously encroaching vehicle. He could not see a driver. Then something happened and the vehicle changed direction, missing the livingroom and headed toward the kitchen side of the house. Josiah watched the Colonel and corporal search the area and then head toward the barn.

Sanchez caught Larabeeís eye as he sat back down, facing the room. Ezra.

EIGHT

Chris settled back down sweeping the room searching for the long awaited rescuer. He could not see what was happening outside but from Josiahís wary expression it had to be the gambler. Then a huge explosion rocked the house, shaking pictures on the wall and causing pool balls to roll. It came from the kitchen area. The sergeant quickly glanced at the handcuffed men satisfied they were secured, he left the room at a jog into the kitchen.

Standish suddenly appeared in the room. He took a furtive glance toward the kitchen and hastily made his way over to Larabee. He tried not to stare at Tanner. Without exchanging words, Larabee presented his cuffed wrists to the gambler and within a few second the cuffs unclasped. Ezra quickly sidled down past Tanner to Wilmington and repeated the same maneuver, "Good to seeya pardí" Buck whispered. The cuffs clicked open. "Ezra get Vin and JD out of here."

Larabee whispered, laying a hand on the gamblers shoulder. He felt the sudden jump and twitch of muscles.

"Vin?" Standish turned and stared at the leader.

"Yeah Vin and JD." Larabee answered not sure he understood the southerners hesitancy. Chris ignored it and continued, "The colonel and the corporal are in the barn, weíll go after them" Larabee and Wilmington quickly crossed the room headed to one of the bed rooms and out a window behind the house.

Ezra stared at JD and the others keeping his back to his failure, the body of Tanner. Why would Chris be concerned about the body and not the living. Ezra hated this game. The rules kept changing, the players cheated more often than he. Standish started to work on JDís cuff when the kitchen door opened. Everything stopped.

The sergeant returned to the living room and immediately noticed two captives missing. His eyes fell on the southerner. The gunman raised his weapon, this man had caused much to much grief. The gambler had escaped from him twice, thus incurring the wraith of his Colonel. To add insult to injury the smaller man had managed to break his nose and damage his inner thigh, dangerously close to his groin. The sergeant was a trained combatant and to be caught off guard was inexcusable. He aimed his gun and started to squeeze the trigger.

"Probably the only way youíd be able to best him anyhow." Josiah said nonchalantly. Both the sergeant and Ezra stared at him incredulously. Jackson and JD exchanged confused expressions. Nathan almost laughed, catching on to what Josiah had done. Ezra stood no chance against a bullet.

Standish fell into the same thought so added his own. "Heís observations are quite accurate." The southern drawl dripped with challenge. Gawd damn even the preacher dealt an underhanded game. Didnít anyone follow the rules?

The desired effect was achieved and the gun lowered.

Chris and Buck circled behind the back of the barn entering the wood structure through a covered stall window. Buck patted Vinís horse Peso comfortingly, trying to keep the animal silent. They listened carefully, the colonel and corporal had searched the tack room and made their way cautiously to the apartment. These were highly trained professionals. Buck glanced at Chris and waited for silent direction. The colonel could never be prepared for the war he had started when he took on Larabee and his surrogate family. Chris gave him a nod, they descended apon their prey.

The sergeant lunged for the southerner, breaking a tenement in his form of fighting. The southern drawl had become irritating, the taunting difficult to ignore. He would rip the manís throat out, cut out his tongue. He would quickly end this skirmish.

Nathan leaned over to Josiah, "That man can be damn irritating." Jackson whispered. He listened wincing occasionally as Standish verbally harassed and accosted the gunman. The healer watched the growing anger in the sergeant. He hoped Ezra knew what he was doing, because the soldier was not going to just kill the southerner. He appeared as if he would rip the smaller gambler apart with his bare hands.

Sanchez smiled almost chuckling. He leaned over and looked at JD, "What ja think JD, Ezra have a chance?"

Dunne smiled hesitantly, he hoped so, "Well if insults could count as punches heís got this guy whipped."

JD could not imagine Standish goaded this fellow so badly. His mouth would be the death of him yet.

The light joviality that had begun to blossom quickly flashed out. The two men suddenly grappled on the floor. Standish indeed had speed and skill on his side, but the sergeant had skill and strength. Both men determined, both fueled by hatred, loss and frustration.

The sergeant had lost face before the colonel, he hated the younger man he now wrestled with, his frustration mounted as the squirrelly man slipped and wiggled from his grasp preventing him from getting a proper joint lock.

