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"Nancy, the ambulance arrive yet?" Deputy Chase Morgan stood by the Emergency Room admittance desk. He held his hat in one hand while the other fidgeted with chained pen. His badge reflected the afternoon sun. "Gloria told me about the 911 call, from that Minnesota family finding a man near dead in the desert. Since Sheriff Hathoway left for the State Fair in Casper, I figured I'd better question the family."
The efficient receptionist smiled at the deputy. "The ambulance made the transfer near the Sweetwater Station. The family will follow them into town."
The deputy pulled out his small notebook and checked the last entry.
"Body or patient?"
"Still alive when Tom took over." Nancy returned to her computer, a little annoyed with the deputy's interruptions.
"No. The woman said he was dehydrated and only wearing ragged shorts. He's sunburned; most likely been out in the desert too long. She was able to get some water into him on the way." Answering her phone she turned back toward the deputy. "Chase, it's your office. Gloria is faxing a bulletin here for you."
Reaching the freshly printed paper, Nancy handed it to the county officer and watched his expression morph from a friendly smile into a frightening scowl.
"Trouble?" Her mind began planning strategy. Though the rest of the world revolved in the 21st century, parts of Wyoming still existed in the Old West mentality and she wanted to be prepared.
He quoted the fax, "Escaped outlaw. Description, 5 foot 8; dark hair, hazel eyes. Last seen in the Rattlesnake Mountains. Armed and dangerous. Part of a gang of drug and explosives smugglers. Escaped capture during raid. Gang connection to disenfranchised ATF agents."
"What's the matter?"
"First the Federal suits snoop around in our district. Then they make raids without involving the local law. Next thing you know they come busting in here demanding we messed up their investigations. The sheriff's got no time for any of them big city agents and their 'by the book' ways. Don't need this ATF-DEA alphabet soup and their sophisticated investigations."
As the two continued their discussion, the ambulance wail refocused their attention to the prospective patient and his immediate needs. Deputy Morgan stood in the background as the emergency staff went to work. He watched the gurney emerge from the rear of the ambulance and cringed at the patient's appearance. The man's red, sunburned skin sported blotches of white where the salve hadn't melted completely. His swollen blooded cheek emphasized the bruised flesh. White bandages surrounded the man's hands and feet. Taped to his belly, the white gauze stood out in stark contrast to rest of his body.
Morgan's trained lawman's intuition kicked in and he mentally recorded the man's physical description. Black hair, no clothes, found in the mountain region south of Lander. He quickly scanned the 'wanted poster' in his hand while his heart rate increased. Though Sheriff Hathoway wanted nothing to do with Federal law enforcement agencies, Morgan saw the opportunity staring him in the face. He approached the gurney watching the patient.The young man's eyes stared into the room, oblivious to the ministrations of the emergency team.
"Sir, can you hear me? Can you talk to us?" The nurse gently cleaned the dirt and blood from the stubble covered cheek. Caleb Wintson, the emergency room doctor, tended the young man's ravaged feet, pulling out sand burrs and embedded sticklers. Several deep cuts would need stitches.
While another nurse readied the eye wash kit, the doctor cleaned the long wound across the back of the patient's thigh. "Is Chase still here? I think this is gun shot wound."
+ + + + + + +
"Buck, we need you to man the command center. We don't have the time to go chasing after you. Our resources are spread thin enough so don't go hot-dogging it. We'll find him." Nathan set his hand on the distraught agent's shoulder and gently squeezed.
"I know, Nate. Just feel so damn helpless just sitting here. I should be out there." He pointed to the small window. "I should be out there leading the search, not sitting here with my leg up on a pillow."
"Vin and I will search from here, check with the local law. See if they know anything. Chris and Ezra will search north from Farson and Josiah's heading toward the rendezvous point from Casper. JD needs you, too."
