Standard fanfic disclaimer that wouldn't last ten seconds in a court of law. These aren't my characters. I'm just borrowing them for, um, typing practice. Yeah, that's it, typing practice. No intent to defraud the copyrights of CBS, NBC, or the show's creative staff. This story was originally published in the fanzine Let's Ride #13, from Neon RainBow Press.
by Susan M. M.
The Master/Magnificent Seven (ATF AU)
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner were driving to Chris' ranch. It wasn't a large ranch, not anymore. The government had taxed it away, bit by bit, until it was only a fraction of the size it had been in Chris' grandfather's day. But it was still a good place to get away from the stress of their jobs, from the noise and crowding of the city. A place to breathe fresh, clean air, to recharge their mental batteries. For ATF agents who dealt with the scum of humanity on a daily basis, that wasn't just important. A refuge like Chris' ranch was an absolute necessity.
So although Chris Larabee was a solitary man by nature, he invited his team mates up to the ranch on a regular basis. He knew they needed it as much as he did. Besides, he could use the free labor at the various ranch chores. As ranches went, it was a small ranch. As a place for one man to tend alone, when he already had a time-consuming job in Denver, it didn't seem small at all.
Chris put on his turn signal. "I need to stop at the feed store."
Vin just nodded. Neither the sharpshooter nor the ATF team leader were talkative men, and both were perfectly capable of spending hours in companionable silence.
Chris pulled into the feed store parking lot. His Dodge Ram fit in with the other pickup trucks inconspicuously. He and Vin got out of the Ram and walked into the store. Chris grabbed a shopping cart and led the way to where sacks of grain were stored. Without a word, he lifted a heavy sack of grain into the cart. Vin followed his example. They loaded four bags of oats into the cart. Still without speaking, Chris pushed the cart to the front, to the cashiers. Vin walked silently beside him.
They got in line behind a tall, white-haired man. The elderly man turned to see who was behind him. A smile lit up his face, and his blue eyes shone like sapphires.
"Sensei." Vin bent his head respectfully, and Chris had the feeling that if they weren't in the middle of the feed store that Vin would've bowed.
Chris raised one blond eyebrow. "Didn't know you knew my neighbor."
"Didn't know you knew my sensei," Vin replied with a grin. "Ezra and I work out at his dojo two-three times a week."
"Chris, Vin, good to see you," the old man said warmly.
"Knew you had business interests in town, John. Didn't realize it was a dojo," Chris said.
"Buck comes, too, sometimes," Vin added.
"Ah, yes, the curly-haired fellow with the mustache, who always times his arrival to match with the women's self-defense class," John McAllister noted drolly. "I'm semi-retired now. My son-in-law runs the place now." Technically, Max Keller was McAllister's stepson-in-law, the husband of his wife Maggie's daughter Cat, but explaining the genealogy would take too long.
The line moved forward, and McAllister had to turn his attention to the cashier. He waited until Chris had paid for his oats before continuing. "Maggie was just saying we don't see enough of you. You haven't come over for dinner in ages."
A pained look came into Chris' hazel-green eyes. It was a moment before he spoke. "Work keeps me busy."
McAllister's cobalt-blue eyes looked down at him sympathetically. Vin looked from his team leader to his martial arts instructor, sensing there was much not being said.
"Don't be a stranger," McAllister advised him after a moment's pause. "We'd like to see you more than just every September. Sayonara, Vin."
"Sensei." Vin nodded.
Chris and Vin loaded the bags of oats into the back of the Ram. Without another word, they got into the pickup and started driving on to Chris' ranch. Vin waited a full five minutes before he asked.
"Ya gonna tell me what that was all about, or is it none of my business?"
"McAllister and his wife are neighbors of mine. His wife runs an organic farm." Ran it on land that had belonged to Chris' grandfather, at one time, but he couldn't see any point in mentioning that. "Every September they go up to Estes Park for the Highland Games, and I swing by their place to make sure everything is all right." He shrugged. "Names like McAllister and Sinclair, hardly surprising they go to the Highland Games every year."
"More to it than that," Vin announced, his pale blue eyes studying his friend, "but if you don't wanna talk about it, ya don't hafta."
Chris took a deep breath. "Adam used to play with John and Maggie's grandkids. They still come up to the farm almost every weekend."
Vin nodded, understanding completely now. Chris' wife and son had been killed by a car bomb meant for him. Losing Sarah and Adam had nearly destroyed Chris Larabee. Vin could understand why he'd want to avoid reminders of his son.
