A Walk in the Woods

by KT

Sanchez's plan was simple, simple plans were the best in his vast experience. They had no real idea where they were, but wherever it was, it was fairly high. If they went down they had a reasonable chance of finding civilisation and water. He still didn't know how badly Buck was hurt, but they were both going to need more water than he could carry. Even simple plans needed thinking through though. Down was good, but they were going to be followed sooner or later, possibly with dogs. So, as well as down he intended that they should travel through and across water when possible, they would also cross their own trail a few times - if Buck was up to it.

He waited until they were out of sight and earshot of the mine and the guards before he offered Wilmington support. He knew Buck - who for all his easy going ways was an intensely proud man - would not want to show any weakness to strangers.

"Buck, let me help you," he offered softly.

Since they had started out, Buck had said nothing. He was limping heavily, his right arm held across his chest and supported by his left. The need to support the injured limb meant he had no way to steady himself as he the traversed the rough terrain with only the limited light of Sanchez's flashlight to guide them. Wilmington didn't respond, he just kept limping along. Reckoning they were far enough away to risk a quick stop he moved to stand in front of Buck.

"Stop, Buck stop, please," he implored.

Finally realising his path was blocked; Buck raised his head to looking in to Sanchez's eyes. He had been concentrating on putting one foot in front of another without falling; right then that simple act required all his concentration.

"Okay, that’s good," Josiah said softly as he saw recognition in the pain filled red rimmed blue eyes illuminated by his flash light. "Now, we have a way to go tonight so we need to get ready, okay?" He got no response. "Buck, there's a log over there, just step back a little and sit down, come on." His words of encouragement finally got through and the tall agent hobbled to the fallen tree and very slowly eased himself down.

With his patient sitting down, Sanchez ran his light all over the man before him, and was sickened by what he saw. Buck's back was covered in livid bruises and welts; in particular his lower back around his kidney was just one big contusion. There were other bruises, cracked or even broken ribs by the look of things, and a split lip. His bare feet were dirty and bleeding, Sanchez had no idea what was causing the limp, he did note however there didn't appear to be much blood on the sweat bottoms, so it probably wasn't an open wound. But by far the worst looking injury was the clearly broken collarbone. The shoulder was visibly misaligned, and massively swollen, there was a very angry looking deep red lump right in the middle, it looked like one broken bone end would just break through the tightly stretched flesh at any moment.

"They wanted me didn't they?" Sanchez commented, realising Buck had been suffering because he wouldn't identify his partner. He got a slight nod of the head. "Sorry."

"Not your fault," Buck said slowly and quietly. "'s my fault."

Josiah frowned. "How do you figure that?"

"Got recognised, when I defended that girl, got recognised, should had stayed out of it…should ha'…"

"Buck," Josiah rested a hand on his friend's knee - the one he wasn't limping on. "It wasn't your fault, you are who and what you are, there was no way to know that someone would recognise you. Hell, it was more likely someone would recognise me - there were enough vets there." He pulled his bag around and pulled out the canteen. Unscrewing the cap that doubled as a cup he poured some water out and handed it to Buck, who's left hand trembled slightly as he drank greedily. "Gently, take it easy," Josiah cautioned.

"Bastard knocked my tooth out," Buck commented as he finished drinking. "Been a cop or a fed for near twenty years, played football, rode in rodeos, fought in bars, ate sugar, never lost a tooth, not one, not one damn tooth!" he commented bitterly. "Fucking bastard!"

Sanchez gave him a rueful smile as he pulled off the big flannel shirt he was wearing over his tee shirt. In truth there wasn't much he could do for his friend, most of his injuries were internal. What he could do was help make him more comfortable. He used his knife to remove the shirt sleeves. Then as gently as he could, and cursing inwardly every time Buck failed to stifle a hiss of pain, he helped Buck into the shirt, he left the centre button undone and helped Buck ease his arm in to the ready made sling. Then he cut the sleeves into strips and once he had done what he could for Buck's battered feet, he wrapped the soft cloth around them; it wasn't much but his own boots were two sizes too small, so it would have to do.

"Here," Josiah handed Wilmington a chunk of chocolate. He had energy bars in his survival kit, fruit and bread rolls in his bag, but right now he reckoned the man in front of him needed something sweet, familiar and easy to digest - comfort food.

Buck savoured the smooth, sweet chocolate as he let it melt in is mouth, careful to keep it away from the gaping raw cavity where his tooth had been, once he had had some more water Sanchez decided it was time to move on. With some difficulty and with a lot of help Buck stood and forced his shaky legs to hold him. They didn't speak much as they made their way down the mountainside. It took all Buck had to just stay upright and put one foot in front of the other. Josiah concentrated on using the flashlight to navigate and keeping Buck going. Time just blurred, they kept going down but no stream appeared. Much as he knew the injured man needed it, Josiah rationed their water, until they found some. Dawn was paling the sky when they finally found a small stream. It was mercifully shallow and slow flowing.

"Buck?" Josiah asked softly, but he got no response. "We can stop soon, then you can rest, but first we have to walk through the water." Buck's head turned to him; a question in his tired eyes. "Dogs, they might have dogs," he explained. Buck nodded and allowed Josiah to lead him into the freezing water of the mountain stream.

They walked and waded for over an hour, until Buck finally stumbled and nothing could stop him crashing down into the water.