Ezra scrambled and fought, fear engulfing him. This man and his cohorts had been responsible for Vinís death. Ezra hated him for it, the loss of Vin alone devastated him, but with the loss came abandonment. The others would see him as a failure, a party to Vinís demise. Standish fought, because he had nothing to lose but his life. If he won he lived but so did the others. The rules of the game had changed again. The Joker had become a wild card, a wrench in the gears. He had nothing to lose except the game itself, he would not walk away from the table with a losing hand. If there was one thing he could do, and do well that was play dirty.

Standish wrestled his legs between him and his assailant, and shoved upward with all his strength. The sergeantís weight suddenly left him as the older man was flung a few feet back. The southerner climbed tiredly to his booted feet. The he froze. Movement out of the corner of his eye caught his attention.

Tanner moved. Standish stopped and stared, there it was again, not the mindless twitch of short-circuiting muscles but actually a conscious arm movement. "Vin ?" he breathed out. Oh my God Vin was alive. Vin was alive! The tables had begun to turn. The Joker transformed into a face card, some value had returned. Vin, Vin lived and breathed. Fate played a mean twisted game.

"Ezra watch out!" Jackson shouted as the sergeant dove and tackled the younger gambler crashing both men onto the pool table. "What the hellís he thinking?" Nathan asked noone in aparticular he would kill the conman with his bare hands. He watched in dismay as the sergeant encircled his massive hands around the southernerís strained neck.

"He looked surprised Vin moved." JD observed. "you think he figured Vin to be dead?" Dunne asked watching the two men struggle, both trying to choke the life out of each other.

Josiah and Nathan ignored the question watching the death match. Then Standish cheated. He would not have admitted to underhanded tactics, he would have stated he just manipulated the odds in his favor. The southern gentleman picked up a pool ball and smashed it repeatedly against the soldiers head. Indiscriminately pounding the target. The grip around his neck loosened. He struck again and again. The sergeant staggered back holding his head.

"You son of a bitch." Standish growled he picked up a discarded pool cue and swung it like a baseball bat, connecting solidly with the side of the sergeants head. The cue snapped and the sergeant fell to the floor like an unstrung puppet. "thatís for making me think Mr. Tanner had died." Standish bent over hand on his knees trying desperately to catch his breath.

"Ezra the cuffs." Jackson state, shifting his positions slightly indicating the handcuffs. He did not want to wait for the colonel or the corporal to come back, besides Buck and Chris might need help. Standish merely nodded and expertly frisked the sergeantís pocket. Nathan furrowed his brow, it would seem Ezra had done that a time or two. Standish found the key. His hands shook to bad to trust his lock smith ability. He stumbled over to the sharpshooter. Vin opened swollen cut eyes.

He smiled weakly up at the undercover agent, "have a nice trip?"

Standish bit back the sob of relief that threatened to escape and instead huffed out a hoarse laugh. "Apparently I have faired better than you my friend."

"That bad huh?" Tanner responded tiredly

"Iíve seen better looking hamburger." Ezra smiled, afraid to touch the younger man afraid he might break or worse yet, disappear.

"Thanks youíre a real friend." Tanner mocked closing his eyes. He hurt so badly.

Ezra stood up and turned to free JD. Out the window through the blowing storm Ezra saw Chris and Buck jogging toward the house, very determined. His throat tightened. His stomach knotted. He stared out the window, and then back over at the tracker and back out the window at the two men. The events of the other day fresh in his mind. He made his decision. The cards still played a fickle game. He knelt down infront of JD and gripped the young agent by both sides of the head and fiercely whispered in his ear. He laid the key on the floor next to the boy. JD, of all the others, gave him the benefit of the doubt, he took the conman for what he saw and would only believe what he experienced not what others tried to lead him to believe. Dunne would help because Ezra had simply asked.

Standish then stood took another furtive glance at the badly beaten tracker then back out the window. Chris and Buck headed toward the front door. Ezra glanced one last time at the tracker and then JD, "please my friend." He mouthed pleadingly and then hurried out through the kitchen door, ignoring JDís plaintiffs, "No, Ezra donít wait..."

NINE

"JD whatís going on?" Josiah eyed the swinging kitchen door which Standish had actually fled. He had seen the apprehension that crossed the conmanís face. Something out the window frightened him. Sanchez wondered what the younger had seen that sent him fleeing out the kitchen door. He did not have to wait to long.

Chris and Buck burst through the side door, nearly knocking it into Josiah. "You guys ok in here?" Buck asked.

Chris saw the sergeant laying on the floor looking like he had gone fifteen rounds with a club. Then he noticed the missing gambler, "Whereís Ezra?" His tone sharp, but tinged with fear. The gambler had proven to be very sly indeed. He had returned with no apparent calvary unless you counted Diablo.