After a few minutes, Chris continued, "The first few years after they moved up here, folks were convinced they were 'living in sin' because Maggie still uses her maiden name. Heck, some of the old grannies still believe it." He took a deep breath, forcing himself to focus on neutral topics, trying to forbid the vision in his mind of Adam playing tag with Paula and Jimmy Keller. "She said something once about how much trouble her first husband had given her, and that she'd be her own woman from now on."
"That'd be Cat's father," Vin guessed. He knew Cat H. Keller fairly well; she ran the dojo with her husband Max.
"I guess John just supervises the paperwork at his age?" Chris asked.
Vin shook his head. "That man is the toughest fighter I've ever seen. I've watched him take out four men at a time, and he barely seemed to move."
"Maybe they were just going easy on an old man?" Chris suggested.
"I was one of the four."
Chris turned and looked at Vin, then changed the subject. They discussed the Packers-Broncos game the rest of the drive.
John Peter McAllister stepped in through the kitchen door of the farmhouse he shared with his wife, Maggie Sinclair. He kissed her cheek.
"Hello, love," she greeted him. She was a handsome woman in her fifties, her red hair liberally tinged with white.
"Guess who I saw at the feed store?" he asked.
"Teri and Annabelle?"
McAllister shook his head. "Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner." He reached around her and stole a taste of the dough she was stirring. "Told him not to be such a stranger."
"Shame on you!" She pretended to take a swing at him with the wooden spoon. "That's for the church bake sale. Act your age."
"I'm an old man," the WWII veteran pointed out. "I'm supposed to be senile."
"Vin Tanner?" Maggie repeated, ignoring his comment about senility. John McAllister had better judgment than most people half his age. "Isn't he one of your students?"
McAllister nodded. He'd opened the dojo soon after moving to Colorado, after finding his daughter Teri.
"Which sort?" Maggie asked. Some of his students practiced formal katas and competed in jujitsu and karate competitions. Some just wanted to learn how to survive a fight. Then there was the third category of students.
"Street survival." McAllister kissed her again. Marrying her had been one of the smartest decisions he'd ever made, and one of the easiest. Convincing her to leave her farm in California and come with him to Colorado, that had been harder. Much harder. But his daughter Teri and her partner Annabelle lived in Denver, and he had wanted to be close to her. So he had convinced Maggie to marry him and come with him, and his student Max Keller had proposed to Maggie's daughter, Cat Hellman. After the double wedding, Maggie had sold her farm to the Sierra Club – it would be allowed to go fallow and become a nature preserve – and moved with him to a farm just outside Denver. The farm was Maggie's concern. He owned a dojo in the city, the management of which he left to his stepdaughter and her husband, his former apprentice. He taught students in white gis and appropriately colored belts, students who wanted to compete. He taught those who simply wanted to avoid muggings, or maintain physical fitness. And once in a great while, to a very select group of students – a group he'd been considering inviting Vin to join – he taught ninjitsu.
"Check the box, see what temperature the oven should be," Chris ordered.
Vin picked up the frozen pizza and read the instructions aloud. "Y'know, we can do this in the microwave a heckuva lot faster."
"Tastes like cardboard with spaghetti sauce if you do it in the microwave. Tastes like pizza –almost – if you do it in the oven," Chris replied.
McAllister looked at the three pies sitting on the kitchen table, and the batch of cookies on the cooling rack. "Did Rev. Spalding say you had to supply the entire bake sale single-handedly?"
Maggie shrugged. "I like to bake."
McAllister put an arm around her waist. "You know what they say about a woman who's good in the kitchen. You know, I'm an old man. I should really get to bed early tonight." He grinned lasciviously at her.
"You – what's wrong?" She suddenly realized she'd lost his attention.
He indicated the monitor on the kitchen wall behind her. "The security system at the Larabee place just went dead."
"Chris could have just turned it off," Maggie suggested. "He'd be home by now."
"Maybe." It had taken a little hacking, but every nearby farm and ranch that had a security system was connected not only to the security company's monitors, but to McAllister's. It had been five years since the last time a ninja had come after him, ten years since the death of his former pupil Okasa, but McAllister wasn't about to take any foolish chances.
"If there's a problem, the security company will handle it."
"It'll take them a while to get out here." Another light on the monitor changed from green to red. "Now his phone line is dead. Do we have his cell phone number?"
Maggie shook her head. "It's unlisted. Should I call the security company?"
"And how would you explain knowing his system went dead?" McAllister grabbed a kitchen towel and wrapped it around an apple pie. "I'm closer."
"John –" You're not a ninja anymore, she wanted to say, but she knew it wasn't true. Once a ninja, always a ninja.
"Neighbors keep an eye out for each other. I'll be back in a little bit." He kissed her cheek before hurrying out.