"Sorry! I'm sorry," Sanchez kept repeating as he pulled Buck up, wincing with every gasp of pain that his tall friend let slip.

Finally he pulled Wilmington on to the grassy bank, letting him lay back on the soft turf and rest, he knew they couldn't stay there long, but he didn't have the heart to try and move him yet. The sun, which filtered through the trees, was warm, in any other circumstances it would have been a gloriously beautiful spot, a place you wouldn't mind hiking three days to find. The kind of spot Vin wrote poems about, the kind of spot Buck himself loved - though he would never admit it. Sanchez looked over at his battered friend. His eyes were closed, his breathing just a little to fast to Josiah's eye.

Damn we're in a mess Lord, could use a hand here, you know? He lay back to take in God's beauty and pray they both lived to tell someone of the beauty they had quite literally stumbled over.

Buck was cold, the stream water had been icy, no doubt it came straight down from some high rocky snowfield. He could feel the warm sun on his face, he knew it was helping to dry him. But the thick sweat bottoms he had on would take a long time to dry, not to mention Josiah's flannel shirt - not that he wasn't grateful. The shirt made it easier to support his shoulder and keep it still. That was all he wanted, just lie still, not move, if he didn't move he could cope with the pain. Pain that, as he lay on the dew damp grass, was everywhere, but if he so much as moved one muscle, a sudden dagger of pain would stab him, even blinking seemed to hurt, so he closed his eyes. Part of him wanted to let the darkness come back, for a few minutes, far fewer than his captors realised, the blackness had taken the pain away, it would be good to go back there, but he couldn't, he had to stay awake for Josiah.


Since the two federal agents had divested the guards of not only their guns but also all their radios, they had no way to call for help. The replacement guards were due in two hours, so they were forced to take drastic measures to gain someone's attention. Since they were locked in an arsenal it shouldn't have been that difficult, but there were individually locked rooms within the mine where the ordnance was stored, the guards did not have keys for these rooms. What they did have was a crow bar, having tried to use it to open the gate and failed, they then used it to get into the padlocked rooms. One grenade tossed out into the clearing quickly brought a response.


The explosion had been clearly audible to Buck and Josiah. Sanchez checked his watch, two and a half hours; it took them longer than he had thought. They were still on the mountainside, still moving down.

"They're gonna be coming now, aren’t they?" Buck had asked not really needing an answer.

"Yeah, guess so."

But since then there had been no sign or, more significantly, no sound of pursuers or searchers. Suddenly, as they lay in the little glade in the morning sun their grace time ended with the sound of a helicopter somewhere off to their left.

"Oh great," Josiah hissed. "Come on brother, time to be moving."

"No," came the stark response.

"Come on, they got themselves a chopper, we have to move."

"I can't outrun a chopper Preacher, hell I can't run period. Leave me here, get out, get help and come back for me."

"No, no way, there is no way I'm doing that. For one thing, I have no idea how long it will take me to find help or how to find this place again if I left you." Brooking no argument he knelt beside Buck on his left side and slipped a large strong hand under Wilmington's relatively undamaged shoulder. "Up! Now!" he commanded, pulling Buck up into a sitting position.

Taken by surprise, Buck cried out as the sudden movement ignited every injury. "Leave me the fuck alone!" he growled through gritted teeth.

"To quote someone not a million miles from here - 'No'."

It was killing him inside to hurt his friend, but Josiah put Buck's arm over his huge shoulder and summoning all his strength, he hauled the taller man to his feet.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck!" Buck hissed as he tried to get his balance, and fight off the blackness edging his vision, while the pain licked at him like tongues of fire.

"Okay, just rest a moment, get your breath, let me take the strain," Sanchez counselled quietly.

After a few moments, and waiting until the injured man's breathing slowed a little, he moved them out. They walked down parallel to the stream. Despite the day getting increasingly hot as the sun rose in the sky, Buck had begun to shiver, just one more thing to make him feel miserable. They stopped at around noon for some food and a drink, though Sanchez had been plying Buck with water almost constantly.

"Stay here and rest, I'm gonna scout ahead, see what the terrain is like, okay?" Buck's only response was a nod.

The helicopter they had heard had flown close to them several times and directly overhead at least once. The chances of anyone on board spotting them through the dense forest was marginal at best, and Sanchez wasn't particularly worried - unless they had heat detection equipment, but it should have found them by now if it they did. Nor had he heard the dogs he had been worried about. There were no real hounds at the ranch, only cattle dogs. All he had to do was keep them under the trees and find a phone, and keep Buck moving, and stop him going to deeply into shock or catch his death of cold or dehydrate. He cast his eyes upward.

"Piece of cake Lord," he commented sarcastically at the cloudless blue sky.


"You got something?" Chris stood over JD's shoulders and peered at the screen.

"Maybe." After working for days, days with very little sleep and several false starts, the younger man was unwilling to commit himself.

Chris' investigation in to the FBI's handling of the case uncovered a catalogue of ineptitude and failure to follow procedure. They had trailed Sanchez to the training camp, but the day before Buck left the gun fair with Greening, they had lost him. This somewhat relevant detail was deliberately not passed on to Buck, who went in thinking his back was covered. A week later they lost him, too. One day he was at the Freedom Way's training camp, the next he was not, and they had no idea where he went. Both men's vehicles were at still in the compound, but neither man had been seen for more than a week, nearer two for Sanchez. Chris had made it clear that once he had is men back, heads would roll.

