The door slammed as Chris Larabee entered his office, but Buck and the rest of the team didn't take it personally.
He wasn't pissed off at them.
The day had been a total screw-up. Three months of undercover work down the drain, one agent injured, and the chance to put the Rathson brothers away... lost. At least for the near future.
The only thing that had kept Larabee from shooting the lazy, incompetent, worthless, brain-dead agent in charge of the FBI team that was sent in at the last minute to assist the team with the takedown was the fact that the injured agent was Vin. So instead of going after the Fibbie, he'd been riding in the ambulance with his second-in-command, sharpshooter, sometimes undercover agent and best friend. And the only reason he hadn't hunted the man down later was the fact that Tanner's injuries weren't as bad as they had appeared at first. He would be out of action for a few weeks, but would fully recover.
Now there was nothing left to do but fill out a mountain of frustrating paperwork explaining to the powers that be why a large portion of this quarter's budget had gone into an investigation that was now pointless. To say nothing of the fact that there was a very twisted man out there, no doubt planning his next assault on the people that Team 7 was supposed to be protecting. And the fact that his younger brother was lying in the morgue, slim and dubious reward for the effort, would doubtless spur Bobby on to even more vicious behavior.
Chris Larabee's report would place the blame exactly where it belonged... on the FBI team that had blown the operation. And no matter how loudly their team leader yelled trying to blame the mess on Team 7, the surveillance videos were clear evidence to the contrary.
After letting Chris take some time alone to cool down Buck approached the office, eyeing the door warily and hoping that he'd waited long enough. He knocked on the door and waited a few seconds, then entered regardless of the fact that his knock had been unanswered.
As Chris looked up, his green eyes still ablaze with fury, Buck raised his hands in surrender before opening his mouth. "Look, Chris, I know that today was about as bad as it gets, so why don't you let me and the boys work on the report and you pick up Vin and take him home." He paused then, watching the volatile blond to see if he was actually hearing what he was saying. "They said he could go home tonight, didn't they?"
Chris groaned and ran his hand through his already disheveled locks and shook his head. "God, that's what I'd like to do, but Travis wants me to give him a preliminary report in about an hour." He looked up at his oldest friend with thanks in his eyes and sighed. He shook his head again, trying to put all that had happened during the last six hours into perspective and trying to figure out what to do next.
Buck could see the exhaustion and indecision in Larabee's face and knew that the team would have to be there for its leader and friend. "Okay then," the ladies' man started, "you talk to Travis, Nathan and I will pick up Vin and drive him out to the ranch. JD and Ezra can pick up something for dinner and meet us there, and Josiah can give us all the moral support we can stand, and probably a little more too."
Chris once again looked up at Buck and gave him just a glimmer of a smile. "Thanks, Buck..." He paused, once again running the day's events through his mind. "That would be great. I'm not sure how late I'll be, but as soon as I'm done with Travis I'll be home."
The big man nodded and headed out to the communal area shared by the rest of the team to hand out the evening's assignments.
As Nathan and Buck got off the elevator on the sixth floor they could see the crowd of nurses and other personnel near the door to the room where they had left Vin only about two hours ago. At the center of the commotion was the stubborn Texan who was apparently determined to leave the hospital NOW. He had managed to find his jeans and T-shirt, torn and bloodied as they were, had managed to get them on and, despite the fact that he was barefoot, was attempting to push his way toward the elevator.
"Whoa there!" Buck called to the frustrated man as he pushed through the crowd of unwanted helpers. "Let's find your shoes and let these nice ladies finish up your paperwork so we can take you home."
The nurses backed away, giving the two men room to assist the swaying man back into the recently vacated room, and smiled when they heard the familiar lecture that Nathan began as the door swung shut behind them. They had known that at least one of the team would be coming to pick up the impatient patient, but had been unable to convince the man to stay put one minute longer.
Ten minutes later, paperwork was signed and sealed and they rolled the now compliant but still impatient man out to the truck.
By the time they were half way to the ranch he was asleep on the back seat. He didn't wake when they arrived or even when Josiah simply lifted him out of the truck, carried him into the house and deposited him in the bed in the back room that he often used when he stayed over at Chris's ranch.
They left the light on in the bathroom with the door ajar and headed into the den where the rest of the men had gathered.
"Looks like he'll be off for about three to four weeks," Nathan reported as he entered. Vin had taken a bullet in the arm, just below the elbow, and while it hadn't broken any bones there was a fair amount of damage to the muscle and tendons so he would have limited use of it for several weeks. He had also slammed into the wall hard enough to be concussed. But, considering how exposed both he and Ezra had been when the bullets began to fly, the team had been lucky. Not lucky enough to arrest the main men they had worked so hard to build a case against, but they were all alive to try again later.
Chris arrived about an hour later and was surprised that no one had eaten. But Ezra pointed out that Vin was asleep and he had only just arrived so they had decided to wait. Chris slipped quietly into the bedroom to get a change of clothes and then went to look in on Vin. But as quiet as he was, Vin knew he was there.
"Hey..." The soft drawl rose from the bed as Chris stood just inside the door. "They finally done grillin' ya?" Chris came in and sat on the edge of the bed. He shook his head at the fact that even half asleep and injured Vin was aware of what would have gone on in the aftermath of the morning's foul-up and was worried about him.
"I'm fine, Vin," he sighed. "Luckily all the video we had set up made it clear that we, at least, were doing our jobs."
"Yeah," Vin breathed. "I don't suppose we could tell the Fibbies AFTER the bust next time? I don't think we can live through any more of their help."
At that point Buck stuck his head in the door and whispered, "Psst..." Then seeing that Vin was awake he continued, "How about you two join us for dinner. At Chris's nod he headed back towards the den.
The next few days were spent searching for Bobbie Rathson. But he had managed to completely disappear, along with the large stash of explosives and detonators that had caused the various agencies to focus on their operation. Gunrunning was one thing, but the amount of other contraband the brothers had amassed in recent months had been a cause for alarm, especially after Ezra had reported how unstable the older brother had seemed throughout the entire operation. Now no one in any of the agencies could get even a tenuous lead on the man or any part of his operation. They all hoped that the close call at the warehouse had caused him to pull back, hide out and do nothing.
Nothing. It was almost too much to ask for in light of the recent events. More likely the loss of his brother would cause him to lose what little grasp he had left on reality... and just the thought of what the unbalanced man could do with the stockpile of explosives he had was almost too scary to contemplate.
Two days later they had a break. An informant for the FBI in Florida reported that he had had a meeting with Rathson and that he was on his way out of the country via a yacht he kept somewhere in the Keys. The entire combined law enforcement community in the Rocky Mountain States breathed a collective sigh of both frustration at his escape and relief that he was nowhere near.
Now, as soon as the paperwork was complete the team would have some very well earned time off. Vin was already off on medical leave, so the rest would spend the balance of the week tying up any loose ends and finishing the paperwork, then they would join him for two weeks leave.
They had been tossing around various ideas about how to use the time off. When Josiah mentioned that he had a friend who had offered the use of his cabin in a remote area of Montana, it didn't take much to convince the rest that a trip far from Denver would do them all some good. Even Ezra, with a bit of prodding, agreed to join them, but only after Josiah assured him that the cabin did indeed have indoor plumbing.
They would carpool in two of the team's vehicles, taking two days to reach the cabin. Except Vin. who would be heading up sooner.
Chris and Vin had both been wanting to take the special historical train trip that ran through a large portion of the mountain states and Chris had discovered that the next available one was leaving Denver in two days. While Chris would be tied up and would drive up with the rest, Vin was free, and with a bit of arm twisting Chris had convinced the younger man to go ahead and take the trip on his own. He really had been hoping to get a chance to ride the vintage train through the mountains and see firsthand a number of ghost towns and former mining operations, to say nothing of the spectacular scenery.
The night before he was to catch the train, the entire team met at the ranch to spend an evening finalizing their vacation plans and teasing Vin about the fact that he was, by virtue of his injury, getting an extra week off.
"Hell, Buck, " Vin responded as the big man again whined about the extra time, "it's not like I didn't earn it saving your butt at the warehouse..."
The mustached man responded in kind. "You saved me? Not likely! More like me and Chris covered your sorry Texan ass after you pulled your Spider-Man act coming off those rafters."
"I would'na had to do my Spidey routine if'n you and Chris weren't about to get yerselves filled fulla' lead, and," he added, "if ya'd stayed where I could'a covered you from the rafters."
"Enough!" Chris finally put in. "You gotta do the paperwork, Buck, so quit picking on Vin just because he got out of it for once."
Buck grinned. "Damn, and I thought it was working..."