The glass door leading from the back porch into the house quietly slid open. Two men stepped inside. "This way," one whispered.
"That pizza done yet?" they heard Vin ask. "I'm getting hungry."
"As scrawny as you are, you don't look like you're ever hungry," Chris' voice came from the kitchen, and the two men followed it. "But the way you eat –"
"Can I help it if I got a fast metabolism?" Vin asked.
The two men burst into the kitchen. "Hands up!"
Chris and Vin stared at them. Chris started to reach for a knife.
"Hold it, Larabee. Hands where we can see them," ordered a short, stocky African-American man. He was holding a gun. Beside him stood another gunman, a redhead several inches taller.
Chris slowly raised his hands. Vin did likewise.
"What do you want?" Chris asked. He recognized them from mugshots: the African-American was DeMarcus Lloyd. The redhead was Ryan Burke.
"Where's Carlisle?" Burke demanded.
"Don't play dumb, Larabee. Where is he?" Burke repeated.
"Sorry," Chris lied. "Don't know who you mean."
"He's lying," Lloyd announced.
Burke nodded in agreement.
"We don't like liars." Lloyd aimed carefully. He gently squeezed the trigger.
Vin swore. The bullet had grazed his left arm.
"That was a warning. You lie again, Tanner'll pay the price," Lloyd warned.
Chris and Vin traded worried glances. This pair knew their names. They'd managed to disable the security system. They were pros … which meant the two ATF agents were in very big trouble.
"Let's try again," Burke suggested, a malicious grin on his freckled face. "We want to know where Carlisle is. We want to know what he told you."
"Don't know what you're talking about," Chris lied.
"Told you what we did to liars." Lloyd fired again. He was an expert marksman. The bullet just kissed Vin's ear.
The sharpshooter bit his lip, determined not to cry out. He didn't want to give them the satisfaction.
"You gonna keep shooting him for what I don't know?" Chris demanded through clenched teeth.
"Nope. Just until you start remembering," the African-American gunman said.
"Don't know," Chris repeated, "and I wouldn't tell you if I did."
"Guess you don't care what happens to your friend, then." Lloyd aimed the gun directly at Vin's heart.
"Don't tell him nothing, Chris," Vin urged. "They're gonna kill us anyway."
"Making a mistake, Larabee," warned the redhead.
Lloyd began counting. "One."
Hazel-green eyes caught and held pale blue eyes for a fraction of a second.
"Two," he continued.
"Three," Chris and Vin said in unison. They rushed their captors. The move took the gunmen by surprise. Chris knocked Lloyd down. Burke was faster; he managed to duck Vin's tackle. His gun went off, shooting Chris in the thigh. Vin punched Burke.
Lloyd grabbed his holdout piece from an ankle holster. He pointed the gun at Chris' head. "If you move, he's dead."
Vin halted in his tracks. He let his hands fall to his sides, far enough from his body so the gunmen could see them easily.
"Dumb move. Really dumb," Lloyd announced as he got up.
Burke slapped Vin with the back of his hand. Vin thought about trying to make a grab for the man's gun, but the sight of Chris lying there on the floor, bleeding, kept him from trying anything reckless.
"Carlisle worth dying for?" Lloyd asked Chris. "He worth you and your friend getting killed for?"
Neither Chris nor Vin answered. Rupert Carlisle was the alias that undercover agent Ezra Standish was currently using. Both of them were willing to die if it meant protecting Ezra.
"Can't tell you what I don't know," Chris insisted. His face was pale; his voice was weak.
"He's losing a lot of blood," Vin pointed out. "If he dies, he can't tell ya nothing." He bit his lip, then forced himself to beg. "Can I patch him up?"
"If he dies, maybe you'll be more inclined to talk," Burke replied.
"If ya know who we are, then you know he's team leader. I'm just the hired help. If he dies, then he can't answer your questions."
The two gunmen looked at each other, thinking that over. Vin shifted, and suddenly both guns were pointed at his heart.
"You wanna try something stupid?" Lloyd asked.
Vin shook his head. "Just wanna get the first aid kit from the bathroom and patch him up."
"You think we're dumb enough to trust you?" Burke asked. He glanced around the kitchen. Keeping his gun trained on Vin, he walked over to the kitchen counter, grabbed a dirty dishtowel, and tossed it to the sharpshooter. "Here."
"Thanks," Vin forced himself to mutter. He knelt beside Chris and examined the wound. "Looks like the bullet went clean through." He tied the dishtowel around Chris' thigh, but he knew it was only a stopgap measure. If Chris didn't get proper medical attention, and soon, he'd die. "I really need the first aid kit from the bathroom."