Having commandeered an office and a computer, JD had been looking at land deeds. Wherever they were, they were almost certainly on private land owned by the sect or one of its members.

"What?" Chris prompted. He and Vin had already checked out a warehouse and two farms JD had found as having connections to the Freedom Way.

"This," he pointed at a huge word filled document that Chris could hardly see. "…appears to be the deed to a large piece of land in Trinity County, that's way up past Reading. It's owned by this company…" He clicked on to a different page, more close typed text, just long lists and tables. "here, DDF Land Holding. Now one of the directors of DDF is a guy called Francis Stone, who…" He clicked on to yet another document. "Served under Freeman in Vietnam for five years."

Chris leant forward to peer at the highlighted text. "Hell, it's better than what we got now, you got a map to this place?"

"Give me five minutes - Chris?"


"I'm coming with you."

"You better stay and keep looking JD, just in case it's another dead end."

"I need to get out, besides I got a feeling about this place, I'm coming." There was a determined set to his jaw and a stubborness in his tone that was pure Wilmington.

Chris knew better than to go head to head with that particular brand of mule headedness, and conceded. Besides they would still have the laptop, if they ran up a huge phone bill the FBI could damn well pay it!


The relative good luck the two fugitive agents had been 'enjoying' ran out at dusk. The forest had been sloping down relatively gently, suddenly it dropped away steeply. Josiah looked at Buck, who the moment they stopped leant on a tree for support. He decided to stop their flight right there, for some food and then leave Buck and scout ahead, while he still had light. The stream they were following fell over the ridge they had crested, in a waterfall, like the glade they found in the morning, it was exquisite, but he had no time to stop and ponder its majesty. He walked for an hour in each direction searching for some place where they - and in particular Buck - could descend. It didn't look good; he was going to have to explore further in the morning. They could no longer travel at night. The flashlight's battery power was already waning, besides which, he was tired and Buck could barely keep his eyes open. They would camp close to the stream where the ground was covered in thick soft moss, and pray no-one found them in the night.

When he returned he found Wilmington asleep, he was just where Josiah had left him, sitting on the ground leaning against a large redwood tree. He looked pale and drawn, but his breathing hadn't deteriorated any more and he had managed to keep going all day. Not having the heart to wake the wounded and exhausted man, the philosophical ex-marine set aside some food for Wilmington, ate some himself, placed the canteen where they could both reach it, lay back on the soft moss and was himself quickly asleep. It was a risk, both sleeping at the same time, but he needed rest and Buck was in no condition to stand guard.


The moss had been dry and even warm when the two fugitives had lain down to sleep, now as the sun began to penetrate the canopy. Buck woke to find he was cold and damp, before was even properly awake, he coughed. In that half awake, half asleep time he had not been aware of the protests of pain his body was generating. Now as he coughed, the movement sent spikes of pure agony radiating out from his ribs to ignite every injury he was carrying. His right shoulder was on fire, he could feel the heat radiating from it, now he was awake every breath was pure torture. Worse, he needed to get up and answer the call of nature. In a way it was a relief, he had been drinking most of the night and all day and had still not passed water. Buck had been around long enough to know with the pounding his kidneys had taken, that was not a good sign. It was hard to pick out one pain from another, but he was aware of the daggers of pain radiating out from his lower back. There was no way he could get up on his own, one handed, with his knee still swollen and throbbing, it was an impossible task.

"Preacher," he called softly, but the big man didn't stir. He was too far away from Wilmington to prod him, so he called again, louder. "Hey Josiah!" Raising his voice needed more lung power, and that hurt.

Sanchez rolled over to face him, bleary pale blue eyes blinked open. "You okay?" he asked as he pushed himself up.

"Need 't pee," Buck stated bluntly.

Josiah nodded once; this was not a topic that needed much discussion. Once Sanchez had helped him up, an agonising process that Josiah didn't want to have to repeat, and guided him to the other side of the big tree, Buck sighed in relief as he emptied his bladder. It didn't surprise him to find the stream stained red with blood, but a bloody stream was better than no stream at all.

Since he hadn't found a way down Josiah had to take an educated guess as to what direction to lead them, and since in one direction the ridge was curving back the way they had come, he led them south-west. The ground it had taken Sanchez an hour to cover took the two of them two hours; from then on they just had to hope there was a place the injured man could descend. It was nearly noon when the steep - sometimes precipitous - slope to their right began to flatten out. Finally they came to a spot where there appeared to have been a landslide, the ground was loose and crumbly but it was an even, gentle slope.

"What do you think?" Josiah asked the younger man.

Thinking was just one more thing that was getting harder to do, but Buck said he would give it a go. They almost made it - almost. Just two yards from the bottom the lose ground shifted under their feet. Instinctively Buck reached out with his left hand, desperate to prevent himself pitching forward and crashing down the slope. For his part, Sanchez reached equally instinctively to stop his wounded friend falling. Clamping his huge hand over Buck's forearm and pulled him back, letting his superior weight steady Buck while he got his balance back. And just as he did, the ground below Josiah began to shift again, he let go of Buck, windmilling his arms desperately as he tried to get his balance, instinctively knowing Buck couldn't help him. Gravity was against him, and despite his desperate efforts to keep his feet, he crashed back on to the rocky ground behind him with a sickening thud.