Chris just gave him his signature glare, then broke down and grinned, glad that they were getting some much needed down time. "You're all getting two weeks. Now, let's get this thing wrapped up so we can get out of town and forget about this entire case."
After a long evening of friendly bickering and planning various activities for the upcoming weeks, the men finally drifted out and home until it was just Chris and Vin. They finished straightening up, tossing empty beer bottles into the recycling bin and stacking any dirty dishes in the sink, then locked up. Since he was dropping Vin at the train station in the morning Vin was spending the night at the ranch.
Morning came way too soon and by the time they had showered, dressed and were sipping their first cups of coffee it was nearly time to head in to the city.
Chris drove, taking Vin to the station and, not wanting for Vin to strain his arm, Chris walked him to the train, carrying the larger bag.
As they entered the station they both noticed that there was an unusually high level of security in and around the historical train, and, upon inquiring, found out that a number of state and local politicians were aboard for a special fundraising event that was tied to the upcoming elections. Much of the train was booked by the accompanying supporters, staff and, of course, the media circus that inevitably followed.
They boarded, found Vin's compartment, and before long the conductor called for all non-passengers to leave.
Vin was uneasy being aboard a train full of politicians and reporters but figured that his talent for disappearing into the background might come in handy. He loaded his suitcases into the cabin and, as the train pulled out of the station, headed towards the diner car to get another cup of coffee and see if they had anything edible available.
After dropping Vin at the station, Chris headed to the Federal Building to get started on the balance of the paperwork.
On the train Vin was busy reading through the pamphlets that outlined the train's itinerary and gave complete histories about the various towns and other attractions that they would visit along the way. He was really looking forward to seeing the ghost towns, many of them abandoned since the late 1800's as more and more of the miners and settlers headed further west to the gold rush in California and the desirable farming there and up in the Oregon territory.
The lure of the wild west was something that he'd never quite outgrown. He wished on some level that he could have lived in those simpler times, free to move across a largely unfenced frontier filled with natural wonders rarely seen today. He sighed and headed back to his compartment as the din from the reporters and the politicos became overly irritating.
It was as he headed back towards his car that he saw the familiar face pass him. The man was dressed as one of the train's many attendants but there was something very disturbing about his appearance. Vin paused, trying to make a connection as to when and where he'd seen the man, then decided that maybe he really did need this vacation. "Chill out, Tanner," he muttered to himself as he resumed walking.
He spent another hour reading, then, when the train entered a more rural area as it headed into the mountains, he leaned back to enjoy the scenery. He barely noticed that he'd drifted asleep as the rocking motion of the train relaxed him.
The call came into the ATF offices at just after 4 p.m. Orrin Travis had immediately called a meeting with his top team. He knew that they were due some leave but this was just too important to trust to anyone else.
By the time the team had gathered for the briefing rumors were flying. Something big was afoot and their well earned leave had just been put on the back burner.
Vin woke suddenly, not sure but thinking that the noise that had roused him was a gunshot. He sat up and noticed that the sun had moved a bit farther towards the western horizon though it was still daylight. He stood for a moment, listening, then moved to the window that looked onto the corridor to see if anything was amiss. He waited a few minutes and saw no one. That in itself was somewhat suspicious since for most of the day there had been a nearly constant stream of people moving back and forth along the length of the train. He decided to humor himself, hoping that this was just another instance of his overactive imagination or concussion-induced paranoia but deciding to play it safe anyhow. He reached up, opened the locked storage compartment and pulled out his small backup weapon, then tucked it into his boot. He once again checked the corridor and, finding it still empty, edged out of the compartment and headed towards the back of the train.
He had traveled the length of three cars and still hadn't seen anyone when he heard voices heading towards him. He slipped into an unlocked compartment and knelt against the door, pressing his ear to the the wall in hopes of finding out if something was going on.
His worst fears were validated as he heard a small part of the passing conversation.
"We got all the passengers rounded up and under guard?" the first voice asked, still getting closer to Vin's position.
"Yeah, no sweat, they were all gathered for their big dinner party," a second voice replied. "And since all the waiters and attendants are our guys it was over before they knew what hit them."
"Did Bobby make the ransom call yet?" the first voice sneered back. "We gotta collect the big bucks before we blow all these stinking politicians to hell."
"He made the call, but you'd better remember that this is his party and if he hears you taking like that he'll put a bullet in you faster than you can blink," the second voice admonished. They had stopped and lowered their voices but Vin could still hear most of what was said.
"He's a crazy bastard that's for sure, but he pays good and he's never been busted..." the first voice agreed.
"That may be true, but I heard he left his last crew in an ATF trap and they all ended up dead while he escaped," the second voice offered. "All I'm saying is that we gotta watch out for ourselves. Big bucks don't count for much if you're in the morgue."
As the voices faded down the hall Vin groaned and shook his head. Bobby had to be Bobby Rathson, and this was what he'd been planning. The sighting from Florida must have been set up to get the locals off his tail. He realized that his cell phone was back in his compartment and decided that he'd better head back. Chris was gonna have a cow. What's more, Vin's title of trouble magnet was gonna be reinstated for good. "Aw hell," he muttered. "Can't even take a vacation without some psycho coming along." Then he wondered how it was that he'd been missed when they had rounded up the other passengers.
By the time Orrin Travis had uttered his first sentence Chris knew that fate had smacked him in the ass once again.
"Oh God..." Buck began, interrupting the older man as he began to explain about the ransom demand that had been called in to the local FBI office.
JD looked from Buck to Chris and then to the director as he too realized why Chris had gone white as a sheet almost as soon as Travis had opened his mouth.
Buck moved to Chris's side and put a hand on the blond's shoulder as Nathan explained to Travis what was going on. "Vin is on that train," he stated simply, knowing the director would understand the ramifications as well as they did.
"Do they know for sure it's Rathson?" Josiah asked, aware that Bobby had watched as Vin had ended his little brother's life.
"I'm afraid so. The caller mentioned certain details that no one else would know. But he didn't mention Vin, so maybe they don't know he's on board."
"I'm afraid that even if that is the case at the moment," Ezra paused, then continued, "once Bobby sees him..." He didn't finish, knowing as well as anyone just what sort of revenge the man would exact on the agent who had killed his brother.
"On the other hand," Josiah offered, "having a man on board could be, as Ezra might say, our ace in the hole."
They quickly returned to business as Travis filled them in on the information he had so far.
By the time Vin had reached the car where his room was he'd had to duck two sets of armed men as they made their way down the train. Apparently they weren't finished with their search for passengers after all. It looked like he really would have to disappear if he was going to be of any help to the hostages at the back of the train.
He finally got to the compartment and found that everything not locked in the storage unit had been strewn about as the men searched hastily for any stray passengers. He knew that anything that would identify him as a threat was either on his person or locked securely but still cringed at the thought of Rathson finding out that he was on board. He quickly packed his phone, a jacket, some candy bars and other odds and ends into his small shoulder pack and slipped out again, leaving the mess on the floor to hide the fact that he'd been there. The thought that they might already know who he was from the passenger list crossed his mind, so he decided to find a safe place to hole up while he contacted Chris and figured out what he could do until help arrived.
Twenty minutes later, tucked away in the back corner of a luggage car he pulled out the cell and dialed, silently praying that they were in an area that had the equipment necessary for the phone to work. He smiled as he realized that for once he actually had the damn thing with him and fully charged too.
Normally two out of three was good, but having the phone and a charge weren't any good in a no-service area. He swore as he shoved the useless piece of plastic back into the bag. Maybe later when they were near a city.
At the back of the train Bobby Rathson and two of his original gang were finalizing their plans for the train and its passengers. They had hired on a lot of extra men to help with the takeover of the train, and with an inside man working for the company that ran the special excursions it hadn't been as difficult as he had expected to get them all on board and in position. That wouldn't help later when things heated up, but that was one of the advantages of hired help. They were, for the most part, expendable. And while the authorities were busy worrying about the ransom, he and his men would be busy with the real mission. He had more than enough money. What he wanted now was some payback against the men in power that he perceived as the ones ultimately responsible for everything that had ever gone wrong in his life, up to and including the death of his brother just last week. He idly wished that he had been able to get the ATF team responsible for that at the same time, but unfortunately, that would have to wait. The chance to wipe out a whole train full of politicians was simply too good to pass up. He'd get Larabee and that longhaired bastard that killed his brother soon enough.
Orrin Travis knew that even if they paid the ransom it was unlikely that the hostages would be released unharmed. That just wasn't how Bobby Rathson operated. He and Chris Larabee had discussed this fact and were pretty sure that the ransom was either icing on the cake or a diversion. They both leaned towards the diversion theory. They would go along, pretending to believe, but they would be more concerned with figuring out a way to get their men on and the hostages off the train.