The normally fun loving man watched his two friends leave the motel room. He could see them climb into the blue rental car and leave the parking lot. The air-conditioner circulated stale air while the hum muffled the sounds of other guests. Buck licked his upper lip and rubbed his hands across his bare arms. He felt so helpless. His roommate, his partner, his little brother needed him.
+ + + + + + +
The deputy returned to the emergency room moments after the doctor spoke his name. Seeing the uniformed officer standing at the foot of the bed the doctor returned to stitching up the newly cleaned wound. "Chase, this boy's got more than just a bad case of sunburn and dehydration. I think this is "
"It's a gunshot wound and this here 'boy' is under arrest for gun running and drug smuggling. A drug enforcement officer is on his way here to take him into custody." Chase Morgan smiled, mentally racking up the points he needed to move onto a higher position, possibly even becoming a state trooper.
The doctor looked up from his work and the two nurses turned toward Chase. "You know who this fellow is?"
"Yep, its right here on this wanted poster I just got while waiting for the ambulence to arrive. He escaped capture on a raid. That's how he got wounded. Agent Harper is on his way here as we speak."
JD attention snapped at the mention of Harper's name. Everything hurt, especially his burned flesh and the needle stitching in and out of his thigh. He tried to remain separated from the pain assaulting his nerves as the doctor and nurses administered to his wounds but the mention of the man responsible for his injuries broke the mental detachment. The doctor noticed the boy's leg flinch though he continued to stare at the food pyramid poster on the wall.
The doctor shook his head, "He isn't going anywhere for a while, Chase, unless it's to a bigger hospital. We don't have a metabolic bed for this severe a case of sunburn here in Lander."
"Consider him in custody, Caleb. When that DEA fellow shows up, I'll let him decide where this scum goes. By the way his name is JD Dunne. Heck even his name says he's guilty!" The deputy walked out of the hospital room. He wanted to question the Minnesota family before the federal agent arrived. His chest almost hurt with pride as he imagined the praise due him for capturing this outlaw single handedly.
After wrapping a bandage around the freshly sewn wound the three medical personel gently turned JD onto his back. IV's pumped restorative hydration and electrolytes into the abused body and the nurse explained the eye wash procedure. "I know this won't feel very comfortable, but believe me your eyes will feel a whole lot better after we get all the dirt and sand washed out." She placed rolled up towels beside his head and open the valves to the saline solutions.
JD tried to speak but felt a gentle hand touch his peeling lips.
"Shuss, honey. Though Dr. Wintson is small on statue he's a giant when it comes to doing what's in his patients best interest. You'll get a chance to tell your side of this story, and from where I'm sitting I bet you've got a whopper to tell."
The water tickled his ears as it ran out of his eyes. He could feel it run down his neck and under his back where it cooled the overheated skin. Muffled noises meant someone stayed in the room with him. The squeak of rubber soles on linoleum flooring announced someone nearing his bedside. As his body tensed, the same gentle voice from before spoke as a straw touched his lips. "Just take a little sip, just enough to wet your tongue and your mouth. That's it. I'll give you some more in a minute. We need to look at the bite on your belly, make sure its not getting infected."
Listening to her explain things and her gentle touch reminded him of Nathan's bedside manner who never proceeded without explaining his intended actions first. The slight hiss escaping the nurses' lips sent another small tremor though his body but the kind hand caressed his forehead with enough touch that he knew she was there without hurting the burned skin.
"We'll get the doctor back here, honey. Few more minutes and we'll be done with the eyes. You are one lucky young man, Mr. JD Dunne. Is that your real name?" The patient nodded slightly.
"Boy howdy, I can't wait to hear your tale. Not too many folks can cheat the devil out of the desert but I declare you've done it." Karen, the emergency room nurse, refilled the paper cup.
"Help me?" The voice barely whispered.
"Shush now. Don't be wasting your energy. We won't be letting the law drag you out of here until you're well enough." She lifted the straw to his tender lips again.
Swishing the refreshing water around in his mouth, the young man almost succumbed to the need for sleep. But after he swallowed, the request came again. "Help me?"
