DEER HUNTING by Beth Green

"Little Britches" (ATF) Universe

Author's Notes: Take Chris + Buck; add Vin + JD; add a Wildlife Refuge + deer; what does it equal? You'll have to read the story to find out. Thanks to Phyllis and Greta for the beta work. Any remaining mistakes belong to me.

It seems that I have been remiss in attaching Disclaimers to my stories. I hereby correct that oversight.

Beth's New & Improved Disclaimer Version 4.0

WARNING: Any resemblance to persons living or dead in this story is purely coincidental. (Yeah, right!) No animals were harmed in the writing of this fic. However, the same cannot be said of the fictional characters. Contents under pressure. Not recommended for persons with sugar-restricted diets. Fat free; the calories, you have to pay for. No preservatives added. Shake well before using. All rights reserved; the lefts, I may consider sharing. May cause drowsiness. Allergy alert: not recommended for those afflicted with insensitivity. Return for refund where applicable. Not labeled for individual sale. Caution: this product has caused some laboratory rats to leap tall buildings in a single bound faster than the human eye can see. Not recommended for children under two years of age. Do not remove under penalty of law. May cause irritability or insomnia with prolonged use. So there.

Chris' hands tightened on the steering wheel as the tension in his body increased. He originally thought that it had been a good idea: let him do all the driving while Buck kept the kids entertained. He didn't count on Buck's idea of entertainment.

Buck's voice rose in song as the kids gleefully accompanied him. To Chris, it was the worst sort of surround sound. Buck's booming voice was practically in his ear due to the fact that he occupied the seat next to Chris. It actually made the boys' added voices from the back seat tolerable in comparison.

The only thing that saved Chris' sanity was that somewhere around the twentieth verse, Buck decided to vary things a bit by adding in some simple arithmetic.

"Eighty bottles of beer on the wall, eighty bottles of beer. Take ten down, pass 'em around, seventy bottles of beer on the wall."

Chris sighed. At least there was an end in sight, hopefully sooner rather than later. An uncountable number of verses later, the final verse had been reached, or so Chris thought. Listening to the words, he began to let go of some of the tension that had been steadily building with each chorus.

"No bottles of beer on the wall, no bottles of beer."

Chris raised a silent prayer heavenward. "Finally. Thank God!" His thanks were short-lived due to Buck's next words.

"Go to the store, and buy some more, ninety-nine bottles of beer on the wall!"

Chris lost it as the final words reached his ears. Pounding the steering wheel in frustration, he declared, "That's it! Now, I've been patient up 'til now. But there is no way that you guys are gonna be singing another ninety-nine verses of that song!"

Not one to take offense, Buck patted Chris's shoulder. "Hey, pard, that's okay. The boys and I'll go along with that. I was getting kind of tired of that song myself." Buck turned toward the kids in the back seat. "Seeing as we're on the lookout for deer, how about we sing some deer songs?" Buck smiled at the kids' enthusiastic nods of "yes."

"Okay, how about this one? Oh give me a home, where the buffalo roam, and the dear little antelopes play."

The boys immediately jumped on Buck's deliberate error, as he'd known they would.

JD objected, "That ain't right!"

Vin concurred. "That's not how it goes!"

Exaggerating his reactions and voice, Buck feigned a look of surprise. "Are you sure? Those little antelopes seem pretty dear to me."

Vin declared, "Yeah, I'm sure!"

JD knowledgeably stated, "It's supposed to be 'the deer and the antelope.'"

Chris didn't mind the debate. At least it meant that they were no longer singing. The teasing discussion was interrupted by JD's off-topic declaration: "I gotta go to the bathroom!"

Buck looked around at the tree-lined wilderness area they were presently driving through. He questioned, "Now? Are you sure you can't wait a bit? We gotta be almost there. Ain't that right, Chris?"

Chris shook his head. "As it happens, we still got at least an hour to go. However, after all the sodas you guys drank, I've been keeping an eye out for rest areas. The next one should be coming up in about five minutes."

In actual fact, the travel time turned out to be closer to ten minutes than five. Thankfully, JD was able to wait until they arrived at the rest stop facilities. Chris reflected that, if you wanted to get technical about it, "facilities" was an exaggeration. The rest area consisted of a simple pit toilet built for two. The wooden structure had a door on either side, with the traditional outhouse wooden seat over a hole in the ground. The toilets, such as they were, were separated by a thin wooden wall.