They had spent the last hour picking the brains of one of the train company's security men for ways to override the trains systems or, failing that, to divert the train to an area where they could somehow board it unseen. While the old trains it was modeled after had only limited power and versatility, beneath the veneer of age this train was actually an up-to-date computerized version with enough power that even on the uphill stretches in the mountains it was unlikely that it would be slow enough for the team to be able to board. There was however one feature with which all modern trains were equipped -- the automatic shutdown function that overrode all other programming in the event of a collision. They could, in the right location, place a vehicle or other obstruction on the tracks and the resulting crash would cause a stop. No doubt the men on board would restart as soon as possible but that did take a minimum amount of time. They would have between 7 and 12 minutes before the crew onboard could restart. That is unless the collision caused the train to derail and crash itself.
After another useless attempt to call out Vin Tanner made a decision. If he couldn't call out for help for the hostages, he would have to BE that help. That decided, he needed a plan. Before he could devise one, though, one walked into the car where he was hiding.
Two men who entered and began sorting through some of the baggage stacked there, not paying any attention to his corner, at least for the moment. Being a practical man, Tanner knew that would be a temporary situation so he made his move. He was able to knock the first man out without a sound, then as the second one turned to comment on a piece of luggage he'd found he met Vin's fist head on.
"Two down," Vin observed as his plan took shape, "only about twenty or so to go." He tied the two men up, gagged them and dragged them to the back of the car, then buried them under a small mountain of luggage, smiling to himself in spite of the throb in his arm. Dragging bodies and piling luggage would have been a sure way to inspire Nathan's wrath, had the medic been there to see. His search of the unconscious men yielded a number of useful items. His gun, he knew, would have to be a last resort since to fire it would cause him to lose his only advantage -- surprise. If he could take on one or two at a time he might just have a chance. Then he remembered the overheard discussion about a ransom phone call and decided that help might, if he was very lucky, already be on the way.
Heading cautiously towards the back of the train, he wished again that he'd stayed in Denver with Chris and the rest of the team. And once again he swore off vacations. They were just too damn hard on him; give him a bunch of gunrunners or moonshiners any day.
Back in Denver things were about to get interesting. AD Travis just knew it. He had tried to argue with the head of the FBI team that had just informed him that they were in charge of the operation, but was met with a brick wall. Of course, without the FBI's interference last time, this entire situation wouldn't exist; both brothers and their gang would already be behind bars.
What Travis also knew for a fact was that there was no way that Team 7 or, more pointedly, Chris Larabee would accept the FBI's jurisdiction. Not when Vin Tanner's life was at stake.
"The fact is," Orrin addressed the overbearing agent, "our Team has a man inside, and, since that is one more advantage that you don't have, the ATF will be running this operation. As much as I would rather not have you anywhere near our teams, we will accept your generous offer for backup assistance."
"Why you..." Agent Hagle's face turned a bright red as he realized that he wouldn't get his way. "I haven't offered backup and I will not be stuck on second string duty while you and your--"
He was cut off abruptly as Team 7, led by Larabee, entered the conference room. "Your what?" Chris Larabee asked in that deadly cold voice that could unnerve the most hardened criminal, let alone a blustering FBI agent.
"I refuse to be relegated to some second-string back up position! This case is too important--" He was once again interrupted as Larabee stepped closer, standing inches from the shorter, stockier man, glaring down into the eyes that suddenly darted side to side, looking desperately for someone to step in.
The voice that answered was icy and left no room for arguments. "If your barely useful team, and I use that term loosely, doesn't want to be relegated to back up, then you can just pack your bags and get the hell out of here because I'm not putting any more of MY team at risk because of them. This IS our operation and I won't waste another minute discussing it with incompetent fools."
He stood a moment more to make sure that the FBI agent had gotten the message, then turned and left the room, followed by his team and Travis. The assistant director turned to the openmouthed agent as he left, shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head as he mouthed the words, "I tried to warn you."
It helped that the other agencies knew of and respected Team 7's ability to deal with extreme situations better than any other local, state or national agency.
On board the train, Vin had managed to locate the rest of the passengers, hostages and hostiles. Most were in the last two cars where the Senator and several other politicians had been placed for security reasons, effectively isolating them with a minimum of manpower needed to secure them. Two men stood outside the door, along with two in each car to keep an eye on the hostages.
The rest of the hijackers were mostly in the dining car. Having checked through the rest of the train, they now waited for the ransom delivery. Vin still wasn't sure how they had missed him but hoped that perhaps his last minute booking had somehow caused his name to be left off the passenger list. The only ones who knew that the ransom was a diversion were staying with Bobby in a car near the front of the train. They had overridden the computers and changed the codes so they had complete control of the train. Then they had disabled the tracking system before they changed the train's final destination.
Vin was spending his time in the cars between, quietly picking off any of the men who moved through alone. In some cases, needing to reduce the odds, he took out two men. He knew that even with the men he'd left in the baggage car and the seven he had now crammed into various cabinets and closets he was still overwhelmingly outnumbered. With each hijacker that he put out of the game his arm ached more and the chances that someone would be missed increased. And that meant that the chances that he would be found increased.
He tried his cell phone again and was startled when he heard a ring. The call was finally getting through.
The team was packed and preparing to leave for the heliport to meet the helicopter that would take them and Team 4 up to the staging area where they would attempt to stop the train. They had managed to track the train after the railroad's internal system went down by accessing the military's satellite tracking system.
After studying all the options for possible routes that the hijackers could use, they were pretty sure where the train was headed. The only target of size in the area besides Denver was... Salt Lake City. And despite the roundabout route the train would have to take to get there, they would have to move quickly or it would be too late to intercept then.
They were piling into the two vehicles that would deliver them when Larabee's cell phone rang.
"Larabee," the blond snapped out, anxious to be on the way. His expression changed from mild annoyance to beaming surprise as the voice at the other end answered.
"Hey, cowboy." Vin's raspy drawl was like a verbal sunrise to his worried partner. "Sounds like you're busy. Should I call back later?"
"Vin!" Larabee nearly yelled, unable to distinguish between the myriad of emotions that were bombarding him at the sound of his friend's voice. "Are you okay? " He paused a moment, thinking frantically what a stupid question that was. Then, taking a breath as his years of training took over, he continued. "We know what's going on and we're on our way. We have a plan to stop the train and hopefully can get some or all of the hostages off. Can you be ready and help from your end?"
"I can try. Chris," Vin responded. "But there are a lot of men with Rathson and I'm not sure how safe it will be to try anything. You could get the hostages killed."
"I know, Vin, but they're heading to Salt Lake and once they get there we won't have a lot of options."
Vin interrupted then, realizing what the large crates he'd found in every car had to be, and what Rathson had to be planning.
"He's got all those explosives on board, Chris, you can't let him get into the city. If he sets them off, he could take out half of Salt Lake!" He paused, considering the options. "How long 'til you can try to stop the train?"
Before Chris could reply, he heard a thump and a grunt, then the line went dead.
Chris stared at the phone as if by will alone he could get time to roll back just for a minute, that he could somehow stop what was about to happen, what was happening even now as he stood uselessly in a parking garage hundreds of miles from where he was needed. The crunch of shattering plastic served to break the spell, and as he tossed the now useless remains of the phone into the back of the truck, he swore that he would get there and find a way to repay Rathson for every scrape, scratch or bruise that he would inflict on his partner. He just hoped that whatever Rathson did wouldn't be immediately fatal.
"Please," he breathed, "just let him be alive when I get there."
One minute he had been talking to Chris, and the next Vin awoke to find himself on the floor, hands tied behind his back, his head pounding. "Shit!" he breathed as he opened his eyes, trying to see just how bad it was.
It became a chant as he peered up through his blood matted hair to see Bobby Rathson watching him, waiting for a sign that his quarry was awake and ready to be punished.
"Well well well, Mr. Tanner," the large, flabby man gloated, "how nice of you to join us on our little journey." Then he kicked out, connecting solidly with ribs that made an audible crack as the pain ripped into the prone man's side. Vin tried but couldn't surpress a groan as the second kick hit his kidneys, sending a flare of sheer agony across his lower back.
"I was just thinking," the sneering tormentor continued, "that all I needed for this day to be perfect was a chance to pay you back for killing my baby brother." He laughed then, a sound that sent chills down the spines of even the toughest of his hired men.
Vin's last thoughts before slipping back into the welcome oblivion of unconsciousness were of the six friends, no brothers, who he hoped to have a chance to see again. Not that it looked like that would happen if Bobby Rathson had his way.
By the time the teams arrived at the chosen location, they had less than an hour to prepare for their assault on the train. With no other option available, they set up the only blockade they had on hand.