"OK, honey. What do you need?" The nurse placed her ear near his mouth and listened to the weak request. "What? Now hold on. Let me get my pen."
JD repeated the message and Karen copied the numbers onto a scrap of paper. She quickly stuffed it into her pocket, hoping no one of the staff saw her action. Deftly, she removed the small cups from the patient's eyes before grabbing towels to mop up the excess water. Unable to stay awake, JD drifted off to sleep.
Karen shook her head and said softly, "Son, I shouldn't do this but everyone deserves to have at least one friend by their side in time of trouble."
+ + + + + + +
Vin walked around the rest area just off the highway, stretching his cramped leg muscles. Several cars pulled off the lonely expanse of road and parked near the small building. Chris studied the historical map detailing the local terrain. The shallow Sweetwater River meandered through the low land while the rolling hills rose above to meet the Rocky Mountains. Lush green grass grew near the water but the vegetation soon withered into an arid, desert type fauna.
Both men sensed an unknown gut feeling that they were near their missing team member, but looking around, the vast open country offered no clues. The main highway offered a lifeline through the desert county, almost offering a false sense of security, of safety.
"Map says there is a turn-off, a gravel road leading up to the actual pass." Chris's voice broke Vin's reverie.
The longhaired man looked over at his older friend. "Can you feel it? I can almost hear their spirits."
The glance Chris sent revealed he didn't hear what his partner experienced.
"The pioneers, by the time they got here, they'd already walked a thousand miles and they were only half way finished getting to Oregon. Plus they needed to cross the rest of the Rocky Mountains."
"We best get going if we hope to find JD and Harper." Chris turned toward the truck, slightly bumping Vin's shoulder. The small touch broke the trance and the two men left the twenty-first century road for the backcountry byway.
Driving higher into the mountains, they surprised a lonely antelope that bounded away, disappearing into the vast nothingness. The sun turned the black cab's interior into an oven while the arid air pulled precious moisture from their mouths. Their discomfort fueled the need to locate the young man who's cryptic message sent them searching the wilds of Wyoming.
"Chris, look." Vin pointed at the small camp set up in the small copse of trees. The place emitted an air of abandonment done in a hurry. Ready for any unexpected surprises, both men exited the truck with their guns drawn.
Hot winds felt like the stale breath of an unbrushed mouth. The small white tent's flap snapped in the wind, mocking the barren landscape's silence. Evidence of horses attracted small flies and bees to the campsite. Several water jugs sat in the shade of the largest tree.
"Someone left in a hurry." Vin walked the circular circuit checking all trails leaving the scene while Chris entered the small shelter.
"Damn." Larabee exited the tent holding a crudely packed saddlebag. "They left in such a hurry they forgot to destroy the evidence." He pulled out a familiar colorful shirt and pair of blue jeans. Next appeared a pair of boots identical to their missing team member's footwear. At the bottom of the bag he found a wallet and badge identifying John Dunne, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He looked up in time to see Vin disappear in the distance, climbing behind a pile of smooth granite boulders. A few minutes later the tracker reappeared holding something shiny in one hand and a dirty cloth strap in the other. Tanner looked around the terrain, absorbing the nature extending endlessly in all directions.
Without speaking the two men returned to the truck. They could only hope one of the others was luckier and found the missing trail taking JD away from them.
+ + + + + + +
The distinctive ring of his cell phone startled Buck awake from his catnap. He stretched to reach his coat to retrieve the communication device. "Hello," he answered, his voice gasping while his heart prayed for the call to contain good news.
"Please, tell me who you are." The voice, definitely female, did not register with the ladies man.
"Is this some kind of joke? I.." Before he could continue, the voice interrupted him.
"Tell me the right thing and then I tell you something. I don't have much time so don't ask questions, just tell me who you are."
Buck didn't like the caller's mysterious tone but he also sensed apprehension in her voice. "I'm Buck, ma'am."