Noone said anything but Jackson and Sanchez stared at the young ATF agent. Chris noticed the gazes and looked to Dunne for an explanation.

JD swallowed, biting back his fear. All eyes on him expecting an answer. He started to develop an insight as to how the conman felt when they fixed their stares at him. JD suddenly felt very much alone and afraid. A fear different than what he felt when he faced the Colonel and his men, they were criminals with demented intent, the others would back him up. He feared for his life then. Right now he worried whether or not the others would some how blame him.

"Well JD whereís Ezra?" Buck asked seeing the key to the cuffís laying on the floor near his roommate.

"He saw you two coming and asked me to give him a head start."

Buck paused in releasing the cuffs and took a furtive glance up at Larabee. Chris swore turning away from the others biting back his anger. Josiah closed his eyes. Standish might have forgiven them, but he still feared their retribution.

"Why the hell would he say that?" Buck asked tossing the cuffs that had once bound JD to Chris. Larabee caught them cleanly and crossed the floor to the prone sergeant. Wilmington made his way over to Jackson. Freeing the healer and then the preacher. Sanchez stood up rubbing his sore wrists.

"No different than the other day." Josiah said matching Larabeeís clouded eyes.

"Yes it is!" Buck exclaimed staring at the preacher as if he lost his mind. "Chris made him leave, he came back...." Wilmingtonís voice trailed off.

Nathan made his way over to Tanner, "I threatened him the other day to make him leave. He did not want to Buck, I made him. And he came back with help. The only difference is today Vinís in worse shape." Jackson undid the sharpshooters cuffs, gently bringing the younger manís arms to the front. Tanner moaned and curled tighter into himself. "easy Vin your alright."

"We better go find him the colonel is still out there." Larabee muttered disgustedly. The corporal had died defending the escape of his superior. Norton never looked back.

Ezra raced into the barn from the back. He would need his discarded coat. There was no way he was going to venture back out into this storm without suitable clothing. Standish could not be sure how Chris and Buck would react towards him, but he had been having such a steady run of bad luck he did not want to risk any more physical abuse. With proper clothing he figured he could make it to the road again, find the highway eventually and hitch a ride to town with a plow or something. He would not tempt fate again. He did not really believe in luck, good or bad, but fate and his dropped guard had allowed him to get hurt, he would not allow it to happen again. The cards had not been dealt in his favor,though, he had finally gained control of the deck. He had gained control of his own movements and own neck. He would not risk losing that control or losing his neck on the foolish desire for praise or acceptance. Ezra would much rather brave the storm and forces of natures than face Chris and Buck.

Standish grabbed his coat off the bed, ignored Diabloís sleeping form infront of the fire and started for the apartment door. He strode right into Norton. One moment Ezra had his destiny in his manipulative grasp and the next he lost it again. He really had to find the rules to this game.

Norton put him in a choke hold just as the barn doors opened from both ends. Chris materialized through the storm into the barn . The colonel took quick furtive glance over his shoulder and saw Buck. Norton placed a gun to Standishís dark brown head. "Iíll kill him Larabee." His tone left no doubt. Standish sighed, why him? The colonel must not have researched the group as thoroughly as he thought, or he would have realized he held a bum hand. He hid behind an expendable shield. Besides Larabee had no sense for negotiations.

Norton half dragged half hauled the smaller southern man up the barn steps his only route unblocked. Both the Colonel and Standish knew this was a losing hand, being played poorly.

Standish silently wondered if Chris and Buck thought the ante had gone down, now that the others were safe. Ezra felt the stakes had been raised, but again his neck was on the chopping block and noone elseís. When the colonel pulled him up the stairs Ezra knew that he had no intentions of surviving the game. Norton would forfeit both their lives instead of surrender. Ezra always figured gross self sacrifice to be foolish this only reinforced his claim.

Chris and Buck followed keeping a few yards distance. "Letíim go Norton. You canít get out of here. Face it you lost." Larabee said tersely.

Standish shut his eyes briefly, Chrisís lack of tact and diplomacy was going to be the death of him. He really had to make it appoint to speak to him about his lack of manners and finesse.

They made it to the second story hay loft. Old hay and straw lined one wall, the newer alfalfa lined the right wall clear to the ceiling. They stood higher than a second story building, closer to fifty feet off the ground. Norton dragged his hostage to the twelve by ten opening. A rope dangling from a pulley hung in the center of the entrance way. Ezra mused they must unload hay up here by conveyor belt. The colonels hopes of escaping by jumping and landing into the snow drift suddenly vanished.