Chris and Vin took one side, Buck and JD the other. Chris opened the door on his side and stopped short. A spider – a rather large, menacing, hairy-legged spider – had built its web in the corner near the door, just about at Chris' eye level. He gave an involuntary shudder before stepping back outside. He motioned to Buck and JD before they could enter on the other side. "How about you guys take this side?" Not bothering to question Chris' request, Buck changed course and headed to where Chris was standing.

JD entered, took one look at the spider, and exclaimed, "Aw, cool!" The boys were amused to find that they could easily converse through the wall, despite the fact that they could not see each other. JD excitedly informed Vin of his find. "You gotta see this spider! It's about the biggest I ever seen!"

When Buck heard JD's words, he knew exactly why Chris had offered to trade places. As far as he knew, Buck was the only person aware of Chris' extreme dislike of eight-legged arachnids.

Vin impatiently waited for Buck to finish in the outhouse so that he could take a look at the spider. The boys headed in as Buck headed out, Vin eagerly questioning, "Where is she?"

Ever since he'd heard the story of "Charlotte's Web," all spiders had become "she" to Vin. Surprisingly enough, it had been Chris who had shared the story with the boys; surprising because Buck was usually the family storyteller. In this case, Chris had no intention of passing on his own fear to the boys. He figured that the story of the heroic spider and her web-weaving skill would be an excellent way to encourage the boys to adopt a positive attitude toward spiders.

Chris' strategy had worked all too well. The boys were constantly bringing him spiders to admire and approve. JD, in particular, was becoming an expert on the subject. He happily pointed out the spider to Vin, explaining, "She's an orb web spider of some kind. You can tell by the round web she made." Both boys exclaimed over and admired the arachnid while Chris finished up his business.

All too soon they were back on the road again. To Chris' immense relief, they did not resume their sing-a-long. Buck, who seemed to have a story handy to fit any occasion, had one about an outhouse.

He began, "Did I ever tell you about the time I had to visit a pit toilet around Halloween?" When the boys indicated that he had not, he enthusiastically began to weave his tale. "Now, I'll be the first one to tell you that there's no such thing as ghosts. But when it's Halloween, and it's cold and dark out and you're out in the woods all by your lonesome, well it's not too hard to think that there just might be something to all those stories you hear about ghosts and such."

"On this particular evening, I was in the middle of nowhere when I had to answer the call of nature. It was a cloudy night, so there wasn't so much as a star to see by. All I had was a little flashlight to make my way through the pitch dark. Let me tell you, I was more than a little bit nervous. All the way to the toilet, I kept having this feeling like someone was watching me. I looked around as far as I could see with the flashlight, but it was your typical silent night: not a creature was stirring."

His voice low and ominous, he saw that he had the full attention of his audience. Buck noted that the nervous tic Chris had previously developed during their sing-a-long was currently nowhere to be seen. Chris seemed to be listening even better than the boys were. Buck gave a slight smile as he continued, "The toilet was a two-door, two-seater, a lot like the one we just visited. I went ahead on in and got down to business. I wasn't in there two minutes before I heard it; just a single sound. 'Rap!'"

"Let me tell you, I must've jumped a foot. I expect my voice was more than a little shaky as I called out, 'Somebody there?'" I listened, but for the longest time I didn't hear anything. Just when I started to relax, I heard it again. This time the noise sounded louder and closer: 'Rap! Rap!'"

"I called again, 'Who's there?' Instead of a voice, the only answer I got was a loud knocking sound coming from the other side of the wall: 'Rap! Rap! Rap!'" Buck accompanied his tale with hand gestures, including pounding his fisted hand against the SUV's interior. His pounding increased in fury and volume as the story continued.

"By this time, I was starting to get a bit angry. I didn't appreciate whoever it was trying to scare me. I forgot the first rule of horror stories: don't be dumb enough to look for danger all by yourself. The only weapon I had was my flashlight. I could've found myself in serious trouble but I let my temper get the best of me. I didn't think of anything besides thumping on whoever was on the other side of that wall."

"I went around to the other door. Deciding to give whoever it was one last warning, I knocked first then yelled, 'Whoever's in there, you'd better come out now or else I'm coming in after you!' I didn't realize it then, but something that wasn't human answered me; not in words, but in noise. Pounding hard enough to shake the outhouse, I heard, 'Rap! Rap! Rap!'"

The boys' eyes grew wide, their full attention on Buck. JD had been silent for as long as he could stand it. He asked, "What was it?"