"Josiah?" he heard Buck calling him from a long way away. "Josiah open your eyes, please," Buck pleaded.

Slowly the world came back into focus and Wilmington's pleas sounded less distant. The fuzzy blue haze above him became a clear blue sky.

"You awake?" he was asked, thought he couldn't see his friend.

"Mostly," he groaned, with some difficulty he pushed himself up into a sitting position, and wished he hadn't.

The world spun and his stomach rebelled, he only had seconds to suddenly lean over and wretch violently on to the treacherous ground beside him - served it right, he mused, once the heaving had stopped. Once he had taken a long pull on the canteen and rinsed his mouth out he looked up, squinting into the sun, to see the form of Buck Wilmington looking down at him.

"I'm sorry preacher, but I can't help much, if I get down there I may never get back up," he explained apologetically.

"No need to worry, I feel much better." He didn't mention the six-inch nail someone was pounding into the back of his head. "How long was I out?"

"One, maybe two minutes, tops," Buck assured.

Well that wasn't too bad, mild concussion at most, he'd had worse. He might go to sleep when all this was over and not remember it at all, which would be a blessing. Both now somewhat shaky on their feet, the two men helped each other down the rest of the slope and then turned back to once more find the stream and follow it. Once they reached it, they could refill the canteen and stop for a break. There wasn't much food left but they needed their strength so they would have a little. Buck looked at his feet, the rock strewn slope had ripped away what was left of the wrappings Sanchez had applied, mud, forest debris and blood now mingled together to coat his feet. He considered asking Josiah if he had anything in the first air kit that could help, but decided against it. His companion, on who he was dependant, look worryingly pale, his eyes closed as he sat on the next rock, so he settled for dropping them in the ice cold waters of the stream. They would get dirty again as soon as he set off again, but it was very soothing to have them bathed and chilled at the same time. Sitting on a rock beside the water Sanchez looked around him and frowned.

"This location secure?" he asked Buck.

Wilmington wasn't sure he had heard right because it didn't make sense. "Well not hardly, seeing as we have to assume they're still after us." He noted a rather glazed look in his friend's eyes. "You feeling okay pard?"

"Yes, of course, we should move out, come on."

At first Buck believed his nagging fear about the older man were groundless, but as they pushed on, Josiah got further an further ahead of him, making no allowances for his injures.

The big man looked over his shoulder. "Come on brother, pick up the pace, we got ten klicks to cover yet," was his only response.

Buck wasn't sure how to respond, as he understood it a klick was a kilometre, so ten was about seven and a half miles. There was no way he could cover seven and half more miles today, and since they had no idea where they were going, they had no idea how far it was to there - wherever 'there' was. But Josiah had already moved on. Cursing under his breath, mainly because he didn't have the energy to shout, Buck hobbled over the uneven ground as best he could, using his left hand to steady himself on the passing trees as best he could. He had no idea how long he had been going, but Shanchez was now out of sight. Desperate not to lose touch, he summoned up his strength and yell out to the man he presumed was somewhere ahead of him. He was clutching a tree and breahting hard when he finished, his chest screaming its protest at the extra effort so strongly it blocked the pain in his shoulder - if only briefly.

When there was no answer to his call he decided to push on. It was a mistake, for the first time in two days, his battered and protesting body failed to do what his considerable will told it to do. He tripped over a root and crashed to the forest floor; only just managing to twist as he went down, to land on his back, not his right shoulder. He screamed out as the pain in his lower back, which had been subsiding into just a persistent throbbing was ignited once more into the fires of hell, radiating out from his kidneys, reaching all the way up to his shoulder where the two pains mingled together like molten lava running over and through him. It took only a second for him to get a measure of control back, clamping his mouth shut and forcing himself to lie still, so he could get his breathing under control.

"What the fuck are you doin'! You know better than to be diddy-bopping." Sanchez suddenly breathed in his ear. "What are you? Some cherry assed boot? Shut the fuck up! You want Mr Charlie to come find you?"

Wilmington stared wide-eyed and confused at his friend, understanding only a quarter of what had just been said to him.

"You need a band aid?" Josiah asked.

"No …no I think I'm way past a Band-Aid," Buck said hesitantly, unsure just what was going on.

"Hell bro you ain't V.S.I. yet, no trip to Wonderful Walter for you. Come on, let's get going." With that he was hauled to his feet, biting his lip against the new pain so hard he tore it, tasting the coppery blood as it bled into his mouth.

They moved off together, this time Sanchez stayed with him helping and supporting. For a time they said nothing then Josiah asked.

"So what was it bro, you been on the dew? Got any left?"

"Josiah please stop this, I don't know what hell yer talking about."

"Yer right. I may only be a chuck to you, but I thought we were passed all that - brother." Sanchez emphasised the last word, looking Buck straight in the eye. And it was then Buck saw it, Josiah wasn't looking at him, he wasn't even seeing him, he was somewhere else, probably some other time. The more he thought about it the more he realised, the big man was back in Vietnam. Clearly when he fell back onto the rocks he hit his head harder than they realised. Desperately he tried to dredge up all he knew about the war, mostly from films and TV.

"Josiah, what's my name?" he asked quietly.

"You know damn well what yer name is."