Both men peered downward. Standish bit back a chuckle, it would seem the cards fell just as poorly for the colonel as they did for himself. There was no drift, instead a large barren patch of grass lay exposed. The wind had managed to whip any of the protective snow mounds away. Standish followed the dangling rope, it fed through a pulley and tied to cleat bolted to a support beam. Ezra contemplated it, forever trying to manipulate this rotten hand into something salvageable. Things did not appear to be looking bright.

Norton turned and faced Larabee and Wilmington. He shielded himself with the southerner. Gawd damn jackrabbit of a man had ruined everything. He would take pleasure in knowing he killed the man who entangled his plans and still create some pain for Larabee. "Back off Larabee or heís a dead man."

"Youíre not fooling anyone Norton," Larabee hissed out "you have no intentions of letting him go alive. You know it and I know it." Chris tried to flank out getting a better angle. Norton watched both men like a cornered predator.

"Please Mr. Larabee lets not confirm his beliefs." Standish started to say. Larabee should never be allowed to hostage negotiate. Hell negotiate anything, the man tended to shoot first ask questions later. God forbid he ever worked with the general public, there would be a definite drop in population.

"Shut up!" Larabee and Norton said in unison.

Buck saw his opening. The handgun to Standishís temple deviated slightly, the barrel re-aimed somewhere off into the barn, away from the gamblerís head. Wilmington took his shot. With a simple squeeze of the trigger, fate changed, the tables turned, and Ezraís ace fell from his sleeve. The bullet slammed into the colonel before Wilmington removed his finger from the trigger. Norton teetered backward out the barn opening dragging his hostage with him, before the deafening roar of the shot died away. It seemed both men hung suspended in air for a prolonged moment and then disappeared.

TEN

"NOO!" Chris screamed diving forward trying to grab for the flailing gambler. His outstretched hand clasped on empty air. He would have slid over the edge himself but Wilmington grabbed him by his belt, halting his forward momentum.

Ezra saw the tables change, saw a new deck of cards, and did his best to grab for them. He felt his feet go out from underneath him, felt the colonel drag him over the edge. He reached blindly wrapping his left arm around the rope. He would not go without a fight, he would fight this to the end, he would not fold now. Ezra Standish fell.

The rope sped through the pulley making a whistling sound. It stopped as suddenly as it had begun. A large knot jammed the mechanism. Everything halted abruptly. A strangled scream gurgled up from below, Standish played his ace.

Chris and Buck leaned over the opening on their bellies. A few yards below them at the end of the rope hanging by his left arm twisted Standish. His left hand did not grip the rope instead the rope had ensnared his arm upto his wrist, biting into the skin. Norton lay twisted on the ground in grotesque angles. Josiah, JD, and Nathan ran from the house to the barn.

"Ezra give me your hand." Larabee said stretching out reaching for his undercover agent. Standish did not listen. Instead he closed his eyes, feeling his body getting buffeted by the wind. His shoulder ached and burned, dislocated again no doubt. He noticed the preacher, and healer and the kid milling around below him. Very far below him, Ezra did not like heights. He really did not like the way this game played out. He heard Chris call his name again, commanding him to reach for his proffered hand. Diplomacy Mr. Larabee diplomacy.

Standish casually lifted his head upward. He could easily make out the concern in the hard features of Larabee. Concern, strange, concern he would lose a member of his team or concerned he would lose a member of his family? Ezra knew the truth, the gawd awful truth. He did not raise his right arm. He had manipulated the cards to the best of his ability, stacked a deck of cards he never had control of, and pulled every trick he could think of and still he was at the mercy of others. A simple prop, the whipping boy, the scape goat, he hated his position. The wind twisted him again, his shoulder burned with intense agony and he cried out. Sharks below him and sharks above him. Why did he always feel like chum?

"Quit screwing around Ezra give me your hand!" Larabee ordered again. Chris could not understand the younger man that hung below him. An easy rescue lay right before him all he had to do was reach up and take hold. He could be pulled from a horrible fall and even death if he would just make the effort to stretch up and let them help him. Chris would choke the life out of him when he dragged his sorry southern arse back to safety. He would beat trust and loyalty into the SOB if he had too, he would tie him down and gag him if need be, but first he had to get him from the end of the rope.