Buck had to call on his considerable undercover skills to stifle his urge to grin. He didn't want to give the game away just when he was getting to the best part. He crouched down in his seat, leaning closer toward the kids in the back. Buck lowered his voice, his actions suggesting that he was about to share some big secret. He continued, "By this time, I'd had more than enough. I was too mad to be thinking straight. I grabbed a' hold of the door. I just about ripped it off the hinges, I tugged so hard to open the dang thing. And then . . ." He paused, allowing the suspense to build. "And then . . . Do you have any idea what I saw? What it was that was waiting for me?"

Chris, caught up in the story, impatiently stated, "No, we don't know what happened. You plan on telling us anytime soon?"

Buck's eyes widened, his voice softening as he declared, "I couldn't believe my eyes. But there it was, lit up in the beam of my flashlight."

JD anxiously questioned, "What was it?"

Buck made sure that he had everyone's attention as he answered, "Why, wrapping paper, of course."

He sat there, grinning like an idiot at the groans that now surrounded him.

Chris shook his head at himself. He should've known better than to listen to one of Buck's tall tales. This one was right up there with his worst. Chris figured that it was well worth taking a moment to remove one hand from the steering wheel so that he could 'rap' Buck upside his head.

Buck ducked out of the way, laughing. "What was that for?"

Chris muttered, "As if you didn't know," before elaborating. "Buck, that so-called story qualified as cruel and unusual punishment. Making us wait that long to that story for that payoff of what has got to be about the worst pun I've ever heard. Knowing you, that's saying a lot."

Laughing, Buck asked, "Aw, Chris, where's your sense of humor?"

Chris snorted. "Unlike you, I still have a sense of humor. As soon as I hear something funny, I'll let you know."

Vin and JD offered their support to Chris. JD held his nose and pointed at Buck. "Phew! That stunk!"

Vin critiqued, "Boo! Hiss!"


After the poor reception to his attempt at entertainment, Buck blessedly kept quiet for the rest of the drive. The boys giggled among themselves, repeating "Wrapping paper!"

Chris filled the conversational gap by using the time to educate the boys as to the nature of their destination. "Guys, we're just about at the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge. This is gonna be an excellent chance for you to see deer running free and wild."

For the past couple of weeks, deer had been the subject around which many an impromptu lesson had been based. It all started when they'd rented the movie "Bambi." For some reason or another, Chris had never seen the movie himself. Buck had vague memories of seeing the movie and liking it. While growing up, Buck's mom had made it a point to take him to see any and every Disney movie made. After a while, they all sort of ran together in his mind. He honestly couldn't think of one that he hadn't liked. Of course, the fact that all of his movie-going experiences involved private mother-son bonding moments might have had something to do with his fond memories.

With their vague recommendations, neither man had been prepared for the impact the movie would have on the two motherless boys. Both Vin and JD were greatly upset by the death of Bambi's mother. Although heartened by the appearance of Bambi's father to offer support, Buck and Chris had to offer some extra support themselves to the boys.

Not too long after the Bambi movie experience, the boys had watched a special about deer on the Discovery Channel. The more they found out about real-life deer, the more fascinated they became. Two weeks ago, they'd overflowed with enthusiasm when Chris and Buck had taken the boys to a petting zoo that allowed visitors to feed the deer.

Chris had been saddened to see the deer in captivity. He personally felt that the best way to see deer was in their natural habitat. He proposed that the family should take a trip to the Wildlife Refuge. Everyone had eagerly agreed.

Once plans had gotten under way, Buck offered an alternative. "Hey, Chris. Seeing as it's a three hour drive to the Wildlife Refuge, I wanted to ask you something. Have you considered going out to Rocky Mountain National Park instead? Hell, we have to pass right by the Park to get to the Refuge. If we go to the Park, instead, it'll save an hour of travel time, easy."

Buck had an ulterior motive for asking. He knew for a fact that, prior to the deaths of his wife and son, the Wildlife Refuge had been Chris' favorite place to visit, especially after Adam came along. Chris had spent many a long weekend making memories there with Sarah and Adam. Buck was often invited to tag along, and shared Chris' fondness for the Refuge's unspoiled natural beauty as well as the happy memories. Worried for the pain this trip might cause his oldest friend, Buck wanted to give Chris an easy out from having to face the ghosts of his past.