As the train came around the long curve that skirted Kingston Junction, Jimmy Lee Bolton, former employee of the rail line and now employed by Bobby Rathson, looked up to see a large, beatup pickup truck stopped dead on the tracks barely 300 feet ahead. The train was moving at over sixty miles an hour and had fourteen heavy cars attached. Jimmy Lee knew that stopping was not an option. He braked as hard as he could, and picked up his com-link to warn the others.
Before he could open a channel the train plowed into the truck, brakes screeching as the vehicle blew up. The entire train shook as the impact rolled the burning wreck down the tracks before it, large chunks of debris flying as it broke apart. The emergency system took over, slowing, then stopping the train.
Rathson was thrown to the floor as the train was suddenly jolted, an explosion ripped the air and the sounds of shrieking metal fought with the thumps and bangs as the train continued to shudder and shake. Then, as the noise began to abate, the train slowed and came to a stop.
Bobby jumped to his feet, barreling past several of his cohorts as he ran toward the front of the train. Whatever Jimmy was doing up in the engine, it wasn't part of the plan and that would cost the driver if he didn't have some good answers by the time Rathson reached him. Bobby had plans, and this wasn't a part of them...
Vin came awake as the train began bucking and jolting, and muddled as he was feeling, he knew that Chris and the boys had to be the cause. This was it, he had to be ready to help get the hostages off the train. When Bobby ran out of the car and headed towards the front of the train, followed by the two men who had been in conference with him, he found himself alone, forgotten in the excitement of the moment.
Rolling onto his side, he wiggled over to the wall. Pushing against it, he worked his way onto his feet, dizzy, gasping in pain and barely able to move. Once upright, he started toward the back of the train, using his chin and elbows to push the handles on the doors and levering them open awkwardly. He passed through the three empty cars before having to duck into a small niche as several of the men from the dining car came into the car he was in, heading toward the front, presumably to help Rathson and the others get the train restarted.
There were still a number of men in the dining car and guarding the hostages, but the collision had knocked many to the floor and several had been injured badly enough that they weren't paying much attention to what was going on around them.
Vin stopped in the compartment he was in long enough to thread his legs and hips so thru his tied hands bringing them to the front. Though still tied, he could at least use them to club any unwary hostiles, and by picking up a stray jacket, he was able to hide the ropes. It might be possible that some of the men weren't aware of who he was by sight, allowing him to pass by in the confusion.
He made it to the entry to the last two cars where the hostages were being held before anyone even noticed that he was there. As the man watching the door pulled his weapon out, pointed it at him and gestured for him to drop to his knees, a shot rang out, closely followed by several more.
As the truck exploded and rolled down the tracks, the entire team held its collective breath, hoping, praying that the train did not derail and crash. Although unlikely, given the size and weight of the train, it was a possibility. As the behemoth started to slow, showering the area in sparks and shards of twisted and burning metal, the teams gradually headed towards the train. The layout for the train had indicated that the senator and his staff were at the rear of the train, so that was where they headed.
Team 4 entered the last car, finding a number of reporters and staff who had, in the confusion of the collision, managed to subdue both of the guards who had been stationed there. They were in the process of opening the back door when the ATF men arrived and gladly climbed off the train. They were directed by the agents away from the wreckage to a safe zone several hundred yards away.
Buck, Josiah, JD and Nathan boarded the second car and found themselves in a standoff. Two of Bobby's men were holding the Senator and several local politicians at gunpoint, using them as a shield to keep the agents back. For the moment at least, no one was ready to make a preemptive move, Rathson's men unsure as to what their leader wanted them to do, and the agent's, unwilling to risk any lives unnessairly. As the armed men holding the hostages backed slowly towards the door leading to the next car forward, gunshots were heard coming from that car.
Vin had just begun to comply with the instruction to kneel when the first shot was fired. Before he could react several more shots followed. With his hands still tied and a gun pointed at his chest there had been nothing he could do but follow the order, but when the gunshots distracted the guard he took the only advantage he was likely to receive. Swinging his still bound arms he clubbed the man as hard as he could knocking him to the floor with enough force to cause him to lose his grip on the weapon.
Gritting his teeth against the pain as he bent, Vin picked up the gun and turned to see Ezra and another of Bobby's men taking shots at one another at the other end of the car. Neither had noticed Vin or the now unconscious man since they were both too busy with each other. Vin watched the other gunman move to his left in an attempt to get a better shot at Ezra, putting himself right in Vin's line of sight, raising his gun Vin fired,adding one more of the terrorists to his tally.
"He's down, Ez." Vin called out, not sure if his teammate was aware of who had fired or if his opponent was neutralized.
"I'm gratified to see you and that you appear the be more or less in a singular condition, Mr. Tanner, furthermore I appreciate your assistance in subduing this miscreant for me."
Unable to decipher the exact meaning of Ezra's words through the pounding in his head Vin simply shrugged and replied, "Glad ta see you too, Ez."
Chris had moved towards the front of the train, hoping to locate Vin. When they had spoken, Vin had indicated that he wasn't with the hostages and Chris was convinced that Bobby would most likely keep Vin in a different location after his capture. Somehow he couldn't imagine the man taking his revenge on Vin in front of that many witnesses, even if he intended to kill them all later.
He climbed onto the train about halfway to the engine and found himself on a car that was deserted, listening for a moment he could hear sounds of a gunfight coming from somewhere toward the back of the train. But when he turned towards the front he didn't hear anything. He knew that at least some of the men had to be up in the engine area because he was pretty sure that Rathson would be trying to restart the train. He hoped that Team 4 and the rest of his team could get the hostages off before that happened.
When the sounds of the gunfight began, the men holding the Senator and other hostages stopped. They didn't know who was firing but didn't want to walk into the middle of whatever was going on in the next car. Josiah took advantage of their confusion and managed to convince them that there were simply too many agents on the train for any of them to escape, even with hostages, and since the men Bobby had hired weren't particularly bright it took very little effort to convince the men that surrender was their only option that didn't include their deaths. Within minutes Bobby's hired help had given up the hostages.
JD and Josiah had taken the handcuffed prisoners to join the two from the back car. After leaving them in the custody of Team 4, they headed back towards the train with Buck and Nathan who had delivered the hostages to the safety of the staging area. They were about halfway there when the train started to move.
Despite the relatively slow speed of the train as it started, it was just too far, even JD who was pretty fast on his feet was unable to reach it before it had moved away.
Ezra and Vin had headed towards the front of the train once Ezra had explained that Team 4 and most of Team 7 were with the hostages. Vin swore when Ezra informed him that Chris had headed for the front alone.
They increased their pace as they felt the train lurch, then begin to move forward.
"We've got to stop them, Ez," Vin urged as they moved on, "this train is full of explosives."
"I agree, Vin..." Ezra replied, "but I don't think they are just going to stop because we ask, and they are in complete control of the train's computer."
"I just hope Chris has a plan." Vin muttered as the reached the end of another car.
Chris had reached the car where Bobby and three of his regular men were preparing for the final part of the journey, Jimmy had managed to restart the train and as it started to move, Bobby and Colin were preparing to set the timer on the remote controller for the explosives. Each crate had its own detonator, but they were all tied into one control unit, once the signal was given, the countdown would begin on each bomb. The ATF agent entered just as Colin handed the control unit to Bobby.
"Too late, Larabee," the fat man gloated, "Once I push this button nothing will stop this train from blowing up Salt Lake City."
"You push that button and you're a dead man." Chris growled, "put it down now and you will live to face a jury."
Rathson just laughed, he wasn't planning on death or jail, "Not if you want to see your long-haired sharpshooter alive."
Chris went cold, he hadn't seen Vin as he came through the train and didn't know if he was still alive or not but didn't want to take the risk that he was alive and at the mercy of this madman.
"How do I know that he's even alive," he spoke aloud his thoughts, even as he prayed that he was.
The big man sneered, waving the remote and laughing as he realized that the man in front of him wouldn't risk his friend's life. "Drop your weapon and I'll take you to him."
Chris hesitated, there were three guns pointed at him and Bobby had the remote to the explosives too, his gun wasn't really much of an advantage at this point, if he complied, maybe they would let down their guard long enough for him to make a move. He slowly lowered his weapon and dropped it gently on the floor.
Bobby smiled and thought to himself one more dead ATF agent to avenge my brother. As he ordered his second in command to shoot the agent, the door to the car burst open.
Ezra and Vin had been listening at the door for a few minutes when they heard Rathson give the order for Colin to shoot Chris, before Ezra could stop him, Vin was pushing the door open.
Vin came through the door as Colin moved to carry out the command, the movement causing him to turn as he fired. The bullet hit Vin mid chest and lifted him up and back, throwing his already limp body into the bulkhead behind him where he landed in an untidy sprawl as Chris turned towards him.