"This place is so crazy, sometimes I forget, tell me - please."

"Billy, your PFC Billy-Ray Scott, US Marine Corps, and you're my friend."

"And who are you?" Buck asked, needing as much information as possible.

"Josiah…Preacher…Corporal Josiah Sanchez, US Marine Corps. We okay now?"

"Yeah Preacher, we're okay. I can't keep up, I screwed up my knee," Buck explained.

The afternoon shadows were lengthening as they reached a clearing. The stream skirted one side of it. They were just setting off to cross the stream so as to follow it and still be under cover when the helicopter flew over again.

"Woo-ee bro will you listen to that bro, medivac found us." Before Buck could react Josiah had handed him off so he was leaning against at tree and was headed out in to the sun lit sunlit clearing.

"Christ! No! Josiah, come back!" Buck shouted as loud as he could, the only effect was more pain and a coughing fit. He watched helplessly as Josiah ran out into the clearing and began waving at the chopper. For one wonderful second Buck thought it hadn't seen him, then it circled around and swooped down. Then came the sound that Buck had prayed he wouldn't hear a heavy machine gun opened up. He watched helplessly, knowing he couldn't reach his friend in time to pull him back to safety. The tell tale line of small explosions headed inexorably for Sanchez as he just stood there and waved at them, Buck didn't want to watch, but he couldn't help it. The inevitable seemed to take an age to happen but in truth it can only have taken seconds. As the bullet line reached Josiah he suddenly crumpled to the ground.

"Don't be dead, please Lord don't let him be dead," Buck pleaded out loud, as if in answer to his prays he saw Josiah stir, he was clutching his leg.

"Josiah!" Buck shouted as loud as he could. There was no response as he watched his friend try to pull himself to his feet. The helicopter circled around to come back for another run. "Preacher!" Buck tried. "You gotta get under cover, he's coming back!"

Buck was moving now, limping as best he could to the edge of the tree line. Sanchez had got to his feet and clutching his left thigh he began to stumble toward the trees. With only seconds to spare before the helicopter was lined up for a second run he made it under cover. It was their good fortune that there were several sturdy bushes and new saplings in the clearing, along with two burnt tree stumps - clearly this clearing was the result of a small forest fire - and these prevented the chopper from landing. From the safety of the redwood they were sheltering behind, Buck and Josiah watched as the bullets went flying into the forest either side of them cutting small trees in half, shredded large bushes and tearing up the ground, small rock chips even flew off in all directions as the large calibre ammunition hit the solid rock.

Eventually, either because they knew it was hopeless or because they were out of fuel, the chopper broke off the attack and flew away in the direction of the ranch. Buck had remained on his feet while Josiah had sunk back down to the ground, and for the first time looked down at Josiah's right leg. The material of his pants was soaked in blood; it started at mid thigh and extended down as far as his boot tops.

"Josiah," he called softly. Big pale blue eyes looked up at him. "can you reach that branch?" He gestured to one of the numerous broken branches littering the forest floor around them. Slowly Sanchez looked around, following Buck's gaze and then equally slowly he reached for it. Buck wasn't looking for a support stick, he need a reaching tool. The bag with all their supplies had been abandoned at the edge of the tree line, he was going to have to pick it up without bending down, that was where the branch came in. It took time, but eventually he was back at the bleeding man's side. Getting down was painful, how he was going to get back up he didn't know, but he had no options left.

Having seen what the machine gun had done to reasonably thick small trees, he was dreading what he would find when he looked at the wound.

"Now," he locked his eyes on to Sanchez's "we are going to have to work together on this one brother, 'cause I only have one arm here."

Together they ripped open the fabric to expose the wound. Buck gave a silent sigh of relief. The bullet had sliced into his thigh, gouging a huge chunk of muscle out, but it hadn't penetrated. If it had, the bone would surely have been broken. Although the wound was bleeding profusely it was not pumping out blood under pressure. Buck knew enough to know that meant there was a good chance that no major artery was damaged. Together they managed to get a field dressing on the wound.

The problem they now had was to both get to their feet. With one arm and one leg Buck was really going to struggle to get back up on his one good leg. With some difficulty, and his head swimming, Sanchez managed to push himself up using the tree behind him for support, then he reached down and taking hold of Buck's good left hand, he helped to pull him up. They both looked around and found a couple of broken branches to use as staffs to support themselves as they continued.

"What the hell's wrong with them bastards?" Sanchez muttered. "Ain't like I look like no gook," he muttered. He turned to look at Buck. "Why Billy, why'd he open up on me?"

Buck was already struggling with the whole concept that Sanchez believed himself to be in the Vietnam jungle being stalked by the Viet Cong.

"Don't know, maybe Charlie took one of our choppers, t' use against us," he ventured, desperately hoping he was saying the right thing.

"Yeah, I guess."

Corporal Sanchez was halfway through his first tour of Vietnam, so far he had done okay. Made corporal just a month ago. Billy Ray was a good guy. Often black soldiers and white soldiers often didn't get on. When Billy first arrived he was very green and he had one hell of a chip on his shoulder. But they had found common ground, Billy had learnt that not all white men were racists and Josiah had come to understand some of what it was to be black. Having grown up all over the world, mostly overseas, he had a lot of experience of different cultures, but very little experience of the diverse cultures within his own country. His head hurt, it hurt a lot, now that damn chopper had shot him. Billy was hurt too, limping as badly as he was, but he was acting weirdly, sometimes he didn't seem to understand what Josiah was saying. And then every now and again he seemed to fade away to be replaced by a tall white man with dark hair. A deeply spiritual young man with a wide knowledge of many differing religious and superstitions, he decided that the white man he occasionally saw was some kind of message, possible a spirit guide.