"Trust me Ezra" Chris said softly more to himself than to his undercover agent, but Standish must have heard. The brown head snapped back and searching green eyes stared up at him. For the first time since Chris Larabee had known him, Ezra Standish looked scared and confused, not sure what to do, who to trust, where to turn. Had that always been there? Had Chris just chosen to overlook it until now? It did not truly matter, what did matter was a friend, no brother , hung from the end of a rope, scared and battered with no idea where to turn for help. Larabee shut his eyes briefly how had he missed so much? How could he misread the need to belong that Standish so desperately sought. Chris shook his head sadly, the undercover agent was a master at redirection and Chris and the others fell easily into his trap. They saw only what he wanted them too. Now some fifty feet off the ground, helpless and hurt Standish needed a friend. Instead he found himself surrounded by six co-workers, three of which beat him for a transgression that had not really occurred. Larabee knew Ezra ,for a gambler, and right now Chris knew Ezra thought the rope held better odds at prolonging his life than if he sought out Chrisís hand.

Chris implored in an even softer voice, "give me your hand Ezra." a slight pause, "please." Larabee was not an accomplished gambler or conman, lying never suited him. Take the truth or walk away. He was a direct man, direct in his work, and friendships. The only thing he had to offer the gambler was the truth. Chris would not let him go. He would do everything he could to save his undercover agent. Larabee hoped the raw truth would be enough to convince the skeptical southerner.

Standish stared up at the hazel eyes, for once the weather was actually colder than the look he received from Larabee. Ezra did not want to plummet to the ground. He did not want to swing like a rag doll in the storm. He needed an out and needed help. Chris offered both, why was it so hard to recognize an ace when presented with one. Standish finally saw the hidden trump card and realized it had not been disguised all that well. He just failed to recognize it because it stood out in the open. He and fate had danced enough around the card table it was time to end this game. Larabee had laid his cards on the table. The cards held more promise than Ezra originally thought. He swung his right arm up and reached for Larabee.

Chris returned the fierce grip and with Buckís help began to haul the southerner back up. When his left arm swung down to his side, the ball and socket did not align, the joint capsule stretched, nerves fired and he screamed out again. Larabee reached over and grabbed the gambler by the belt and dragged him the rest of the way into the barn. Both men lay still gripping forearms panting for breath. After a few minutes Chris looked up and stared over at the conman.

Buck stood over both men and said, "Ez ya can let go of Chris now." A broad smile flashed across his mustached face.

Ezra glanced up at the ladyís man, then Larabee and the the arm he still gripped tightly. He furrowed his brow slightly and sheepishly whispered, "it seems my hand will not cooperate." He could not loosen his grip. Standish laid his head back down on the barn floor to tired to pry his cramped fingers loose.

Chris chuckled, he knew all about death grips, Buck had had one on him for years trying to keep him from going off the brim of the abyss, after loosing Sarah and Adam. Larabee stared up at Wilmington an understanding was passed. Buck tossed an old discarded wool horse blanket over the gambler and headed down the stairs intercepting the others coming up.

Josiah immediately understood and helped the ladyís man shuffle everyone back to the house. Larabee and Standish needed time to hash this out. Sanchez would keep his eye on the barn incase Ezraís mouth ran before his brain and he flew bodily out of the loft. The preacher knew, beyond a doubt, Standish needed a guardian angel, no matter how well he manipulated the deck.

"Ezra you alright?" Chris asked. He grip on his forearm had not lessened. Standish still held on for dear life. Funny how the body worked, overrode the brains cognizant impulses and saved its skin based on instinct. He knew the southerner had great instincts for survival. He had to, they all did but Standish seemed to live on civility. He gave the appearance of not needing instinct but everyone had them and now Chris realized Standishís were as honed as Tannerís. His grip would not lessen he was a survivor.

ELEVEN

Larabee stared at the dark brown hair as they lay on the barn floor. Ezra lay with his head bowed, his breathing slowly coming under control. He would not face the world with nothing less than a calm cool composure. These last few days had been anything but calm. The undercover agentís faith had been shaken, his character questioned and ridiculed. The ones he should have been able to turn to help, he feared and ran from when things became ugly.

Ezra had forgiven them for the attack at the shack, for the open hostility, Buck and Josiah and Chris had shown toward the southerner. Larabee began to uncover the truth behind the easy redemption. Standish stood solitary, he faced six adversaries. How could he hold a grudge, openly maintain his anger when the odds so heavily turned against him. It was easier to say and grant forgiveness than to deny it and stand alone against a team of brothers. Ezra was a survivor, he read the odds and played to keep the house in a favorable position. He would not openly go against the six, or three, for that matter he stood a better chance if he buried his angst.

The leader of the seven was grateful to both Buck and Josiah. It would be hard enough to talk sense into the bull headed southerner but to try and do it infront of an audience would be near impossible. How could he regain the faith of one who held so little faith in the others and at times himself? Larabee ,for possibly the first time in his life, wished he had the gift of oration. He had to find the correct words that would reassure the skeptical gambler. Larabee could weave a conversation like JD told a joke. At the thought he chuckled. Standish tilted his head and stared at his leader with a questioning gaze.