"NOOOO!!" Chris cried out as he started towards his fallen partner.
Ezra, unable to stop Tanner as he barged into the car, followed carefully, watching as Chris threw himself onto the floor next to the man, oblivious to the gun raised and ready to fire again.
As Chris knelt beside Vin, unaware or maybe just not caring that Colin was about to put a bullet in his back, Ezra realized what was about to happen, leaned into the room and shot Colin before the gunman had knew that there was another person onboard.
Bobby still had the remote control for the bombs and was becoming increasingly agitated as events began to spiral out of his control. He was also furious that Colin had shot the man who had killed his brother before he had a chance to really torture the man.
Ezra, while still outside of the car knew that he wouldn't have many options for long. As soon as Rathson or one of his men thought of it he would be forced to surrender or witness the death of Larabee too. He was still in shock after watching Vin sacrifice himself for Chris. Not that he was surprised that the Texan would be willing to do so, Tanner's devotion to their team leader was well known. Just how the death of Tanner would ultimately affect Larabee was something that Ezra was reluctant to envision. He hadn't been around when Larabee's wife and child had been killed, but knew that it had nearly undone the team leader. The friendship with Vin had started to bring Chris back from that dark edge he had been skirting for too long, if Tanner were really dead, Ezra feared that Larabee might lose his balance for good.
It took several moments for Chris to realize that despite the fact that he was completely limp and seemingly lifeless there was no blood on Vin. Hoping for a miracle he reached out with a shaking hand and gently placed a finger against the pulse point on Vin's neck.... Long moments passed before his mind registered what his finger had detected, a pulse. Vin was alive! How that was possible he didn't really care, all that mattered was that his best friend was still breathing.
Well, almost all that mattered, he realized as his awareness returned to the room and the fact that there were two men with guns pointed at him and a madman with a remote device that could set off a series of bombs that could take out half a city and they were trapped here with the men and the bombs with no real plan for how to stop the man or the train.
It soon became apparent from the rantings of the man with the remote that he too believed that Vin was dead. Chris realized that if Bobby found out that Vin was alive he would make sure to correct that situation in the most painful way that he could devise. Now he just had to find a way to either keep Vin unconscious or let him know that he needed to play possum for as long as possible. He wondered again how it could be that Vin wasn't killed by the shot but decided that would have to wait for a more private moment. Knowing that Vin tended to wake alert and wary of his surroundings Chris decided that the most important thing he had to do was to hide that fact that there was no blood on the body, he took off his ATF jacket and placed it over Vin, praying that he would stay silent when he woke up.
Looking up at the men in the room he had to control the giddy sense of relief he felt knowing Vin was alive, he had to convince them that he was devastated by the loss of his teammate and friend. Thinking about how battered his friend looked when he had entered the room it wasn't very hard to look upset and angry.
After listening to Rathson bragging about his numerous bombs and how they were all equipped with detonators that could be triggered by the remote he held, Ezra decided the best course of action for him to undertake would be to locate and disarm as many of the weapons as possible before the men in the front of the train realized that they were alone. That the rest of their men and the hostages were no longer on the train. He knew that there wasn't anything else he could do for Larabee at the moment but if he could neutralize the threat inherent in the remote then he might be able to handle the gunmen who might assume the threat of the bombs would forestall any action on his part. It wasn't much, but it might be the only advantage he had.
Back at the staging area Buck was working on a plan. It wasn't the best or the smartest plan that he or the Team had ever come up with, in fact it might have been one of the worst. But the train couldn't be allowed to enter a metropolitan area. Regardless of his personal feelings for Chris, Vin and Ezra the train had to be stopped and the only way he and the rest could come up with was to take the helicopter, fly ahead of the train and drop explosives onto the tracks thereby causing the train to derail before it reached Salt Lake. He would rather have tried the "truck on the tracks trick" again but the location was just too remote, they couldn't get a truck or any other vehicle there in time.
The main problem with the plan was that if the crash itself didn't kill the three agents, it would, most likely, set off the explosives.
The only way disaster might be avoided was if they blew the tracks and could contact the train and persuade Rathson to stop the train. If he knew that the explosion would only kill himself and his men along with the three agents he might back off figuring that three deaths weren't enough reason for him to die too. But that assumed that the man was still capable of making a rational decision.
It took Ezra only a few minutes to find the first bomb. Actually it would have been hard to miss it, it was big. The large crate was marked with tags that claimed it to be cameras and other equipment that the news group would use for the planned news conference at the end of the trip. He opened it and was relieved to see that the set up was really quite simple, a detonator attached to the relay and timer that would set off the rest of the contents, mostly C-4. Removing the radio relay and detonator was easy and within a few minutes he was heading further back to locate the next one. He just had to be sure that he found them all before someone came looking for him or realized that the rest of the hostages were gone.
Bobby knew that the man on the floor had to have boarded the train after the collision and he was concerned that he hadn't heard from any of his men at the back of the train. It finally occurred to him that there might be any number of agents on the train besides the one that had shot Colin... the problem was that he didn't have enough men left to go and check. On the other hand, as long as they stayed where they were they couldn't stop him or the train so he decided that as long as he had Zack and Winston watch the door it didn't matter. They would all die in a couple of hours anyway.
Then the radio on the train came to life.
"We have destroyed the tracks ahead of you," the voice stated, "if you do not stop the train in the next 20 minutes you will derail and crash." the voice paused then before continuing in a deep foreboding manner, "In case you haven't noticed, the hostages you had were all removed from the train when it was stopped, we will not allow you to enter any city, if you change course, we will destroy the tracks on any line you switch onto."
If the man on the other end of the radio had more to say they would never know what it was as Rathson smashed the radio unit with the fireaxe that was mounted on the wall. He was ranting and screaming and still carried the axe as he turned towards the end of the car where Chris sat next to Vin's body. He would have his revenge on someone before he died in a fiery crash.
As Zack and Winston watched Bobby smash the radio they realized that the man who they were working for had finally gone completely insane, he was going to keep the train moving until it derailed and they were all dead. This was not what they had signed up for, they didn't have a problem blowing up some politicians or even some feds but suicide was another matter altogether. They had been with Rathson long enough to know that you never confronted the man, that was another sure way to die.
Rathson came out of his rage for long enough to notice that his men were staring at him in a disconcerting way, deciding that he needed to keep them busy he ordered them to go check and see if the hostages were all gone and if any of his men were still on the train.
Not wanting to argue with the man in his unbalanced state of mind they both were glad to get away, they left the car as quickly as possible, not looking at the man on the floor knowing what was in store for him and feeling extremely glad to be able to miss seeing it firsthand.
Buck and the Team had dropped the explosives at the location that the rail company had determined would be the safest place to derail the train and have the least chance of major damage. Knowing that any derailment would be devastating they just hoped that their teammates would have at least a chance of survival.
After Josiah had finished delivering the message to the train using his most authoritative tones they had reboarded the chopper and headed back toward the chosen area where emergency services were already preparing for the crash and resultant injuries. Buck turned to see Josiah's head bent in prayer, hoping that Rathson would stop before they reached the damaged section of tracks. He added his own prayer as they approached their landing area.
"How long til they get here, Buck?" JD asked, knowing as well as Buck did that time was running out. There had been no reply from the train but the radio operator assured them that the channel was open, and assuming that there was someone in the control car they would have heard the warning.
Ezra had found and disarmed six of the large bombs but he had no idea how many there were in all and if he had any chance of finding and disarming the rest before his time ran out. He had just found the seventh when he heard the sounds of men approaching. He crouched down behind the large crate and waited.
Winston just wanted to get off the train, he didn't care if they were in the middle of nowhere or not, it had to be safer to jump off the thing than it was to stay on board while it crashed and then exploded. Zack agreed, to a point, but he thought that it would be better to just shoot the crazy bastard and make Jimmy Lee stop the train so that they could just walk away, hell, Jimmy Lee would probably agree with them once he found out that the tracks ahead had been destroyed.
"I don't know, Zack..." the younger brother argued, "do you really want to face Bobby, even with a gun?"
"He won't even know what hit him, we'll walk in and shoot before he even realizes that there is anything going on."
"Well, if we're gonna do it we better do it now, cause we're gonna be at that blown up track pretty quick." Winston continued, but then realized that Bobby still had the remote. "What if he pushes the button?"
"There's a ten minute timer on the bombs, so even if he pushes it we can get far enough away before it blows."
"I still say we should just jump..." Winston whined but followed his brother toward the front of the train.
"Oh, marvelous..." Ezra thought, "they're gonna go up there and irritate the lunatic." He quickly disarmed the bomb he had been hiding behind and as he headed further back to look for the next he wished that he'd thought to grab the two dimwits and find out exactly how many crates full of explosives there were. There couldn't be too many more or someone would have wondered at the amount of camera equipment that was loaded onto the train.
