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Snow Cat

By: Heather Flaherty

JD stared out the front living room window of Chris's ranch house. The rest of the team lounged around in various states of repose watching the football game. The playoffs were on and it was now down to seeing which team got to go to the Super Bowl.

Dunne leaned against the window sipping a beer watching the snowfall in horizontal waves. The wind had kicked up and the white paper-barked Aspens arched with the rushing gale. It had been a pretty subdued day, well up until Vin dragged Ezra outside.

"Here they come now," JD said as he watched a whitish dark shadow creep into his line of sight. The dark undefined spot slowly metamorphosed from the tree line. At first, JD couldn't make it out. He squinted his eyes trying to focus them better, not really gaining anything. The flying snow obscured his line of sight creating fluctuations in what should have been familiar outlines. This irregular moving shadow that jerked from the tree line seemed to be a conflagration of melted shapes.

JD's comment was ignored by the others. Tanner had convinced Standish to go for a ride on a snowcat. Larabee silently chuckled; 'convinced' was not quite the right word. Vin had more liked dragged the southerner out the door. Chris had two snowmobiles but one was missing a front ski thanks to Buck and JD's shenanigans last weekend. The others had laughed none to quietly when Tanner physically hauled the southerner out into the knee-deep snow.

Donning ski suits, full helmets, boots and gloves, the two waded through the snow to the barn. Larabee had been using this cat to hauled hay to the horses. The snow had proven too deep and bogged down for the 4-wheel drive tractor. Taking hay to the horses was always preferable to cleaning stalls.

Buck and Nathan had laughed while watching out the window when the Arctic Cat sprang from the barn in a massive air born leap. The cat landed in the snow in a white powdery splash momentarily obscuring the vehicle and it's two occupants. With the throttle rolled completely back, Vin and Ezra didn't stay hidden for long. They burst through the powder. Tanner leaned to one side muscling the vehicle into a few wild donuts kicking up snow before heading off down the trail. Wilmington smiled knowingly, Vin was feeling the need for speed.

Buck knew Vin had to be grinning like a fool. Standish had a death grip on the tracker's midsection, holding on for dear life. Buck would have given a week's wages to see the infamous poker face now. Shit, Wilmington mused; Ezra probably left it back in the barn.

Nathan and he stood and chuckled as they watched the speeding SnowCat disappear down the path.

"Hope Vin gets 'em home, okay," Jackson said aloud. It would do the southerner good to get out into the elements and enjoy the snow. It sure as heck beats listening to him complain about the incessant snowfall. Worse yet, was JD's brilliant observation about it being Colorado and they were in fact above 3,000 feet.

"Ahh, hell . . .Vin can drive a Cat up a tree without scratchin' it," Buck pointed out. He never ceased to be amazed at Tanner's ability. The bounty hunter was a natural athlete, graceful and very agile. He did have a flare for being reckless but that only increased Wilmington's admiration.

So when JD announced the arrival of the two wayward ATF agents, the others weren't concerned. Vin and Ezra had only been gone two hours. Chris was sure Vin was thankful the helmets didn't have any kind of communication system between the two. Standish was bound to be spouting off about something.

"It looks like they're walkin' . . ." Dunne mumbled, pressing his head to the glass. The fading light made it difficult to see easily through the swirling snow.

"They had better not be . . ." Chris growled out. Two Arctic Cats in that many weeks. He would kill somebody.

Buck got off the couch he had stretched out on and went to stand with JD. Josiah raised himself from the floor and took the ladies' man place on the couch, stretching out comfortably on the soft cushions.

Wilmington cupped his hands to the glass and peered out. His laughter soon cut across the room, "Yup, they're walking all right," His amusement wasn't lost on the others. He continued his descriptive narrative, "If you can call what they're doin' . . .walkin."

Chris shut his eyes and ground his teeth. He wasn't going to look. He still was working with the insurance over the first mishap. He was *not* going to let this ruin his Sunday afternoon.

JD chimed in, "Yup, they're limping pretty good." Dunne gazed back over at Chris and watched the leader. Chris appeared ready to kill someone. The hazel eyes burned into Dunne as if blaming the young man for the probable fiasco. JD quickly tried to recover and perform some damage control. "Well . . .they still have their helmets," he offered up trying to soothe growing frustration.