"Thinking about JD and his jokes." Larabee simply stated. Here they go.

"He told an amusing one?" Ezra asked with disbelieving raised eyebrows, a hesitant smile faltered across his rosy cheeks.

"No" Larabee answered. Chris paused and then asked, "Ezra, whereís the calvary?"

Standish stared at him for a moment trying to discern what he meant by the question. He quickly deduced what was asked and began to worry. He smiled and simply stated, "sleeping infront of the wood stove downstairs."

"Diablo?"

"He was the only one I could find at the time." Standish paused and added, "Things could have turned out worse." He started hedging his bets. Fate apparently wanted to torture him some more. He really wished his hand and fingers would just respond and loosen their grip. This was quite unnerving. He tried wiggling a finger, the forearm muscles spasmed and fingers tightened slightly before they relaxed somewhat allowing the gambler to loosen his grip.

"Allot worse." Chris agreed smiling. "Come on itís freezing in here lets get back to the house."

Standish watched the smile. Larabeeís grin did not look like a feral dog ready to pounce. Maybe things had begun to swing around to his favor. Standish still held his cards he would not lay them on the table yet.

Josiah, Buck and JD had finished putting the living room in order. Nathan had been able to maneuver the hunched over Tanner back into Larabeeís room. The tracker would survive, unlike his assailants. ( The sergeant had tried to attack the sharpshooter again, but Nathan halted his maniacal assault with a single shot. Buck and Chris had not heard it over the wind when in the barn with the colonel and Standish.) Nathan had joined the others in the livingroom. Buck stomped back into the house wiping snow from his coat and hair.

"Well?" JD asked. Josiah had water boiling for coffee over the newly fed fire. Nathan sat tiredly on the couch. Wilmington was about to answer when the side door opened again. Everyone held their breath for a brief second reliving the morning. Instead of gunmen, Chris, supporting Standish by his upper arm, and a limping Diablo entered the house.

"Well what?" Chris asked. He then asked, "Whatís burning behind the house?" Larabee had not become terribly concerned, the wet weather would squelch any flames and he had bigger things that required his attention.

He noticed Standish had become unsteady on his feet as the descended the barn stairs. With one shoulder and therefore one arm not working and the pain associated the injury, he had difficult keeping his balance over the uneven ground. He knew the southerner would not ask for help, but the mere fact he did not fight it indicated the level of discomfort he suffered through.

Buck and the others shared quick glances, "Uhh your Chevy."

"What about my Chevy?" Chris asked in a dangerous tone, eyes narrowing. He had been fixing it up for the past couple of years. A cherished hobby, one in which he wrought his frustrations out on during weekends.

Standish took an involuntary step away from the slowly boiling anger. Sanchez gracefully put himself between the gambler and their leader.

"Well it kind of blew up." Buck finished sheepishly

"Kind of blew up?" Larabee fixed his stare at this oldest friend, "how does something kind of blow up?" He knew Standish had done something to lure the gunmen out of the house but had been unable to see what the conniving conman pulled off.

"Well actually the generator blew up but your Chevy was right there." JD added helpfully. Dunne shrunk back when the cold glare fixated on him.

"The generator did what?" Chris asked in a hush toned. ThankGod Standish never accepted invitations to his ranch for barbeques. He had managed to destroy more things in the last few days than Buck had in a few years!

"Well when the fire from your plow truck hit the generator it sparked a fire in the generator and then well it kinda blew up." Nathan put his two cents in hoping to clarify a crystal clear disaster.

Diablo left his master, sensing the impending explosion and sought comfort from the southerner who now stood behind Josiah and Nathan. Sanchez never relinquished his grip on the younger man.

"Why was my truck on fire?" This story was getting worse and worse, Chris figured maybe it would be best if he stopped asking questions.

"A diversion Mr. Larabee, I needed something to get the others out of the house so I could effect your emancipation from you unfortunate incarceration." Standish tried to explain, his smile weak at best. He really wished Josiah would let go of him.

"You blew up my truck and generator?" Larabee tried to get a look at the gambler. The conman remained hidden from view.

"Well, not intentionally. The vehicle had a mind of itís own. The generator was an unfortunate victim of circumstance.." Ezra said with a soothing confidence he did not possess.

"Wait a second," He stared at Buck, " the wood room, the Tamarack?...."

"Went up like kindling." Buck answered shrinking back from the building inferno, "you should have seen the flames, huge." Wilmington added hoping to salvage something from fiasco. He gave Standish a sympathetic look and indiscreetly placed himself next to Nathan. A human wall had begun to form around the southerner. Standish felt trapped but oddly comforted.