It was getting more and more difficult to walk. Walking wounded was a relative phrase. He was shivering, his could put very little weight on his injured leg, and his good leg had started to tremble, his vision would suddenly blur and then come back into focus. Finally after another two hours Billy called a halt. Why, the corporal wondered, was Billy suddenly in charge? Though it seemed wrong he didn't have the energy to do anything about it, all of a sudden he was too tired to do anything.

Buck had found a small area by their trusty guide stream with a large fallen log. He eased himself down to sit on the log, persuading the confused older man beside him to follow suit - once he had convinced him he had checked for booby traps. He shared the last of the food, a few raisins and half a candy bar. They both drank greedily. Buck glanced down at Sanchez's bandaged leg. Blood had saturated the dressing, but he noted it didn't appear to be running down his leg. Since the bandages were still wet it was still bleeding but not profusely.

Too tired and too sick to talk or go on, both men eased themselves down on to the relatively soft forest floor and were quickly asleep.


Chris and the others drove straight for Trinity county. They planned a two-pronged reconnaissance trip on the suspect ranch. To this end, Chris was driving down the access road, in plain view. He didn't get to the ranch itself, being stopped by two armed cowboys about two thirds of the way down the drive.

"Howdy," he announced breezily as he got out of the rented car, pulling off his aviator sunglasses.

"Mornin'," one of the men responded, "you lost Mister?"

"Reckon I am at that," Chris said with what he hoped was chagrin.

"Can I help you?" he asked.

"I hope so, I was looking for this place..." He showed them a map, and pointed to a ranch about thirty miles down the road he had turned off.

"Sir this here is the Bar F, that's the Gateway Dude Ranch."

"That's it!" Chris exclaimed, that's where I was headed, guess I turned off too soon, huh?"

"Yeah, 'bout thirty miles too soon," the man said somewhat exasperated, "go back, turn left, keep going fer' thirty miles and look for the sign. It's a real big sign," he added for emphasis.

Chris sat in the parking lot of the Gateway Dude Ranch. He had just gone for a pleasant - or would have been pleasant had he not been so worried - ride on a reasonable pinto called Mexico. If anyone at the Bar F checked, the dude ranch would confirm his story. He was waiting for two riders to return. It took time but as the shadows lengthened the two youngest team members rode in. They had deliberately tried to look younger then they were. Very close shaves, scruffy, slouchy cloths, baseball caps instead of stetsons. Approaching on horseback they had got that much closer before they were intercepted.

"Well?" Chris asked.

"Oh it's the place alright if you ask me," Vin stated confidently.

"We got to the ridge, like we planned," JD continued, "they have some serious satellite and radio equipment there if the dishes and radio antennae are anything to go by. You?"

"Got turned back before I got there, the guys were real friendly and co-operative, but very well armed."

"D'y see the chopper?" Vin enquired.

"No, heard it though."

"Vin reckons it was looking for something…" JD started to explain.

"Or someone," Chris finished.


Freeman looked up from his desk as his ADC walked in. "Well?" he asked. Greening shook his head. "God damn it, you had one in yer sights yesterday! You sure he's hit?"

"Yes sir, the Major fired the shots himself, the big guy is hurt too. He tells me we probably haven't seen Wilmington because he's dead or dying by now."

"Yes, well the Major also said he would have them back inside six hours, that was two days ago," the former special forces colonel ground out. "I'm taking personal charge." Freeman pulled a map over the desk between the two men. "This is where the chopper spotted them?" He pointed to a point on the map.

Greening craned his head over and then nodded.

"Well they are clearly following this creek, if they are still mobile they must reach the fire road soon, they're clearly no fools, they know it must lead to a highway so they're gonna follow that, and it will bring them out in the highway here." He indicated the outskirts of a small hamlet called Pikes Crossing. "What ever else it has there is a phone there - they must not reach a phone." He looked up; pinning Greening with is steel grey eyes. "Are we clear?"

"As crystal sir."


Cold woke Buck, he was bone numbingly cold, dampness from the forest floor permeated his very being. He groaned as he came to full awareness, dawn sunlight filtered down through the trees, bird song filled the air, only to be drowned out by his own hacking cough. Pain, which had been slowly awakening in his abused body, suddenly, came to life in one mind melting white hot flash.

"Oh God," he breathed, his good left arm trying desperately to stop the coughs shaking his damaged shoulder. He became aware that breathing was painful, every breath hurt, worse his chest was tight, he could breath in, but expelling air was difficult and twice as painful as breathing in. Taking a few minutes to compose himself and come to terms with this new torment, he finally reached out his left hand and shook Sanchez.

"Hey Josiah, time t' be movin' we're burnin' daylight here," he wheezed out.

The big man began to stir; pain creeping across his sleep relaxed face as he too came to full consciousness.

"We gotta go, ain't go no food left, so lets just head out," Buck tried to sound positive.

"Billy-Ray you lost all the sense God gave you," Sanchez scolded looking around him.