As the two men had left the car to check on the rest of the train, Chris had waited, aware that Rathson was prepared to use the huge axe on him. He didn't have a weapon and knew that he would have little chance against the huge man in his enraged state. He was still next to Vin, but had moved up into a squat in preparation for the attack that he knew was coming when he felt a hand grab his ankle.
Vin, he was awake, Larabee wondered briefly how long he had been listening and was answered, in a way, when the hand disappeared under the ATF jacket briefly and returned with a large Bowie knife and a small caliber handgun.
He almost laughed then, shooting Bobby with that peashooter would be like a bee stinging an enraged bull.
Unless he could take him right between the eyes.
He checked to see that the gun was loaded and was trying to figure how to line up the shot when the two men who had left only minutes before walked back into the car.
He had to wonder if it was guts or stupidity for the two men to walk back in, knowing how crazy Rathson was, but that didn't really matter because Bobby had obviously expected them and opened fire on them even as they entered the car. Zack went down like a rock, taking a bullet to the heart and Winston was hit at least once before he retreated back into the next car, bleeding and reeling from the loss of his brother. He ran to the other end of the car, pushed the door open and jumped off the train without even looking to see where they were or what he was jumping into or onto. He just wanted off the train.
That left Bobby and Jimmy Lee, and Jimmy had no idea what was ahead because he had been up in the engine when the message had come through. Chris wondered briefly if he could get himself and Vin up and off the train and if there was any way to let Ezra know to do the same because he was beginning to think that Winston had the right idea.
The interruption proved to be a good thing for Chris since it had distracted Bobby from his attack on him. He had dropped the axe when he had pulled his gun out and shot his men. He then followed Winston into the next car and watched as the young man threw himself from the train. The shock of seeing that caused him to pause and wonder. A short reacquaintence with reality ensued while he pondered the chain of events that had led him to this point.
Chris used the opportunity to gain his footing, run to the door that the two men had just exited through and look to see if there was a lock of any kind. There wasn't, but when it was shut the two handles lined up and if Chris could find something to wedge across them he might just gain some breathing space for he and Vin. As he grabbed the axe and used it to barricade the door he realized that Vin had pulled the jacket off and was working on sitting up. It looked like it hurt.
"Vin," Chris called to the slowly rising man, "how the hell did you..." his voice trailed off as he saw the grin on his partners face as he pulled up his tee shirt to display a kevlar vest. Not an ATF issue one. "Where the heck did you get that?" he asked, knowing that Vin was enjoying his confusion way too much.
"First two guys I took out down in the baggage room, they were loaded with weapons and all sorts of useful stuff, thought this might just come in handy." Vin smiled again as they both looked towards the front of the car to the door leading to the engine.
"Think we can convince Jimmy Lee to stop this crate?" Chris asked as they moved forward.
"Don't know..." Vin shot back, but we gotta try, "I don't know how long that axe is gonna hold if Bobby starts hammering on that door and where the heck is Ezra?"
Chris just shook his head, Ezra had disappeared a while ago and he just hoped that the undercover man had found something useful to do. They entered the car as the train rounded a curve and looked up to see Armageddon. Just a few hundred yards down the tracks was a large crater where the tracks and everything else disappeared.
They looked at each other knowing that only fate would decide how their day would end and dove back into the second car.
Jimmy Lee had just seen the damaged track ahead as he heard the door to the engine open. He didn't turn, figuring that it had to be Rathson. All he could do was engage the braking system to the fullest and hope they would slow enough that they might have a slim chance of survival. When the door slammed shut again he didn't even notice. As the churned up section of track drew closed he simply closed his eyes and continued to brake.
Ezra had just finished defusing another bomb when he felt the jolt as Jimmy Lee slammed on the brakes. He knew from the overheard conversation that the train was going to be derailed and, not sure whether or not he had found and defused all the explosives, he made the only decision he could. He ran to the nearest door, slid it opened and jumped, tucking and hoping like hell that he would roll rather than land with a splat.
Bobby Rathson cursed as he pounded on the door that led to the front of the train. After he'd seen Winston bail out he had paused and wondered suddenly how his plan could have gone so disastrously wrong. Then he realized how. The man he had left in the next car and his team. He turned and headed back, hoping that he would have enough time to gut the blond leader of that team. When he reached the door and tried to open it nothing happened; it wouldn't budge. What little had been left of Rathson's sanity disappeared in the bloodcurdling roar he let out. Then the train jolted as Jimmy started hitting the brakes.
As they ran back out of the engine Chris turned to Vin, looking at his partner who suddenly grabbed him and started pulling him to the far end of the car. There were a number of caged off areas there that contained various supplies. The one that Vin pulled open contained the rolled up packing mats that were used to store some of the more delicate items that were shipped. The locker was fairly full of the rolled mats and Vin frantically pulled out a number that were in the middle of the unit making a small space that he entered. He pulled Chris in after and reached around him to slam the door shut. They were tightly packed amidst the piles of rolled mats and while they were packed in awfully tight Chris realized that this just might save their lives. "Ever resourceful..." he mumbled and then the world turned upside down.
As he sailed through the air Ezra began to have doubts about his plan for survival. Then he hit the ground, which turned out to be a huge bank of blackberry bushes. As he crashed through the twisted vines that were armed with a multitude of spikes and whipping ends he felt his suit literally shred to pieces. The fine fabric made a whirring noise as it pulled away from the silky lining. While he cursed the loss of the suit, it wasn't one of his favorites and the bushes were, in fact doing and admirable job of breaking his fall. He finally came to a stop, still entwined with the edges of the jungle and lay there for a bit taking inventory and was pleased to note that while much of his suit was missing, all of his parts seemed to be present and more or less intact. Aside from some rather splendidly annoying scratches.
He turned, as the screeching of the brakes intensified and then stopped as the wheels left the tracks.
Jimmy Lee never opened his eyes again. As the train ran off the end of the tracks the engine barreled onward, ploughing into the embankment and then somersaulting up and over.
The second car was pulled partway up as the engine cartwheeled, forcing the coupling to snap, the car was thrown to the side as the following cars accordioned themselves into each other. The shrieking of tearing metal vied with the crashes and thumps of colliding cars. As it rolled twice then slammed into the embankment on the other side of the tracks.
The noise seemed to go on forever, but was actually over in a matter of moments.
Ezra watched, horrified, yet fascinated. He waited, thinking that the explosives might not need a detonator given the amount of banging around they were getting, and then there was the possibility that he hadn't found all of them.
The silence after the train finally stopped was eerie. The only movement was the cloud of dust that rose above the wreckage.
Ezra sat, stunned for a moment more before attempting to stand. He knew that Chris was somewhere in that wreckage, along with Vin's body. He hoped, as he fought the clinging vines attemping to keep him where he was that he wouldn't be looking for the bodies of two men.
By the time he had persuaded the bushes that he was in charge and free to leave he could hear the sounds of the rescue crews approaching.
As he limped towards the train Ezra heard his name called. He turned to see Josiah, Buck and the rest heading towards him. He stopped and waited for the other four men to catch up.
"Ezra," Buck called as the drew near, "do you know where Chris and Vin are? Did they get off the train with you?"
"No and no, I'm afraid, gentlemen." Ezra answered, as he realized that they didn't know what had happened on the train. They didn't know that Vin was dead long before the train had derailed.
"They were up at the front." He paused, trying to get control of his emotions. On the train he hadn't had the time to really let the fact sink in. "They shot Vin," he stated, fighting to maintain his composure. "I don't know if they killed Chris too..."
Buck turned to the undercover man then, "Why weren't you there to back them up?"
Ezra knew Buck well enough to know that it wasn't personal, that he was concerned for his friends. "I was disarming the bombs. We couldn't move on Rathson while he had the remote if they had their detonators."
"Enough!" Josiah declared, "Our friends are there somewhere and we will find them, this can wait."
"You're right, Josiah," Buck exhaled, "And I'm sorry Ez, I'm just worried, lets go get them." He used "them" even though he now believed that Vin was most likely dead. He just had to hope that, no matter how slim the chances, that somewhere in that mass of twisted metal his two friends still breathed.
Vin came to with a jolt, finding himself nose to nose with a large gray pillow. What the heck was it, a sleeping bag? No... He frowned and was trying to figure out what it was and, more importantly where he was when the surface he was lying on moved.
He started, pulling back to find himself nose to nose with Chris. It was the bloody scrape on Larabee's forehead that triggered his memory. "Aw, hell!" he muttered, shifting slightly so he could better see his partner, who was, he guessed, by the soft moan and twitching body parts, in the process of waking up.