"Be thankful Brother,only the shed burnt down and not the house." Josiah figured he would try to squelch the smoldering flames.

Larabee nodded trying to catalog the information. He watched his men regroup and face him as a united force protecting the black sheep. Somewhere behind the varying massive shoulders stood a skittish gambler probably trying to refigure the odds of his survival.

"A diversion." Chris stated. "You could not come up with anything else?" He searched for Standish behind behind the wall of bodies, even JD faced him.

The southerner peeked over the shoulders of Nathan and Josiah and wrinkled his face slightly, "I was a little pressed for time."

Chris allowed a smile to appear he relaxed his posture and added, "at least you didnít break one of the pool cues. Those are custom made."

The sudden shocked expressions that spread across the features of the men infront of him caused him to groan audibly.

Four hours later, night had settled in comfortably blanketing the area in inky blackness. The snow had quit falling and the wind had died out. Stars began to reappear in the sky. The temperatures plummeted below zero. A fire blazed in the stone fire place. Chris quietly closed the bedroom door. Vin still drifted in and out of sleep, his ribs wrapped tightly and cold rags draped across his swollen features. Nathan had assured Chris, Vin would survive. Larabee had to check for himself and tossed another Pendelton blanket over his resting friend.

TWELVE

Larabee sat in an armchair and watched the form that slept on the couch. Josiah and Nathan had done their best to reset the gamblerís shoulder. Standish had protested and backed away trying to find a suitable escape, he would have made it too except Sanchez had put him in a choke hold until the slippery conman fell unconscious. A dangerous and questionable maneuver but effective. The dislocation had been reduced and the arm wrapped tightly to his chest. He had groaned and resisted but it was muddled. Now Standish slept on the couch like the dead. Exhaustion, cold, fear and worry had taken their toll and the body shut down. Larabee flicked the blanket back over the wool socked feet. Hopefully the gambler would sleep until morning. When the sun came out in the morning Chris had every intention of spiriting his resistant men to the dreaded hospital.

"He gonna be ok?" Chris asked Nathan as the healer laid a hand on the conmanís forehead.

"I think so, the shoulder is more than a dislocation, but I canít figure what, and heís running a fever too." Jackson straightened out, "no wonder running through the woods with no coat or boots on."

"He did not have much choice." Sanchez reminded them.

JD and Buck played blackjack quietly infront of the fire place. Their subdued manners brought a questioning furrow to Larabeeís face and he looked to Nathan and Josiah for an answer. He did not want to risk breaking the blessed silence with any unnecessary inquiries. Jackson answered the look with a nod of his head in the direction of Standish and Tannerís room. Chris nodded in understanding.

+ + + + + + +

One week later all of team seven finally faced a work day together. Vin walked stiffly off the elevator snarling at Larabee who shadowed him. Band-Aids and stitches still laced the graceful trackerís face. Both eyes had opened, the sky blue color stood out distinctively against the ghastly solid blood red sclera. His attitude had not changed much since coming to in the hospital.

Tanner despised people looking out for him, he could take care of himself. To be trapped in a hospital had become almost overbearing. He passed his time growling at his snickering teammates and sneaking up to visit the gambler. It had become such a problem they put the two men in the same room. It still did little to soothe ruffled feathers, but true to form the others just harassed him with more vehemence.

Josiah and Nathan greeted both men as the twosome exited the elevator at the office. "Good to see ya back Brother Vin." Josiahís voice seemed to boom off the office walls. Tanner raised a cut lip in a snarl.

"Buck, JD and Ezra in yet?" Chris asked. He knew the answer before he uttered it but it seemed like a good way to divert Tannerís litany of complaints. The sharpshooter just did not like being cared for even when he needed it. Gawd forbid you cooped him up at all. Vin had been forced to stay with Chris when released from the hospital three days ago. Tanner could not be sure which was worse, the hospitalís poking and prodding or Chrisís silent glares and warnings.

"Nope, donít expect them til later." Nathan said slightly exasperated. The gambler apon reaching the confines of the hospital had summoned enough strength to pull himself out of the feverish stupor he was in, and tried to evade any medical aid. The man was a damn nuisance.

To get his temperature Josiah had been forced to pin the gamblerís head down on a pillow while the nurse put the thermometer in Standishís ear. Even at a 103.5 degrees he could be obstinate. They had sedated him heavily for radiographs because he kept wandering off. Chris had to gown up in lead apron, thyroid shield and gloves just to keep the southerner still. It went against all protocols but something had to be done. The threat of five point restraints terrorized him even more, he had become desperate for escape. Fever, pain and fear were powerful driving forces.

