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The first thing Buck was aware of as he regained consciousness was the fact that he was in a moving vehicle. The second was the unfamiliar voices speaking with heavy Spanish accents; it took him a minute to realize there were at least three others in the vehicle with him. The third and most confusing of all was the fact that he was lying down and someone was tying him up hands and feet, and whoever was doing the job wasnt being very gentle about it. Before he knew what was happening, his wallet was taken from his pocket and his watch was taken off his wrist.
Knowing something wasnt right, but not remembering what it was just yet, he pretended to still be unconscious as he tested his bonds and hoped it wouldnt be noticed. Cracking an eye open, he took in his surroundings in a glance before shutting his eyes again as a wave of pain radiated from his head, just above his left eye and made its way all the way down to his toes.
Where the hell am I? he thought to himself. What happened? Where were the others? How long have I been unconscious? No matter how hard he tried, he just couldnt remember anything other than vague and fuzzy images of being at the office and carrying something down to Chriss truck, then indescribable pain and darkness. Chris! he suddenly realized. 'If I was headed for the Ram, was Chris in it? Where the hell is he now? Is he okay? Damn, I wish I could think straight.' He cracked his eyes open just enough to try and get a look around and see if his friend was there in the van with him.
"Man, I dont like this," came a voice between Buck and the driver. "I hate this rain almost as much as I hate these stupid back country roads."
"Tough," came the response from the driver. "Roberto said to bring Larabee and meet him in Cheyenne. And he said not to take the Interstate; theyll be looking for the van."
Suddenly one of the voices in the van got loud and angry. "What the hell is this?"
"This isnt Larabee!"
"What are you talking about? Hes got to be Larabee. I followed him from the courthouse to his truck just like Roberto told me to he parked it at a bar after the trial, sat in there all afternoon. When he finally left, I followed the truck from the bar all over town. It took him all night to go right back to their office building."
Franco Cruz took his eyes off the road just long enough to glance at the ID in the others hand. "Hes a cop all right, just not the right one," he agreed angrily. "Look, his ID says his name is Buck Wilmington."
"No way I never let him out of my sight."
"You dumb ass, I dont know who the hell you followed but it wasnt Larabee!"
Buck heard a low growl and a movement, then suddenly he gasped out loud when one of his captors kicked him hard in the back. He tried to roll away but was held where he was by his feet. They were secured to one of the metal posts designed to handcuff prisoners in transit, while his hands were tied in the front.
"Is that right, gringo?" came a heavily accented voice, followed by another kick, this time glancing off his ribs as he tried to twist away. "Youre not Chris Larabee?"
"Do I look like Chris Larabee?" Buck said through gritted teeth, giving up the pretense. The man pulled him up by his shirtfront to a partial sitting position, then backhanded him back to the floor with a yell of frustration. Then he picked him up again, only to knock him down, over and over again. Buck used his hands to try and block the blows, but most managed to hit their mark, especially around his ribs and abdomen. After the other man hit him too close to his already bleeding head, he felt himself having to fight against slipping into darkness again.
"What are we going to do?" asked one of his companions.
"Get the cell phone. We need to call Roberto," said Cruz. "SHIT!" he suddenly exclaimed, as he slammed on the brakes.
"What the hell are you doing?" asked the man standing over Buck. He dropped the battered agent back to the floor of the van as he moved to the front to see what was going on.
"Roadblock!" Cruz cried. The van came to a sliding stop in the middle of a bridge. There was nowhere to go. He jammed it into reverse and spun around, going back the way he came from.
In a matter of seconds, a Colorado Highway Patrol unit was in pursuit.
Cruzs men were having a hard time just holding on, as the vehicle weaved and skidded over the slick roadway, and for a few moments their prisoner was forgotten. Buck managed to scoot up into a sitting position to look out the window. He watched the utility poles fly by as they sped away from the pursuing CHP vehicle. Then it was joined by two other cars - another CHP and a County Deputy. Come on boys, Buck prayed silently, never so happy in his life to hear the sound of sirens. Suddenly a roadway sign came into view and quickly disappeared, but he was still able to make it out. He knew exactly where he was! They were between Denver and Fort Collins, off the Interstate and on the less-traveled highway. He quickly began weighing his options of trying to jump out of the moving van; how he was going to get his feet untied; wondering if they had still had the security door locks on; and would they ever slow down enough so he wouldnt kill himself in the attempt? Before he had time to act, he suddenly fell back onto the floor as Cruz made a desperate move to lose the pursuing Officers.
They suddenly turned off the highway and drove straight through the intersection, careening around oncoming traffic. Cruz smiled in relief as a car and a pickup truck at the intersection collided with each other in an effort to avoid his van. That would slow down the Officers trying to catch him. He turned onto a small one-lane road and picked up speed again. Cruz was taking the twists and turns at an alarming rate of speed, but he was desperate. The last thing he needed was to get caught with an injured Federal agent in the van, but it was becoming obvious there was no way off the road hed chosen to turn down. He had pulled away from the pursuing vehicles while they had stopped to help the cars that had crashed back at the intersection, and directly up ahead seemed to be the answer to his problem. Cruz suddenly brought the van to a screeching halt at the foot of a small bridge; below was a river. "Get him out!" he yelled.