"You tell us where we can find Carlisle, maybe we let you get it."
Vin's face fell. Chris' life, or Ezra's? How could he possibly make such a choice? He took a deep breath. He had to play for time. "This Carlisle, what's he look like? Maybe I've seen him around, but didn't know his name."
"He's stalling," Lloyd declared. "He sounds like my niece at bedtime – except she makes up better excuses."
"What if he's telling the truth?" Burke thought a moment. "Short, dark-haired. Speaks with an East Coast accent, Boston, maybe."
Vin bit his lip so he wouldn't smile. He'd listened for hours as JD had coached Ezra in the intricacies of the Bostonian speech pattern. "Kinda chubby?"
The gunman shook his head. "Got more meat on his bones than you, but not chubby."
"Might have seen him come by the office once or twice," Vin allowed.
"Where is he now?"
"Don't know," Vin lied. "Like I said, I'm only the hired help."
"Unless your boss wants another bullet in his hide, maybe you'd better figure it out," Lloyd suggested.
"He can't tell you nothing if he's dead," Vin reminded the gunman defiantly.
"He may not be able to talk if he's dead, but you'd be amazed how much pain a man can feel and still carry on a conversation." Lloyd moved his gun, as if trying to pick a target. "Should I put a hole in his other leg, to give him a matched set? Or maybe get his ear like I got yours? Maybe shoot it clean off?"
Vin inhaled sharply. He'd give his life to save Ezra, but could he give Chris' life? He steeled himself against the worst. Even if he told them who Carlisle really was and where to find him, there was no way they'd leave him and Chris alive. The ATF agents could identify their attackers, and these two were pros – they wouldn't leave witnesses alive to testify against them. Vin took another deep breath. He'd always known he wouldn't die of old age; at least he wouldn't be dying alone.
McAllister slowed down as he approached the gravel driveway to the Larabee ranch. He'd been doing almost 70 mph on the country roads to get to there as quickly as possible, but now that he'd arrived, he didn't want to attract attention. He grabbed three shuriken from the glove compartment, slipped them under the pie, and got out of the car. He headed for the back porch.
"You ready to talk? Or you wanna watch your friend bleed some more?" Burke asked Vin.
"Chris? You home?" a voice called from the porch.
"Who's that?" Lloyd turned his head.
Vin's eyes widened as he recognized McAllister's voice.
"N-neighbor," Chris murmured.
"What the Hell's he doing here?" Burke asked.
McAllister walked into the kitchen, seemingly oblivious to the trouble in front of him. He walked forward slowly, with a halting gait that shouted feebleness and old age. He carried the pie in both hands and kept his attention on it.
"Hey, there, Chris," McAllister's voice was weak and frail. He looked and sounded like a veteran of WWI, not WWII. "Maggie baked some pies for the church bake sale. She was fretting about you on your own, eating bachelor cooking."
"Hold it, old man," Lloyd ordered.
McAllister pretended to squint. "Do you have company? Good, you'll have someone to share the pie with."
Burke waved his gun at McAllister. "You picked a bad time to come calling."
McAllister launched the pie directly into Burke's face. "Now, Vin!" Then he threw his shuriken, one into Lloyd's hand, forcing him to drop the gun, one into Lloyd's upper arm.
Vin lunged and kicked Burke. His gun fell to the ground. Burke scrambled for the weapon, but the third shuriken landed between it and his hand. Instinctively, Burke drew back rather than lose his fingers.
Moving with a speed that belied his white hair, McAllister dashed forward, grabbed Lloyd, and threw him to the floor in a karate toss. He reached down and picked up Lloyd's gun. "I'm an old man, and my eyes aren't what they used to be. You might want to hold real still," the ninja advised. "Vin, Chris, how badly are you guys hurt?"
"I'm feeling a whole lot better right now, sensei." Vin picked up Burke's gun and pressed it against Burke's head. "Down on your knees. Hands on your head."
Slowly, both from reluctance and the bruises, Burke and Lloyd obeyed.
"Can you watch these two slimebags while I call 911?" Vin asked.
"No problem. What condition do you want them in when the sheriff and the ambulance arrive: conscious, unconscious, or dead?" McAllister asked.
"Dead means less paperwork," Vin replied, completely deadpan. But he slipped McAllister a wink, just in case his sensei was serious and not just trying to frighten the gunmen.
"Who the Hell are you? Super Grandpa?" Lloyd asked.
McAllister ignored the question. Waving his gun at Burke, he told him: "Using your left hand – your left hand only – remove your wallet from your pocket."
Scowling, Burke obeyed.
"That pie was for the church bake sale. You owe Faith Presbyterian five dollars."