Forget a local block to reset the dislocated shoulder. They had slipped him a short acting IV injectable anesthetic. The nursing staff and doctors worked double time with the brief respite and managed to get the southerner relocated, bandaged, IV securely established and second set of films taken and developed before he crawled back out of the depths of drug induced slumber. Nathanís only respite lay in the fact Tanner was still unconcious and taken to CT.

The day had not gone smoothly for the southerner the fever peaked at 104.7, the doctor had contemplated ice baths and alcohol rubs to cool the raging fever. Pneumonia. Standish had ranted and struggled with demons only he could see. It took a few tries but the staff had finally hit on an adequate antibiotic cocktail and the fever started dropping by late in the second day. Up until then Standish lay listlessly on his right side, floating in and out of restless sleep mindlessly swiping at the nasal canula that fed him oxygen. The others would gently deflect his hand and periodically untangle the IV line from the mountain of blankets the conman huddled under.

Tanner, the next floor down, drifted in and out of consciouness, groggy at his most coherent time. Busted ribs, concussion and a multitude of lacerations, graced his lean frame. Once he had fully regained his senses, the next day, the others longed for the quieter moments the day before. They made it a point to inform Tanner as well.

Up a flight, Ezra occasionally would ask for a new deck of cards, mumbling it was time he dealt the next game. The five men did not fully understand what he truly wanted. One or two of the others stayed with him and Tanner, keeping close tabs on their fallen comrades,until they were put in the same room. With the breaking of the fever and a restful night sleep Standish was back to his old self. Wanting out of the hospital. He gazed quietly at the six new deck of cards waiting for him, still in the cellophane wrappers. A weak genuine smile crossed his pale face when the others, Vin included tried to explain the appearance of so many decks.

Vin had gloated mercilessly when he was released from his forced imprisonment before the gambler. Ezra merely shot him deadly glares. Tanner even went so far as to promise not to visit. Ezra huffed out a sarcastic laugh. Except, Standish did get the last laugh when Vin learned he would be sequestered away at Larabeeís house for the duration of his recovery. Tanner bristled at Ezraís mocking laughter.

+ + + + + + +

It had been agreed Ezra could leave the hospital the next day, but only if he stayed with someone. Buck and JD rose to the challenge. That was two days ago. Every time Nathan and Josiah had checked in on them Standish had been sleeping. Buck said he only woke to take his meds and use the bathroom. Everyone knew to stay away from Larabeeís house. Tanner was a bear.

The elevator chimed again, the doors sliding open. Buck and JD as was their custom bubbled out of the elevator arguing over who had the better chance of asking out the new secretary. Standish followed behind. The spring in his step missing but he appeared much better off than he did a few days ago. Like Vin, dark circles entombed his blood shot eyes. Though he looked immaculate, he appeared worn out.

" Good morning Brothers." Josiah greeted a large smiled plastered against his face. It would seem the gambler was having a difficult time adjusting to the new sense of belonging.

"Hey Josiah," JD answered back enthusiastically, "morning guys." he said in general. Standish glared at him through blood shot eyes.

"You ok Ezra?" Nathan asked, like Vin the man appeared as if he would just fall over. Those two should still be off their feet. The undercover agent eased himself down in his chair, his arm still pinned to his chest.

"Wonderful." He voice hoarse and scratchy as if he had the croup. His chest nolonger burned or felt like it was caught in a vice,and the hacking agonizing cough had finally dissipated. His smooth talking speech had yet to return.

"Ahh heís just tired Nathan, Buck here snores like a diesel engine on a cold day, rattles the cement dust out of the bricks." Dunne helpfully explained.

"Do not JD, just shut up. Who asked you anyhow?" Wilmington threw a nerf at the kid. Ezra shut burning eyes trying to drown out the noise. Tanner had already taken that path and leaned back in his chair with closed eyes. Standish mused if they could only find away to bottle the dynamic duoís energy there would be no more energy crisis in the world.

With eyes closed, his shoulder just a dull ache and breath actually feeling like it reached his lungs Standish wondered how he had been dealt such a good hand. When had the tables turned? When had he fallen into the comforting fold of friendship? He did not want to analyze it to closely did not want to question it to harshly. The cards had fallen in his favor, he held the deck and could manipulate the game if need be, but the cards were tossed cleanly on the table, he did not need to maneuver for a better hand. He opened heavy eyes and surveyed the room, the five other men had settled down to work. Vin snored gently beside him. Ezra knew he himself was safe. His hand could not have been any better. Fate had decided to be kind. For now, he was one of them.

THE END

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