Chris shook his head. He had thought long and hard before deciding that it was foolish of him to keep avoiding one of the prettiest places on God's green earth. Every day he spent with his new family helped him to come to peace with the loss of his old family. He really wanted to share his favorite place with the boys. Although he appreciated the caring concern behind the offer, Chris declined Buck's suggestion. "No, trust me, it's worth it to go the extra miles. You know that with the National Park being closer to Denver, it gets a whole lot more traffic than the Refuge does. Considering the fact that we have to go on the weekend when it's more crowded, we'll have a better chance of seeing actual wildlife if we leave some of the people behind."

Buck nodded his agreement. "Sounds good to me."

And that was how the family found themselves on the road to the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge on a Saturday afternoon. As their object was to see deer, the closer it was to dusk the more likely the deer would be on the move and visible.

Vin proudly read the signs as they passed the entrance. Ezra had helped the boys look up information on the Refuge on the Internet, so they were well briefed on the subject.

Although the main feature of the refuge was a six mile long self-guided auto tour, Chris' first stop was at the beginning of a short hiking trail. After being cooped up in an SUV for the better part of three hours, they were all in need of a good stretch break.

The boys quickly piled out of the back seat. Vin took a minute to sound out one of the signs in the parking area: "Take only pictures. Leave only footprints."

Chris stated, "That's something every visitor should keep in mind. Take only pictures. Heck, if every one of the hundreds of people who visit here took home just one little rock apiece, soon there wouldn’t be any rocks left at all. Leave only footprints." Putting words into action, Chris picked up a stray candy wrapper that someone had carelessly discarded. Leading by example, he tossed it into the litter basket provided by the park service. He commented, "Seems like not everybody can read as good as Vin does."

They proceeded to follow the hiking trail for a quarter of a mile. It paralleled a small river. Between the gently flowing river and the mountain greenery surrounding them, the Team Seven leader felt truly at peace. While Buck claimed that women were the church at which he worshipped, Chris felt a comparable reverence for the wilderness. When they'd started out on the trail, Chris had cautioned the boys, "Now, you want to be as quiet as you can be. Wild things tend to be a little skittish. If they hear you coming, they’ll take off before you ever see them."

Vin had no trouble heeding Chris’ warning. JD found it much more difficult to keep silent. He managed for a whole ten minutes before he couldn't take it any longer. He questioned, "Are you sure there's deer here? I haven't seen a single one."

Buck understood JD's problem and sympathized. Rather than scold, he stated, "Well, it's still a little early yet. We just got here. I expect they’ll be along sooner or later."

Vin was not quite so understanding. "And it'll be later if you can't keep quiet."

Chastened, JD apologized. "Sorry."

Buck bent down to whisper, "That’s okay."

JD took his friend's scolding to heart. He managed to keep quiet for the rest of the hike. Although they didn't see any deer, the boys were able to catch sight of a beaver as he swam along inspecting the beaver dam under construction. The boys' happiness and excitement from their successful wildlife viewing carried them along the trail and back to their SUV.

Once in the SUV, they were free to talk again as they proceeded along the auto tour route. There were other vehicles making their way along the road. This actually proved to be helpful. When they saw several vehicles pulled over to the side of the road, they pulled over themselves. They quickly discerned the reason for the stop. A badger paused as he was making his leisurely way across the road. He turned to look at his audience. Buck laughed, interpreting the animal's thoughts. "I bet he's thinking, 'What are you all doing here?'" After a minute, the badger quickened his pace, finally disappearing into the greenery at the side of the road.

JD declared, "That was so cool!"

Vin agreed. "Yeah, it was."

The rest of the drive proved equally fruitful. A large part of the Refuge was devoted to providing habitat for waterfowl. They saw quite a few ducks: cinnamon teals, gadwalls, American widgeons, and mallards. Buck and Chris helped the boys to distinguish between each of the different varieties.

Then, finally, off at the far end of a meadow, Vin spotted a large mammal of some sort. He excitedly pointed it out. "I think I see a deer!"

Buck focused his binoculars on the object in question. "Well, it's not a deer, but it's pretty darn close. That's a pronghorn antelope." The binoculars were passed around so that everyone could take a good look. Unfortunately the antelope never came close enough for the boys to get a good look at him.

Chris complimented Vin. "Good eyes."

Despite the great variety of wildlife they observed, the boys were disappointed that they did not see a single deer during the entire time that they were at the refuge. As the sun was setting, Chris declared that it was time to head for home.

They boys verbalized their disappointment. JD objected, "But we never got to see any deer!"

Vin agreed. "Yeah."