"Hey there, big fella," he teased as the confused green eyes opened, "come here often?"
Larabee just groaned, then realizing that they had actually lived through the crash, opened his eyes, and, despite the close quarters, was extremely glad to see his best friend. "Vin..." He turned his head slightly, looking into his friend's eyes. "God, I thought you were dead."
"Hell, Larabee, I thought we were both goners when I saw those tracks, or should I say didn't see those tracks..."
The small caged area they were in was tilted to the point that they were very nearly upside down. After pushing several of the rolled up mats aside, they surveyed as much of their surroundings as they could. What they could see of the rest of the car was total devastation. The walls were crumpled, furniture and supplies splintered and crushed almost beyond recognition.
"I don't know how you knew about this..." Larabee paused to indicate their nest, "but I have the feeling that if we had been out there we'd be dead."
"Yeah, I noticed one when I was hiding a couple of the guys I knocked out back in the luggage car. It was full of suitcases, I stuffed those guys in it and piled a bunch of stuff on top so that no one would find them..." He paused, tilting his head in thought, "wonder if they're still there?"
"Good chance, and you probably saved their lives too." Larabee grinned at Vin's frown. "What?"
"Do ya think that Ez got off..." He wiggled a bit, testing to see if they would be able to get out of the cage without assistance. Realizing that the door was somewhere underneath them he shook his head. "Looks like we're stuck here 'til help comes."
While he was concerned about the missing undercover man, Chris wasn't really too worried. "Ezra seems to be pretty good at taking care of himself. He'll probably be more worried about whether he damaged his suit than anything else."
"Yeah," Vin agreed, "not much we can do about it for now anyway, but I'm guessing that he got those bombs disarmed or we wouldn't be here to worry about him."
He reached up then to check the scrape on Chris's head, brushing back the hair that had fallen forward over it. It was a shallow scrape and had already stopped bleeding. He looked to see if he could spot any other injuries, but they were sandwiched in so tightly that he couldn't see much beyond Larabee's head and shoulders.
"The rest of you okay?" he asked.
"Think so, just a few bruises, you?"
"Same here," Vin agreed, leaving out that the bruise on his chest where the bullet had hit the vest was hurting almost more than he could stand. Each breath aggravating the injury.
Chris knew from first hand experience how much a close range gunshot to a kevlar vest could hurt and was pretty sure that Vin would have some broken ribs and some spectacular bruising at the least.
"Yeah," he agreed in his most cynical tone, "and your chest doesn't feel like Peso kicked you?"
"Mmm, could be it's a mite sore," Vin managed, more or less straightfaced.
They decided, in lieu of any other options to simply rest and wait until someone came to let them out. Within a few minutes both men fell asleep. It had been a very long 24 hours.
The rescue crews were reluctant to let civilians help with the search of the train, but after a heated discussion with Buck and a slightly calmer one with Josiah they decided that ATF agents might not be considered civilians under the circumstances. They were allowed to help with the rescue efforts.
After being informed about the explosives on board, a bomb squad was contacted and was on its way. The crews had already marked three sites for the squad to clean up.
The crew was checking one of the cars toward the middle of the train, or at least at what appeared to have been the middle, when they found two men tied up and gagged in with some of the luggage. They were both awake and upon removal of the gags were complaining bitterly about their plight. That is until one of the rescuers pointed out that if they had been loose on the train they would most likely have been dead.
They were handcuffed and escorted away by local authorities for safekeeping, soon to join up with the other men arrested when the train had been stopped earlier.
It had been early morning when the train had crashed and noon had passed before the crews were able to get into the cars closer to the front of the train.
They entered what remained of one car that appeared to be the first car behind the engine to find the severely mangled body of Bobby Rathson. As Ezra approached he asked to enter. If this was the car Bobby was in, this was where Chris and Vin should be.
The crew tried to persuade him not to enter, telling him that the rest of the car was too thoroughly mangled to even consider finding anyone alive. But Ezra and Buck both insisted upon entering.
The first thing they saw were Rathson's remains. Although partially covered by the crew, the blood and other gore was spread to far to simply cover up with a blanket. Buck paled as he saw how thoroughly the man had been crushed and, looking back at the twisted remains of the rest of the car, turned and lost the little bit of food he'd eaten that morning.
"Oh, God, Chris." He blinked back tears, but before he could turn to leave he heard Ezra's remark.
"This is not the front car." he stated with absolute authority, "I was in here. This is the second car. Chris and Vin were in the next car forward."
The crew chief turned to him, explaining that the engine was just up ahead and there were no other cars between the two, that this had to be the first car behind it.
Buck looked at his teammate, "Are you sure Ezra?" he asked, afraid to believe that perhaps the body of his oldest friend was not, in fact inside this twisted remains of a railcar.
"I am absolutely certain." Ezra declared. "They are in another car, if this isn't the one..." He turned to survey the remaining cars, noticing that while most were jack-knifed together, there was one that was flipped over resting against the other embankment, "There," he pointed, "that has to be the one!"
The crew chief looked at the car shook his head. "That has to be one of the back cars," but then paused as he remembered another crash several years prior, "unless..."
"Unless what!" Buck turned to the man with the hope that he had held at bay for several hours glowing in his eyes.
"It's possible that when the engine flipped it lifted the second car up and if the coupler failed at just the right moment it could have fallen sideways and landed over there."
By the time he finished his sentence he was talking to himself, the ATF men were gone, climbing towards the car that lay upside down against the far embankment.
The harsh rasping noise was the first thing Chris heard as he woke up. Vin! Larabee opened his eyes to find his partner gasping for breath.
"Vin..." Chris reached up, brushing the damp hair back so he could better see his partner, "what's wrong?"
The blue eyes that opened were full of pain and there was a hint of panic that, hard as he tried, the younger man could no longer surpress.
"Think I might got a problem pard..." he managed to rasp out.
"Think you got a hole in your lung?"
A rueful half smile this time.
"We've got to get you out of here."
This time he got no reply.
Moving as gently as possible in an effort to avoid jarring Vin, Chris started shoving more of the rolled up mats out of the way, not wanting to believe that the cage that had save their lives during the crash might now cause Vin to suffocate while they waited to get out. Vin simply laid his head down and did his best to stay calm and breathe. Neither man was having a lot of luck.
As Buck and Ezra ran towards the flipped car they were joined by JD, Josiah and Nathan, who just finished searching a nearby car when they spotted their friends' mad dash towards the as yet unchecked car.
Buck arrived first and reached up to the top edge of the door. It was now on the bottom, but it was still nearly six feet off the ground. He gripped the edge and pulled himself up and over.
"Chris!" he called out, hoping desperately to hear a reply.
JD and Nathan arrived just as Ezra was attempting to follow. Josiah had detoured to the side to retrieve a crate that lay a few feet away.
"Nathan," Josiah called to the medic, "come help me get this over there."
Turning to see what the profiler was attempting to do, Nathan ran over and grabbed the other end of the crate and they dragged the heavy wooden box close enough that they could use it to better reach the door.
Buck had called out as he entered because that was all he could do at the moment. The contents of the car were strewn across the car and piled up in front of the door. He grabbed the nearest thing he could get a hold of and pushed it out the door into JD's hands.
"We can't get in until we move some of this stuff." He reached back for the next item and then he heard it. The answer to his call, and to all his hopes and prayers.
"Buck..." Chris's voice called from somewhere inside the car, "is that you?" he paused, waiting until Buck replied.
"Yeah, it's me and the rest of the guys, hang on, we'll get you out."
"Hurry!" Chris called back, sounding almost frantic. "Vin's hurt!"
"He's alive!" Buck called out to the others. "They're both alive! Get a medic and some help to get this stuff moved!"
Within minutes there was a crowd of emergency workers struggling with the twisted remains that blocked the doors. Ezra and several others had moved around to the other end of the car and were attempting to pry that door open. Though unblocked as far as they could see, the frame was twisted and they had been unable to get either of the sliding doors open as yet.
Inside the storage cage, Chris was trying to keep Vin awake and alert, fearing that if he lapsed into unconsciousness he would lose the battle for breath. As the crews got nearer to his position Nathan called out and asked him what the situation was.
"I think his rib is broken and has punctured his lung. Now he can barely get any air at all." Chris reported, slightly calmer now that help was almost there but still fearful that they might get there too late.
"Sounds like there is air in his chest cavity that is pushing against his lungs. That's why he can't breath," Nathan called back.
"What can I do?" Chris yelled back. "It's getting harder for him. I don't know how long he can hang on..."
"As soon as we get there I can put in a line that will let out the trapped air. It will get better almost as soon as I do."
"Hurry, Nathan, please."