When Buck had wrecked the snowcat last week, he had gotten so mad he slammed the helmet into the ground. Unfortunately, it had landed in a fast moving stream and rolled just out of reach downstream. Chris had been pissed, to say the least. Dunne was glad he had kept his helmet on his head.

"Yup, definitely gimping," Buck started.

Chris quietly grabbed the remote and increased the volume on the television. He really did *not* want to hear it.

Nathan and Josiah ignored the others and concentrated on the game. Both were thankful to Chris as they watched the replay with the announcers running explanation. Jackson and Sanchez would learn soon enough about what transpired between the other two agents. They wanted to enjoy as much of the game as they could.

It lasted only two more plays.

The side door blew open with a resounding bang and a "Gawd, damnit Ezra. You do that again and I'll kill ya," The soft Texan drawl had taken a decidedly icy tone.

"Oh, your first attempt wasn't enough?" The sarcastic southern drawl bit back. Then there was a sharp intake of breath and a very ungentlemanly, "Son of a bitch!" was hissed out sharply.

That was quickly followed by a bark of laughter and a Texan, "Serves ya right."

Chris ignored the sounds of discomfort and asked none too gently, "What the hell you two do to my Arctic Cat?"

The rustling in the mudroom stopped; the cursing and groaning ceased.

An innocent southern drawl finally asked out, "What makes you inclined to think some mishap might have befallen your snow Cat?"

Chris sat up in the lazy boy chair knocking down the leg extension with an authoritative thud. Josiah and Nathan smirked at one another.

"Vin?!" Larabee yelled out. Buck and JD leaned against the window laughing.

Tanner and Standish had yet to make an appearance. The other five ATF agents could hear them trying to peel out of their suits. A litany of foul exclamations rang through the small home.

Finally, Tanner and Standish could be heard shuffling down the short corridor. Their stocking feet sliding on the wood floor. Occasionally, a gasp of breath would punctuate a misplaced foot. They rounded the corner into the living room.

Chris stared at his two agents. Buck let out a whistle. JD moaned in sympathy. Josiah sat up and twisted around on the couch to face the two men. He grimaced and laid back down to watch the game.

Nathan shut his eyes and slowly shook his head. Why did this have to happen on playoff Sunday? Thank goodness it wasn't Super Bowl Sunday or he would let them suffer. Hell, he would let them suffer anyhow.

"Gawd, Vin that's gutta hurt," JD breathed out. He rubbed his own arm in empathy.

Chris glared at his two men. Tanner obviously had a broken left forearm and he held tightly to his left side with his right hand. Standish stood with ninety percent of his weight on his left leg trying to offer some reprieve to his right. Even through the pants one could see the heavily swollen knee.

"You want to tell me what happened?" Chris asked. His voice hadn't risen but his frustration over rode his worry. Those weren't lethal injuries but by the time he was done with them they would wish for a quick painless death. Another piece of equipment broken and two agents out do to medical reasons. This had to be some kind of record.

"Ya want the short, short version or . . .." Tanner began.

"Ahh, hell . . .Mario Andretti over here hit a godforsaken tree and tossed us into some frozen stream," Standish's annoyed tone was punctuated by Buck's laughter.

"Shut up, Buck!" Vin, Chris and Ezra shouted. Standish hobbled over to the couch and slapped Josiah's feet out of his way. He slowly lowered himself down trying to keep his right leg somewhat extended.

"I didn't hit the damn tree, Ezra," Vin retorted back hotly. He'd be damned if he got blamed for this mess.

"Oh, please forgive me, I misspoke" The southerner drawled out slapping his forehead dramatically. "It just ran out in front of you," Standish bit out. He tried to lean back against the couch but found it put too much pressure on his injured knee, forcing him to sit forward.

"Strange phenomena of Colorado: suicidal foliage," Ezra added hissing painfully trying to get comfortable on the couch.

Chris raised his eyebrow at Vin as if seeking verification. Buck watched the proceedings as he unsuccessfully tried to squelch his chuckles. JD couldn't help but stare at Vin's increasingly swelling arm.