Chris shrugged. "I'm sorry, boys, but that's the downside of seeing animals where they actually live. If they're not in the mood for visitors, they're not gonna come out."

The boys ceased their objections. They could see the logic in what Chris was saying. The sun dipped below the horizon as they exited the park.

Buck stated, "We still might see a deer or two on the drive home. Nowadays, the most common reason deer get killed is on account of people. If it's not people deer hunting, it's people in cars or trucks. When it comes to moving vehicles, deer don't have a lick of sense. They'll stand right in the middle of the road until someone comes up and hits 'em."

"You boys can help us keep a lookout. When it's this dark out, a lot of times you'll see their eyes glowing in the headlights right before you see the deer themselves. If you look along the side of the road, in among the trees, you might just get to see a deer."

Both boys took up a quiet watch. Chris was relieved for the ongoing silence. He didn't need the numerous "deer crossing" signs to know that he had to be on the lookout for deer. The silence helped him to concentrate on his driving.

After about half an hour of silence, Buck and JD began a quiet conversation. Buck half- turned in his seat to face JD, so that they could both keep their voices down. Chris appreciated the gesture, but he'd been around the two of them long enough that he could mentally tune out their chatter if he needed to do so. He smiled to himself. He had no intention of sharing that information with Buck.

Vin continued to watch for any sign of the elusive deer. His eyes were beginning to ache from the strain but the young boy was determined. He couldn't believe it when he saw the glowing eyes, just like Buck had told him to look for. He excitedly exclaimed, "Deer!"


Chris didn't need Vin's warning. He, too, saw the headlights reflected in the eyes of the deer. The animal was partially hidden by the scrub brush that grew along the side of the road. Reflexively, Chris began to slow down. He prayed that the deer would stay put. Before he could even complete the thought, the animal gracefully leapt from cover, putting itself directly into the path of the oncoming vehicle.

Chris had automatically started to steer toward the opposite shoulder of the road when he'd first seen the deer off to his right. He registered the animal's movement even as he changed course; Chris knew with a sick feeling of dreadful certainty that there was no way to avoid hitting the damn thing. Even so, he nearly managed to avoid the collision through a skillful combination of steering and brake manipulation.

Normally, in a confrontation between a deer and an SUV, the SUV wins every time. A deer standing in the road has its body at just the right level to be taken out by the grillwork. Unfortunately, the area surrounding the Refuge had some unique topography. The road they were currently traveling descended several feet below the surrounding hilly terrain. Therefore, when the deer took its flying leap, it put itself at a level with the SUV's windshield. Instead of being taken down by the grillwork, the deer's legs were taken out from under the animal. It skidded along the hood until its body impacted the windshield. The fragile glass could not withstand the pressure from the deer's hurtling body and shattered with the force of the blow.

Although the accident took only a matter of seconds, time seemed to stretch as Chris watched the scene unfold. The goddamn idiot deer never even looked at the SUV as it leaped from cover. Chris saw, felt, and heard the animal hit the truck. Instead of hitting their vehicle dead straight on, the deer collided with the right front corner of the SUV. The force of the impact caused the vehicle's airbags to activate. Within a matter of seconds, Chris had brought the vehicle to a complete stop. One minute he was looking at the deer's body as it slid along the hood. The next minute Chris found himself with a face-full of airbag.

Chris spared no thought for himself. He had to check on the boys. He knew that Buck was alive, thanks to the steady stream of curses being delivered from the passenger side of the vehicle. As soon as the airbag deflated, Chris flipped on the dome light, needing the light to be able to see anything. He was appalled to find out that he and Buck were partially sharing the front seat with an additional passenger. The deer's rear end was half in and half out of the truck. What was even worse was the fact that the deer wasn't dead. It thrashed weakly as his beleaguered friend tried to push it back out onto the hood of the SUV.

As perilous as Buck's predicament was, Chris had to check on the boys first. He would have expected to be hearing crying and yelling from the back seat. The lack of any sound other than Buck scared him deep down to his soul. He turned to the back, dreading what he would see.

Vin was curled into a ball, at least as much as the seat belt allowed him to be. His eyes were squeezed tightly closed. JD sat, eyes wide and staring, hands pulled up to his face. Chris couldn't hide the panicky fear from his voice as he yelled, "Vin! JD! Are you all right?"

Chris's words broke JD from his trace, and he began to babble. "Oh,no,oh,no,oh,no!"