Buck sighed inwardly, he was hoping the sleep would have unmuddled his friend's thinking, clearly not.

"Preacher we can't stay here, we have to find help, we gotta get back to our own lines," Buck reasoned.

"Damn it! I know that, but what did I teach you about walkin' in this fucking jungle in the dark?"

Now Buck was truly mystified, he had no idea what Billy-Ray had been told about jungles and darkness, though clearly it wasn't a good idea. But regardless of that, it wasn't dark, it was day; it was in fact sunny.

"Err not to do it?" Buck tried.

"A - fucking - men! Jeez do you know how easily you could walk into a booby trap in the dark? How quick you can get disorientated and lost, just as likely t' go marching into a V.C. camp as one of ours. And that ain't even worrying about all the nice critters out there that can bite and sting you. We wait for morning, shit I can't see the hand in front of my face right now!"

Buck stretched out his hand and waved it in front of Sanchez's eyes, nothing, not one flicker, no reaction. "Shit!" Buck hissed.


"Nothing, I gotta think." Buck lay his head back on the log beside him; unbidden tears began to roll down his cheeks. He wasn't a man who was afraid to cry, when he was happy or sad. He cried when he first held Adam, he cried over his grave, him and his mother, he cried when the doctors told him JD was going to live, the time he was back shot, and he cried when they had to put Chris' old hound to sleep. But he had never cried - not since he was seven - out of self-pity becaues he couldn't have what he wanted, until now. He hurt, he hurt real bad, he had hurt worse before, but then there had been only minutes before he was given pain relief, until someone came along and took care of him. He had been in pain for the best part of three day's, it might have been longer, he was having trouble keeping track. He was miles from help, Josiah as well as his leg injury, clearly had a serious head injury and was now blind, no one knew they were in trouble - or maybe they just didn't care? Stop it Buck, you know that ain't so. He chided himself, the tears still flowing. He wanted someone to stop the pain, he wanted someone to come and say 'relax, I have everything taken care of, just lie back'. "I can't do this," he finally said out loud, eyes raised skyward.

"What can't ya do?" Sanchez asked from beside him.

"Nothin' I'm just thinkin' out loud." He reached out and placed a hand on the older man's shoulder. He had kept going because Josiah was there with him. Josiah had been a rock in his life these past few years, he was always there, he would listen when Buck came to him with his fears, fears he would never express to anyone, had never expressed to anyone - ever. Clearly his innate spirituality had been recognised early, since even as a young man in Vietnam he was called 'Preacher'. Buck knew he was no priest, had he been he probably wouldn't have confided in him, but he treated all he was told as if it were protected by the sanctity of a confessional. Buck was sure none of the others knew he occasionally drove over to Sanchez's comfortable, slightly chaotic town house apartment for a quiet talk. Now Sanchez was depending on him and he didn't know how he was going to help him or himself.

Josiah's leg was soaked in blood, but it didn't look to have gotten any worse over night, but if he started to bleed again they had no more dressings to place on the wound. Buck wasn't sure but he reckoned he could walk for a while, assuming he could get up, but no way could he support and guide a big man like Sanchez. He was coming to a decision, not one he wanted to make, one he was trying to put off.

He knew Josiah had a temper, especially when his blood was up. Yet Buck couldn't understand why someone who was basically an open minded, peace lover, someone who's personal politics were defiantly left of centre, would volunteer to join the Marines, knowing he would be fighting in Vietnam.

"Preacher?" he asked.


"Why did you join up?"

Josiah took a deep breath, his hand absently rubbed at his injured thigh. The voice beside him had changed, gone was Billy-Ray's harsh urban accent, in its place a breathy, wheezing voice, with a soft south western accent. Sanchez dismissed this incongruity.

"Well, brother, I have a temper, and sometimes there is such rage within me that I have to let it out, and usually when I do let it out, someone gets hurt. Sometimes people I care about get hurt," he added with a note of real sorrow and regret. "I had to find a way to control the rage, use it, harness its power, I needed discipline - and where am I gonna find better discipline than the US Marines?"

That made sense to Buck, he could see the young Josiah, with all that passion and strength being quite a handful, even a danger. He reckoned he had to have been a challenge for the drill sergeants.

"Preacher," Buck began, knowing he couldn't put off the moment of decision any longer. "Will you do something for me?"

"If I can bro, not up to much right now."

"Close your eyes and listen for a while, smell, feel what is around you."

Josiah obediently closed his eyes and listened, Buck said nothing, so he just listened to the sounds around him. Bird song, light and clear, a few insects, water some place close running swiftly but not fast, wind rustling the trees and bushes around him. He smelt the scent of pine trees, musty damp soil, wild garlic. Beneath his hands, moss, damp and soft, twigs, dead leaves, some fresh and pliable, some old and dry.

"If all you had to go on was what you hear and feel, where would you think you were?" Buck asked softly.

Josiah knew, it was like being at home in a forest, it was warm, but not sticky and oppressive like the jungle, the insect calls he heard were familiar and unthreatening, the bird song light and familiar.

"I would be at home, in the forest, on a summers day," he said softly.

"It's not night Josiah, feel the sun on your face, listen to the birds; birds don't sing at night."

Josiah frowned, he tried to understand the conflict between what he knew and what his senses told him.