"Ok. That fits. Ahh do you know someone named? No, wait." Buck heard an intercom and bells ring in the background. "Mister, do you have a friend whose missing?"
Panic grabbed Buck Wilmington's heart. "Ma'am. I don't know what your agenda is but if you know anything about JD Dunne please tell me now."
"Tell me who you are and why I should. And make it fast."
"JD is my best friend. We are ATF agents and the boy is missing."
The mysterious voice sighed heavily while Buck offered a short description of his life with the young man in question.
"He needs you. You need to get to the hospital in Lander, to help him. Hurry. I've got to go. Hurry!" The distinctive click ended the conversation.
Buck sat in shock following the mysterious phone call. JD was here, here in this town. Where was the hospital? How could he get there? He punched the speed dial button for Chris. No one answered. After doing the same for Ezra and Josiah and getting no response he grabbed the motel phone off the nightstand. His fingers pushed the countrywide distress number-911.
+ + + + + + +
"I can't believe that man we found is drug dealer, Dad. Jenni is still scared." The small boy stood in the shade of the building next to his father. Another man shared the sun barrier, taking in the beauty surrounding the small rest area.
"We did the right thing Billy. No matter what the boy may have done he didn't deserve to die of thirst like that." The father put his arm around his son. "Jenni will be alright, too. We need to give her time." The boy looked up at the taller man and said, "You mean we don't have to go home, we can see more of Mom's Oregon Trail?"
At the mention of the historic trace, bells sounded in Josiah's head. "Excuse me for interrupting but I heard you mention the Oregon Trail. Are you on vacation?"
"My wife's dream trip. We've seen more monuments and plaques that you care to know existed." He pointed to a distant mountain. "That's South Pass. Nothing up there up sagebrush and sand. A person wouldn't believe the desert could be so close with this much water." The spring-fed Sweetwater River bubbled merrily on its way toward the eastbound Platte.
"Sounds like a lonely place." Josiah wanted to ask more but tried to act like an interested tourist.
"Not as vacant as a person might imagine." A dark cloud descended across the father's face.
Billy looked up at the tall, gray haired man and spoke before his father could stop him. "I found a bad man hiding under a rock."
"You were lucky he didn't hurt you." Josiah knelt down to the boy's eye level. "How did you know he was a bad man?"
"That's what the policeman said." The boy stepped closer to his father. "I thought he was dead."
Josiah looked up at the other man, letting his eyes ask questions without verbalizing the obvious. The father recognized the gaze and expressed a sad smile. "Billy, why don't you go fill your water bottle at the drinking fountain? I'll be right there."
"Scary thing for a child, to find another human suffering like that. No matter what they say he did, no one deserved to suffer like that. We took him in our car till we could find some help." The father's eyes expressed the scenario as the tragedy replayed in his mind.
Needing to push for more information, Sanchez asked, "Typical drug user, body piercing and tattoos?"
"No, not really. I mean he looked like an average teenager. Dressed in only his underwear, his black hair was dirty and he needed a shave. Yeah, he had a tattoo or two but what boy doesn't these days?" The man felt kinship with the kind gentleman and shared the ugly details until a woman, an adolescent girl and Billy joined them.
Sauntering to his Suburban, Josiah felt a surge of hope. Maybe angels did walk the earth, coming to provide for the needy and downtrodden. If the young man discovered up in the mountains was John Dunne, a caring and considerate family proved angels exist.
+ + + + + + +
Drifting in and out of awareness of his situation, JD Dunne looked around his Spartan hospital room. While painkillers cut the edge of the pain from sunburn and wounds, he fought to keep his mind alert. Too weak to battle Harper, he needed assistance from the local law although he remembered someone in uniform being at the hospital when he arrived.
How did such a simple assignment turn so life threatening? He promised Chris he wouldn't take chances, only do the required task and then return to Denver. Neither agent recognized the DEA man's hidden agenda.