Alarmed at Vin's continued silence, Chris reached back to touch the boy. Finally, Vin opened his eyes. Looking more sad than scared, he whispered, "I'm sorry."

Chris' attention was abruptly recalled to the front of the vehicle by a groan from the front seat. The older man could see the top of his friend's head and the arm that he held defensively in front of his face. Chris could also see traces of blood on both Buck and the deer. The deer twitched again, and Buck swore. "Son of a bitch!" More of the deer's body now occupied the interior of the SUV than it had a minute ago.

Chris prayed that most of the blood belonged to the deer. He reached under his seat, pulling out the locked case containing his gun. He made quick work of the lock, then announced, "Hang on! I'll be right back." Chris exited the vehicle and wasted no time in approaching the weakly struggling deer. One shot at close range put an end to the deer's suffering. Under other circumstances, Chris might have appreciated the fact that the deer was a full grown buck in all its antlered glory. However, he cursed at the idea of having to move some three hundred-plus pounds of deer. The older man hoped that Buck would be able to offer some assistance.

He called to his friend, "I'm gonna start pulling on the count of three. If you push at the same time, we ought to be able to get this damn deer out of your lap. One, two, three!" Using a foot to brace himself against the front of the truck, he began to pull. Between the rush of adrenaline and a ton of choice curses, he managed to shift the carcass.

He returned to the SUV, casting an anxious eye over the boys in back. JD had freed himself from his seatbelt, the better to offer comfort and seek comfort from his brother. The younger boy had an arm wrapped around Vin, who was rocking slightly in place.

Reassured that the boys were okay for the moment, he turned his attention to Buck. With the deer no longer blocking his view, he could see why his friend had been losing in his struggle with the deer. He had been waging his battle one-handed. There was an obvious injury to Buck's right forearm. If Chris had to guess, he'd have to say that the arm was broken. The shirtsleeve of his lower right arm was torn and bloodied. Buck held the injured extremity tucked in close to his body.

Moving toward his friend, Chris stated, "Hang on, Buck, I'm gonna check you out, here." Besides the obviously affected arm, Buck appeared to have suffered a head injury. There was a trail of blood leading down the right side of his face to the collar of his shirt. Chris followed the trail up through dark tangled locks of hair until he discovered a golf-ball sized lump and a cut that was still bleeding sluggishly.

Buck pushed Chris' probing hand away from his sore head. "Ow!" He hesitated a minute, turning confused eyes toward his friend. He asked, "What the hell happened?"

Chris worried over Buck's question, concerned that he had suffered a concussion. He kept his explanation simple, upset over the fact that one was needed. "Hit a deer."

Buck's brow furrowed in thought. He questioned, "A deer?"

Chris merely agreed. "Yep."

The older man continued his assessment with a gentle touch to Buck's right arm. Chris felt bad when Buck's response was to grit his teeth and hiss in pain. Nevertheless, he continued. "I gotta take a look, see where you're bleeding from." Chris pulled the blood-soaked clothing away from the wound, feeling a little sick to his stomach at what he saw. There was an open wound at least six inches long, much wider and deeper than the head wound. He suspected that the laceration went through the muscle and down to the bone. A dressing would definitely be needed to stop the bleeding, as well as a splint for the broken arm. Chris tersely announced, "I'm gonna get the first aid kit. I'll be right back."

At Nathan's insistence, all of the members of his team had a good stock of first aid supplies for both home and vehicle. The team EMT had also given everyone instructions in basic first aid. Chris applauded the man for his foresight as he cleaned and bound Buck's wounds. Once he determined that Buck had no other obvious injuries, he felt safe in leaving his friend for a few minutes to more thoroughly assess the boys in the back.

He was relieved to see that neither boy had any obvious injuries, at least not physical ones. Instead of his usual nonstop chatter, JD was strangely silent. When Chris gently assisted the younger the boy to his own seat so that he could check on Vin, JD returned without complaint. Vin repeated his earlier words. "I'm sorry."

Chris hugged him, trying to reassure him of the sincerity of his words. "Vin, there's nothing, absolutely nothing that you've done that you need to apologize for. Deer are some of the stupidest animals you'll ever meet, and that one just proved it by jumping on our truck. There's nothing you or I could have done to stop him." Chris cupped the boy's down-turned face in his hands and forced him to look up. Locking eyes with Vin, he declared, "You've got nothing to be sorry for. Okay?"

Vin whispered, "Okay."