"I…I don't understand, Billy?"

"It's okay, just listen to me." Buck tried to speak normally, with out coughing. "You fell and hit your head, at the back and got sliced by a bullet - feel 'um?" He waited while Sanchez felt the back of his head and winced in sympathy when he clearly found the tender knot, then felt the bandage, damp and sticky with blood. "You're blind right now, that’s why you can't see, most likely 'cause you hit your head."


"Yeah, I'm sorry there weren't no easy way to tell you." Buck watched as Josiah held his hand out in front of his sightless eyes, moving it back and forth.

"My name," Buck pressed on. "is Buck, Buck Wilmington, we work together, we're friends. The war has been over for thirty years or so. You are a federal agent, with the ATF, so am I, we're part of Team Seven, from Denver, you, me, and the others."

"Others?" Josiah asked

"Yeah, there's Chris, he's the boss, ornery cuss dressed in black. Vin, I call him junior, he's a scruffy Texan. Ezra, he's the opposite of Vin a real southern dandy, talks funny too. JD, he's the kid, all eager and doe eyes. And Nathan - you and Nathan are real close friends."

"Nathan…is he a brother?" Buck took 'brother' to mean black.

"Yeah, Nate's a brother, big tall fella, a medic, he patches us up when we get all banged up - like now - 'sept Nate ain't here now, so I gotta go get some help." There he had said it, he was going to leave Josiah, hurt and blind, alone in the forest while he tried to get to help.

Josiah knew he was a marine, he was a marine in the Vietnam jungle fighting for …well fighting because he was told to. And yet…Billy said that it was all over, he was confused, no not Billy, Buck. Was Buck the tall white man he had seen on occasion instead of Billy-Ray?"



"What do you look like?"


"Yeah, tell me what you look like."

Buck took a halting wheezy breath. "Um…well…kinda tall and lean I guess, dark hair, dark blue eyes, that's about it."

The description fitted the man he had seen, he was forced to accept what Buck/Billy said was true.

"So how did we come to be out here, with no help?"

"Long story pal, just trust me, stay here, I'll send help back for you, here…" Buck took Josiah's arm and placed his fingers in the stream, before he gave him the canteen. "you need to keep drinking."


"So if they're looking for something and that something is Josiah and Buck, where are they?" Chris asked as he studied the map he had spread out on the hood of their rented car.

"Here," Vin pointed to the fire road. "the chopper looked like it was here. The guys will be moving down, there's nothing up here except this place and the ranch, so sooner or later they will cross the road, then all they have to do is follow it down to this place, err…" He craned his head to read the tiny print. "Pikes Crossing."

"But if we know that, so do the bad guys," JD pointed out.

"Well we better make sure we get to them first!" Chris announced already moving toward the driver's side door.

It took some time to make their way around the mountain and into the little hamlet of Pikes Crossing. It consisted of a mini mart, a gas station, a church, a diner and a bar - and that was all. The fire road was no more than a gravel track that came down between the gas station and the mini mart. As Chris approached the gas station he suddenly cut the engine, all three men swore almost simultaneously. There parked ominously in the gas station was a big, new, black Chevy truck. Two men, both in cowboy gear leant against the hood drinking soda, their clothes looked too clean, the truck too new and way too clean. It was clear who they were and what they were waiting for.

"You two take the car, like before, two young guys, just touring and having fun, go shopping, get a drink, fill the tank," Chris instructed.

"And don't let them two out 'a sight," Vin finished.

"Right, I'm gonna head on up the fire road on foot, keep your cell phones on."


Buck gritted his teeth, getting back up on his feet was torture. He had to plant his good foot in the soft ground and uses all this rapidly waning strength to lever himself up, using the tree behind him for support. He had stopped worrying about his feet, they were going to have to carry him, no matter what state they were in, blood, mud it was all the same now. He stood there panting, drawing wheezy painful breaths, trying to get his head to stop spinning.

"Billy?" Josiah asked, craning his head up toward the sound of painful breathing. "You okay man?"

"Yeah I'm okay, …Buck, remember …I'm Buck…promise me you'll try to re… re…remember and stay here…just stay here."

With that he picked up the branch he had been using as a staff and set out down the mountain. Water, just follow the water, just go down hill following the water. He repeated the mantra in his head over and over again, concentrating was harder and harder, the more difficult it was to breath the more difficult it was to concentrate, he had no idea how long he had been going. He no longer had the strength to lift his left leg, it dragged along behind him, every jolt and bump a new agony to add to his misery. His shoulder hurt less, but his hand had 'pins and needles'. He might not be Nathan but he knew this was not good, his arm and shoulder were now so swollen his circulation was effected. Follow the water, follow the water.

When he came out of the trees he was concentrating on putting one foot in front of another so intently he didn't even notice until the realised the steam disappeared under a culvert. Buck looked up, a road - well a track - he had found a sign of civilisation. The track was at about chest height. The bank either side of the concrete pipe into which the stream flowed was too high and too steep to for him to try and attempt. So as best he could he limped and stumbled long in the ditch. He looked up the road, up hill felt wrong, besides he could see a man walking away from him, he was some distance off, to Buck no more then a dark blur. So he started following the fire road down hill. It felt strange to leave the safety of the stream, it had been their trusty guide for three days, a constant presence, never still, never silent, running beside them as they limped and stumbled along.


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