The sounds of crates and boxes being dragged and scrap metal scraping as the men desperately worked to clear the path continued. Soon they had broken through to the end of the car where the caged area was and Nathan ran up to the bars.
"How's he doing, Chris?" the medic asked as he peered into the tightly packed cell the men were still trapped within.
"I don't know, Nathan, I think he's barely breathing, or maybe not at all!" he suddenly realized as he watched his partner grow paler, his lips beginning to turn blue.
"Oh, God, Nathan," Chris cried out, "I don't think he's breathing!"
Nathan reached in and realized that Chris was right.
"Chris, I can't do this from out here, not without your help."
"Just tell me what to do." Chris looked at his friend's face. "Whatever it is Nathan, I'll do it."
By that time the rest of the men had gathered outside of the storage cage and watched in horror and a kind of grim fascination as Chris pierced Vin's chest with the large needle that Nathan provided and inserted a tube that would allow the trapped air to escape. Within a few moments of the tube's insertion the still pale man gasped and took a deep breath, coughing as the air entered his oxygen starved lungs.
Chris took a deep relieved breath as the blue eyes fluttered and then cracked open.
"Hey, pard..." Vin rasped in a drawl so soft he could barely hear it, "how can a fella get a nap around here with all the thumping going on?"
A collective sigh ran through the gathered men as their sharpshooter looked around to see his team.
"Some guys'll do just about anything to get an extra week off," he stated, looking at Buck before closing his eyes and drifting back to sleep.
It took another two hours to get the cage opened and the men moved out to the clearing where the medivac chopper waited. Nathan flew in with the two men after trying unsuccessfully to get Ezra to come along. The scrapes and scratched he had received as he fell into the blackberries needed to be cleaned and dressed, but the agent had one more urgent job to do before he would leave the area.
He had been limping around the crash site partially because he had lost one of his shoes in the brambles, and despite the loss of the suit, he refused to leave without first finding his shoe.
"These are custom made Brionis, I will not leave one of them out here in the elements," Ezra complained loudly as his teammates teased him. "It's bad enough that the suit is ruined, I've barely had these shoes for six months..."
With that he limped back towards the mass of viscously armed bushes.
Buck, JD and Josiah watched him go, then, taking pity, they headed after him.
"Wait, Ez," JD called as they trotted up behind him, "we'll help ya. We are a team, after all."
They kept Vin overnight for observation in the Salt Lake Hospital then released him with a promise to take it easy for a couple weeks.
Chris just stood by the bed and tried not to laugh as he witnessed Vin quietly pulling the wool over the nice Morman doctor's eyes and silently vowed to ensure that the recuperating man would actually follow the instructions the hospital was sending home with him. Well, not home exactly. Since the team was already half way to the cabin they had rented a couple of SUV's and were even now waiting outside for Chris and Vin to join them as they headed north.
It was unlikely that he would have a hard time keeping Vin in line for the next few days since he was still pretty sore with almost any movement being painful. It was a week from now that he would have to be on alert, once the initial pain subsided to a level the Texan could ignore, he would, if the past was any indication, go out and promptly overdo it.
At least he would if Nurse Ratchet Larabee wasn't around to keep him in line. He sighed, realizing that he was now thinking of himself in terms of one of Vin's own nicknames for him. He shook his head as he once again realized just how much his friend had changed his outlook on life. Before he had met Vin, he had been fighting the darkness caused by the loss of his wife and son on a daily basis. But somehow now, even though he still missed them terribly, he had found a way to go on, to live, and to see the lighter side of life again...and that lighter side definately included Vin Tanner.
They managed to get out of the hospital and out of Salt Lake without any problems, aside from Ezra's complaints about the fact that one simply could not find a decent cup of coffee, let alone a latte, in the entire city. And amazingly, for once, the rest of the team had to agree. Salt Lake just wasn't a city known for its coffee. The desk clerk at their hotel had assured them that yes, they did have latte, and proceeded to send them down the street to the McDonald's Restaurant. Which sent the undercover agent into a total huff and, after tasting the cup he bought, even JD had to agree.
"Let's get out of this town and find some decent coffee." JD's declaration was met by unanimous agreement and they were on their way.
They arrived at the cabin late the next afternoon after having stopped in the last town to pick up a small mountain of supplies. Including a large bag of gourmet coffee.
The cabin was comfortable, the location about as perfect as anyone could ask for and not a complaint was heard, for at least fifteen minutes. Then their normal banter took over and Chris once again found himself thinking about his team as a bunch of unruly schoolboys. But at least they were HIS unruly schoolboys. He grinned as he sat on the porch watching the fabulous sunset with a particularly unruly Texan 'schoolboy' beside him.
The next few days were filled with fishing, swimming, hiking, birdwatching and even some time spend just laying around doing absolutely nothing. And while Ezra still refused to bait his own hooks, he even joined them on several of the fishing trips, surprising himself and the rest of the team when he managed to land a fair sized sockeye.
The two weeks passed seemingly overnight and they reluctantly packed up and headed home.
They arrived in Denver on Saturday afternoon, and after picking up their assorted vehicles at the ATF parking garage they headed to their respective homes. One more day, then back to work. Even Vin, though he would be on light duty for another week or two.
By the time they were half way to the ranch Vin was asleep in the passenger seat. Vin was staying at the ranch for a few more days til his arm was healed enough to drive himself on to work. Chris smiled contentedly as he thought about how good it felt just to be coming home with his best friend alive and, if not entirely well, at least on his way to a full recovery.
Monday morning came way too soon and as usual, Ezra was the last one to arrive at Team 7's offices.
He got off the elevator carrying his latte with a new appreciation for just how easily that could be acquired here in Denver and shuddered as he remembered just how awful something that was sold under the same name could actually be.
It was as he strolled through the outer area where the secretaries worked that he became aware of people looking at him...no, not just looking, staring, and pointing and that one over there was actually giggling. Something was definitely amiss. He knew that it could not be at his current state of dress, he had been extremely thankful to don his newest Louis Vuitton suit after spending two weeks wearing the clothes they had purchased while away. He was quite sure that contrary to the claims of the rest of the team, there WERE other stores in Montana besides K-Mart.
He actually increased his pace as he neared the domain of Team 7, breathing a heavy sigh as he entered and found the rest of the team busily preparing for their week. Vin was just coming back from the break room with a cup of the nearly toxic brew that he claimed was coffee and the others were mostly already working at their desks, plowing through two weeks worth of e-mail and other backlogs.
He sat down, booted up and sat back to take a sip of his latte... which he promptly sprayed all over his monitor as the machine opened up and displayed his home page.
Or what should have been his home page.
Not the full screen, full color picture of himself, standing knee deep in a stream, wearing bluejeans, a plaid flannel shirt and grinning madly as he held up a huge fish.
Turning a lovely shade of crimson, that very nearly matched the primary color of the flannel shirt displayed on his screen, he looked up to see every monitor in the office turned so that he could see the same wallpaper adorning each and every one.
Tell me..." he groaned, "please tell me that that picture is not on the screens out in the secretarial pool." But he already knew the answer as he realized what all the staring had been about.
Vin sauntered over with a paper towel and waved at the coffee splattered screen and asked with a butter wouldn't melt in his mouth look on his face. "You okay, Ez..." He paused for effect. "Got something stuck in your throat?"
JD chimed in then, "Yeah, Ez, I think Nathan knows that Heimlich squeezie thing."
Ezra was, for one of the few times in his life, wordless. Which was probably a good thing because anything that might have come out of his mouth at that particular moment would have offended his own sensibilies to say the least. Instead he sputtered.
Buck had wandered close and leaned over, pretending to see the picture for the first time as he used Vin's towel to wipe away the dripping latte spatters.
"Wow, Ezra!" he exclaimed loudly, "that's a huge fish ya got there."
It wasn't a Larabee glare, but it came close.
Buck ignored it. He'd been the recipient of many of the real thing, this one didn't even slow him down. He clapped the horrified Southerner on the back and declared that it had to be one of the biggest fish he'd ever seen, then strolled back to his own desk and got back to work.
While Buck had sidetracked him, Vin and JD had slipped back to their desks. When Chris came out of his office moments later, everyone except Ezra, was seemingly hard at work.
"Ezra," the blond scolded, "quit fooling around with your vacation pictures and get to work."
By the time Chris had finished his sentence Ezra was doing a fair imitation of the fish itself as he sat gaping in disbelief.
It wasn't more than 30 seconds later when the entire office, including Chris Larabee, erupted in snickers.
That was when Chris casually floated an already signed voucher for a new suit onto the stunned agent's desk.
"Good work on those bombs, Ezra," Chris stated clearly, "you saved a lot of lives. Thank you."
Then he walked back to his office, turned and nodded to the entire room, then entered and shut the door.