Somehow, Chris doubted the sincerity of Vin's response. Chris finally resettled both boys, making sure that they were strapped in. He sighed, noting that JD had his thumb tucked securely in his mouth. He guessed that they were all feeling a bit insecure at the moment.

Chris returned to the front seat, assessing Buck's head injury the way that Nathan had taught him. Aside from his broken arm, Buck seemed to be able to move his arms and legs without difficulty. He knew who he was and where he was, even if he wasn't actually sure as to what day it was. Chris decided that Buck was stable enough to ride in the damaged SUV. With their current remote location, waiting for an ambulance ride wouldn't be any quicker than driving themselves. The only question was, had the deer done some actual damage to the SUV beyond the obvious?

Chris kept his fear to himself. His shaken passengers didn't need to know what he was thinking. Praying silently to himself, he turned the key in the ignition. He released the breath he'd been holding when the SUV started right up. He tucked coats and blankets around his passengers. With no windshield to keep out the bugs or the cold, it was going to be an uncomfortable ride.

It seemed to take forever, but finally the familiar lights of the Emergency Room at Mercy General Hospital came into view. Buck was quickly wheeled into an exam room, while Chris settled the boys in the waiting room. He occupied the time by calling the various members of their extended family. Soon Josiah, Nathan, and Ezra joined them in their waiting.

Now that the immediate scare from the accident was over, JD seemed to have recovered his usual hyper enthusiasm. The young boy took great delight in relating their adventure to his uncles. "You should 'a seen it, it was the biggest deer ever! It jumped, Boom! Right onto the truck! I was wishin' I'd 'a seen a deer, and then I saw this deer butt headin' straight through the window! Boom!"

His uncles, for their part, offered appropriate exclamations. Vin remained silent, sitting tucked up close next to Chris.

The doctor finally came out to the waiting room to update everyone on Buck's condition. Pointing to the corresponding point on his own forearm, the doctor informed them, "Mr. Wilmington has a simple fracture of the right ulnar bone. Due to the laceration on the same arm, we're going to apply a splint rather than a full cast, so that we can keep an eye out for any possible infection. It's taken quite a few sutures to close the wound itself. He'll be going home on antibiotics. Make sure that he completes the entire course of treatment. Mr. Wilmington also has a concussion. If the CT scan comes back negative, he'll be able to go home tonight, provided someone is available to assess him regularly for any signs of complications."

Chris nodded in response. "We know the drill, thanks to our friend Nathan, here."

It took another hour, but Buck was finally released from Emergency care. Josiah had volunteered to chauffeur the family home in the currently more comfortable confines of his personal vehicle. Ezra and Josiah had already made arrangements to retrieve Chris' damaged SUV in the morning and see it safely to a repair shop. They assisted with transferring the family's belongings as well as the family into Josiah's Suburban.

JD did not last five blocks before he was softly snoring in his child safety seat. Vin remained awake for the entire ride, silently staring.

Buck was too uncomfortable to give in to the sleep which beckoned. The pain medication he'd been given at the hospital was mild due to the doctor's concern about Buck's mental status in relation to the concussion. The injured man passed the time by trying to decide which was worse: the throbbing pain in his head or the steady ache of his right arm. He finally decided that it was a tie.

Buck still didn't really remember the accident. One minute he'd been half-turned in his seat, talking to JD. The next, he'd been fighting off both the deer and the airbag. He still found it hard to believe that he'd been hit by a goddamn deer: taken out by Bambi. He'd never live it down. Buck could see it now: his desk at the ATF office would be covered in deer-related materials. He sighed. Usually it was him doing the decorating. It was a whole lot less fun being the one on the receiving end.

He tried to tell Josiah that he didn't need any help getting into the house; however, when Buck tried to take a step he found that the ground beneath his feet was more than a little bit unsteady. He was more than happy to grab on to Josiah's offered arm. The lingering effects of his concussion made Buck feel like he was walking in slow motion and the journey seemed to take forever. They eventually made it into the house, their slow steps heading straight for the exhausted man's room and the bed already thoughtfully turned down by Chris. Buck would have been more than happy to sleep in his clothes had Josiah not stayed to help him undress. Half-asleep, the injured man was unable to offer more than token assistance.

Buck fell asleep before Josiah even left the room. The older man offered a low-voiced, "'Night, Buck." Somehow, Josiah didn't think the word "good" before "night" was appropriate to the situation.