Nathan watched the two men analyzing their injuries. Vin would definitely need to visit the ER, busted arm and probably ribs. Standish? The knee had swollen quickly and was obviously very uncomfortable. He would try and drag him in as well.

Larabee turned his attention to his undercover agent. Chris had never seen the southerner so put out. The knee appeared as painful as Vin's arm. Good, they deserved it. They managed to ruin another brand new piece of recreational equipment. It was hard enough trying to convince the insurance company to carry him, now this.

"I didn't see it," Vin paused. "I never noticed it there before," Tanner shot out in his own defense. His arm was killing him . . .gawd, it hurt to talk.

"That's right," Ezra intoned sarcastically as if he had forgotten an important piece of information. "It just suddenly grew there overnight." Standish rubbed his thigh trying to soothe twitching muscles. "Denver is a virtual Mecca of such exotic botanical occurrences."

Buck was coming close to convulsions. His shoulders shook, his eyes watered, and he bit down on his lip. He finally snorted.

"Shut up, Buck!" Chris and Ezra shouted. Vin could only hiss shallowly.

"Where is it now?" Larabee asked tiredly. He and Josiah would have to drag it back to the barn. Nathan and Buck could attend these two. JD would have to stay close by and act as a mediator. The young man was definitely a calming influence when tempers flared. No one wanted to commit premeditated murder in front of the young man.

"Where's what?" Tanner asked. Oh gawd, all he wanted to do was go home.

"The D.B. Cooper money?" Chris said, his sarcasm matching the gambler's.

Ezra and Vin stared at him in confusion as if he had lost his mind.

"The Cat?" Chris bellowed standing up. JD inched closer to Buck, fearing the impending explosion might take out innocent bystanders. Vin took an involuntary step backward.

"There really is no need to shout Mr. Larabee. We are both right here," Ezra said trying to fathom why the man suddenly became riled.

"Ezra, so help me God . . ." Chris breathed out closing in on the smaller agent. The long shadows of dusk stretched into the living room. The glow of the 36-inch screen television and the fire in the stone fireplace offered the only light in the western decorated room.

Standish prayed for a quick death just as long as it didn't involve his knee.

Josiah slowly gained his feet, pushing himself up tiredly. He needed to intervene before a double homicide investigation would be needed.

"Easy, brother," Josiah soothed. He placed himself protectively between Chris and the two injured agents. Sanchez turned to Vin.

"The stream near the 'ole school marm' bout 1/2 mile up the trail?" The larger man asked. The white pine with the split top rested at a sharp 'u' in the narrowing trail. The stream was actually a fledgling river. It rested about three yards below the trail in a sharp bank; the water had cut through the soil during the spring thaw. Those two must have been air born.

Vin merely nodded, thankful Josiah put a stop the impending disaster.

"It's probably halfway to the ocean by now," Ezra mumbled under his breath. Why did he listen to Vin in the first place?

"Ezra . . ." Sanchez softly warned. There was no use stirring already turbulent waters with wise remarks.

Standish sighed and held his tongue.

"It ain't goin' anywhere, Chris," Vin explained. There was really no use for Chris or one of the others to go out there tonight. "Ez, pretty much made sure of that," Tanner finished hitting the southerner with a bemused payback sneer.

"How's that?" Chris asked, not liking the exchange of snarls between the two agents.

"Nothin' 'cept that when Ezra decided to git his lazy butt off me, he used the accelerator as support," Tanner smiled enjoying the reaction around the room.

Buck faced the window shaking his head and covering his mouth. JD bit his lip; Jackson buried his chin to his chest and closed his eyes. Josiah turned and gazed down at the now uncomfortably shifting southerner.

Vin continued, "Made sure the cat anchored itself good and solid in the river bed." Tanner nailed Ezra with a vengeful stare and added, "You'll need a back hoe or something to git out now."

It was too much for Buck, grunting like a laboring pig, he headed for the kitchen.

"Half way to China's more like it," JD said in response to Ezra's earlier statement.

Jackson joined Wilmington in the kitchen.

Part 2