"Well, well, Mr. Dunne. We meet again. You too stubborn to die? Maybe you need a little encouragement?"
The familiar voice sent shivers up and down the young man's spine. Painfully he rolled over onto his back and stared at the other man. "Go to hell."
"Naw. I figure ta send you there a head of me, boy. Don't know how Larabee puts up with you, never following a superior officer's order." Harper stepped closer to the hospital bed. His clothes sagged around him and a distinctive odor waft in his wake. "Get up! We've got a few miles to travel."
JD steeled himself to fight, overcoming the pain radiating through his body. "I ain't gonna anywhere with you."
A meaty fist grabbed JD's bandaged thigh and squeezed. "You are under arrest, boy. The local deputy got this whole hospital believing you deal drugs and run explosives." Harper grabbed the IV line and yanked the needle out of the young ATF agent's arm before slamming a fist into the sunburned face. "Let's go."
Wrapping a meaty arm around JD's thin waist, the DEA rogue dragged him out of bed, a trail of blood drops left in their aftermath. Reaching to pull the knob, Harper pulled his arm back as the door opened.
"Let go of him!" A large mustached man, supported by crutches stood blocking the doorway. "Get your hands off that boy!"
"I don't know who the hell you think you are but this 'boy' is my prisoner. I'm a federal agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency. Now get out of my way." Harper growled back at the other man. His plan seemed to disintegrate and slip through his fingers and he wasn't about to let some young ATF punk or some backwater hick ruin the best chance he had to retire with some degree of luxury.
Buck hobbled further into the room toward the crooked agent and his partner. "Harper, you are the one under arrest for the attempted murder of JD Dunne."
"Get your hands up, mister." Wilmington felt the jab of a metal gun barrel ram into his ribs.
Buck looked over his shoulder at the uniformed officer standing behind him. "Now look here officer."
"No, you look here mister. I don't know who you are but this patient was in my custody and I've reprimanded him to Agent Harken. Now I gave you an order. Hands up!"
The deputy pushed Buck with the gun into the hospital room as the rogue agent dragged the comatose man from the room. "He's gonna kill him!"
"Shut up. You part of his gang?"
Buck moved his left hand toward his hip pocket. "Look, sir. I'm just going to show you my badge."
Chase Morgan leveled his service revolver at Buck's head. "Stop. Keep your hands where I can see them. Now what the hell is going on here?"
Staring at the gun barrel, Buck knew he needed to act fast or Harper would escape and finish his insane business with JD. His eyes zeroed on the pool of blood staining the clean floor. "My name is Buck Wilmington, and I am a special agent for the ATF, Alcohol, Tobacco.."
"I know what the hell all this federal alphabet soup stands for. I also know that kid was part of a plot of self-serving ATF agents, planning on hijacking a semi load of explosives. I'm taking you down to the office. You can call a lawyer from there."
Buck's glare at the errant lawman sent shivers up and down the young man's spine. "If anything happens to that boy, I swear."
A man in a white lab coat and a woman wearing a brown uniform similar to Morgan's stepped into the room, distracting the armed deputy.
Everyone started talking at once. Buck ignored the clamor and hobbled toward the door. As he reached for the door handle a fist grabbed his arm. "Mr. Whatever, you are still under arrest until this mess is sorted out."
"After I get JD back from that maniac." The larger agent pulled his arm out of the deputy's grasp and hobbled into the hallway.
Morgan looked at the county dispatcher and growled. "What are you doing here, Gloria? Get on the horn and call for backup. No fed is going to bully his way out of arrest in this county!"
"Wait, Chase. He really is ATF and so is that young man. The DEA guy is the one with a price on his head." Gloria grabbed the deputy's arm, stopping his departure from the room.
"Huh?" The young deputy looked at the doctor and back at his fellow officer.
"No time to explain, Chase. That boy's in trouble," the doctor added. The three local residents looked at the trail of blood staining the pristine flooring before following the larger man's route.
Continued in Part 4
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