Chris and Vin were huddled together on the sofa. A sleeping JD had already been tucked into bed for the night. Josiah informed Chris, "Buck's already asleep." He headed for the front door, stopping a moment to add, "You call me if you need anything."

Chris acknowledged his friend. "Yeah, Josiah, thanks again for all your help." Although he was reluctant to leave the comfortable cushions of the sofa, Chris did so in order to lock up behind Josiah. "Good night."

As tired as he was, Chris knew that his night was far from over. Not only would he be up every hour or two to check on Buck, but he needed to talk to Vin. Or, more precisely, he needed to get Vin to talk to him. It was obvious that the boy was still upset. Vin sat huddled on the sofa, looking about as miserable as Buck probably felt. Chris sat next to him, pulling the boy into his lap. Both father and son were comforted by the close contact. They sat for a while in silence, until Chris noted Vin's tightly wound muscles begin to relax.

Chris commented, "It looks like you're thinking some pretty deep thoughts there. Care to share?" Vin sighed in response. With the small body lying against him, Chris could tell that the sigh had very nearly been a sob. He waited, but no further words were forthcoming. Chris thought back on the few words Vin had uttered at the scene of the accident. He repeated his words from earlier in the evening. "You know that there's nothing you've done that you have to be sorry about, right?"

Chris' mind-reading seemed to have worked. Vin shook his head as the tears began to fall. "If I's doin' what I's supposed to be doin', Buck wouldn't 'a got hurt."

Chris pulled Vin up so that his eyes were on a level with Chris' own. Trying to let the boy see how sincere he was, he repeated, "None of this was your fault."

Vin tearfully disagreed. "I was supposed to be watchin' out for the deer. I seen 'im, but not in time."

Chris disagreed, cursing silently. Who would have thought Buck's seemingly innocent suggestion to help pass the time on the drive home would result in Vin wrapping himself up in guilt? He shook his head. "That’s not true. I'm the one who was driving, so I ought to know. I saw that deer before I ever heard you say that you saw him, too. I did everything I was supposed to do. Unfortunately, when it comes to deer, there's no way to know what they're going to do. They're not like horses, who do some thinking before they take a jump. No, deer will do something stupid like jump right in front of a truck, so that there's not a darn thing you can do besides hit 'em. They may be pretty, but they're some of the stupidest creatures on four legs."

"That's why when something like this happens, they call it an accident. It wasn't anybody's fault, unless you want to blame the deer." And Chris did blame the deer, no doubt about it. However, with the kids' recent affection for deer, Chris wanted to leave the door open for Vin to verbalize sadness regarding the death of the animal, no matter how suicidal its behavior had been.

Chris' words seemed to have made an impact. Vin relaxed against Chris, giving him a hug which Chris gratefully returned. The exhausted boy mumbled, "I'm tired." Chris took the hint. Their discussion was at an end. He stood, not releasing his hold on the boy. "Why don't I help you get into bed?"

+ + + + + + +

Chris and Buck thought that the SUV's close encounter with the deer would have curbed the boys' enthusiasm for the four-legged creatures. They couldn't have been more wrong. In the days that followed, both boys delighted in retelling their adventure again and again to anyone who would listen, adding their own embellishments.

They took on poor Mrs. Potter in tandem. JD began, "It was real dark and scary out."

Vin added, "We thought it was some kind 'a monster. It was the biggest deer you ever seen."

JD said, "I saw it first."

Vin disagreed. "Did not!"

"Did too!"

"Didn't neither!"

"Just 'cuz I didn't say it first, don't mean I didn't see it first."

"Yeah, it does!"

Chris couldn't take it any longer. "I was there and I was in the front seat, driving. I saw it first, and that's the end of it."

Vin couldn't resist throwing one more quietly uttered, "Did not!" at JD.

JD, on the other hand, was easily dissuaded from arguing with his brother. Instead he turned his best pleading gaze on both Chris and Buck, asking, "So can we go back to see more deer next Saturday?"

Vin turned his hopeful gaze full bore on Chris as he added, "Can we? Please?"

Chris' initial gut reaction was a vehement "No!" However, in the face of those two innocent pleading looks, he was weakening. Finally, he said, "I'll think about it."

Buck groaned silently to himself. Personally, he didn't care if he never saw another deer again as long as he lived. However, between him and Chris, neither man had any sales resistance when it came to the persuasive powers of two little boys. His arm and head throbbed in painful sympathy as he knew that the answer would eventually be "Yes." At present, his only comment was, "Only if we're driving a tank."


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