"What?!" came one of the others. "What are you talking about?"
"Are you loco?! We dont have time for this!" yelled the other.
"If hes not in here, they cant prove anything!" Cruz said rapidly, fixing both his companions with an icy stare. "Get him out now! Hurry!"
The van door opened and Buck found himself being lifted by his shoulders dragged toward the opening. His movement was suddenly halted by his feet still secured to the post.
"Pull!" grunted one of the men.
The pressure on his shoulders increased as the two holding him pulled and tugged. Then his feet slipped out of his boots and they all fell to the ground in a heap. He tried his best to twist and squirm away from them, but he couldnt quite manage to get out of their hold. Buck felt rain pelting his face just before he was suddenly free falling down the canyon toward the river below. He only had time to raise his bound hands to protect his head before he slammed into the water.
Franco Cruz stood and watched as the big agent disappeared under the surface of the water. "Lets go!" he called to his companions.
The three climbed back into the van and continued over the bridge. They had gone about a mile when the sound of sirens reached their hearing again. Franco Cruz stepped on the gas, trying to outrun the pursuing police vehicles again. But he wasnt used to driving small mountain roads in the rain, and he tried to take one more hairpin turn too fast. The van couldnt keep traction on the wet roadway and began slipping over the edge. Had anyone been close enough, they might have heard the screams of their voices as the van plunged off the rain-slicked roadway, careened down a steep canyon and exploded on impact at the canyon floor.
By the time the CHP Officers got out of their vehicles to look over the edge, the van was already totally engulfed in flames. No sign of movement or survivors could be seen. One of the Officers walked slowly back to his patrol car and called in the accident to their Dispatcher.
* * * * * * *
When Chris and the rest of the team got the call from the CHP, Nathan and Josiah had been at the suspected prison guards house and had spoken to his family and neighbors. No one knew where he was since he left to go to work the day before, or if they did, they werent talking. The name of Roberto Cruz still caused fear in the predominantly Hispanic community.
As they were getting into their car, Josiahs beeper went off COME HOME was all the message said.
* * * * * * *
The ride to the scene was a little over an hour, and it was ridden mostly in silence. In an effort to stay together, they had taken only two vehicles Josiah took Nathan, Ezra and JD with him in his Suburban, Vin drove Chris in his jeep. Everybody was aware of the tension between Chris and the youngest agent, each feeling Bucks loss deeply.
It was almost dark when they arrived. The rain had slowed to a fine mist. The narrow roadway was crowded with Police and Fire vehicles. JD visibly flinched at the sight of the Coroners van. Ezra wrapped an arm around his shoulder in support.
Chris stopped one of the CHP Officers. "Whos in charge?" The Officer pointed out the lead investigator, huddled in conversation with several uniformed Officers. "Im Chris Larabee. Whatve you got?" he spoke directly.
"Sergeant Black," replied the other, offering his hand. As Chris took it he continued. "Im sorry about your friend, Agent Larabee."
"Youre sure?" Chris asked. Outwardly he was his cool and detached self; inwardly he was cringing at the answer he felt he knew was coming
"Yeah," replied the Sergeant. "Mike, hand me that bag."
An Officer across the roadway reached into one of the patrol units and pulled out a clear plastic evidence bag. He handed it to Sergeant Black, who in turn handed it to Chris. Inside was a wallet, singed on the edges, but still intact and open to show the ID enclosed. And a mans watch gold, simple and very familiar. The rest of the team gathered around Chris as he turned the bag over in his hands.
JD suddenly turned his face heavenward into the drizzle. He squeezed his eyes closed rather than look at the bags contents anymore. Looking out at them from the bag was Bucks smiling face on his drivers license photo.
Vin couldnt help but remember how he had kidded his friend earlier that year about how Buck was the only one he ever knew that actually liked his drivers license picture.
TO BUCK, the best friend a guy could ever have, JD, was the inscription on the back of the watch. It was JDs Christmas gift to Buck the year before.
"Where--?" Chris started before the lump in his throat choked his words off.
"The wallet we found in the back corner of the van," Sergeant Black began. He took a deep breath before continuing in his best detached and professional voice. "The watch I wish there was a better way to say this, but we found it on a severed arm Its on its way to the morgue for positive identification. Im really sorry."
"Its not your fault, son" Josiah assured him, shaking his head sadly.
"For what its worth, considering the speed the van was traveling at the time of impact, they died instantly. Your friend didnt suffer," he offered.
"And thats supposed to make us feel better?" JD angrily shouted. Before anyone could stop him, he stalked away from his teammates and went over to stand along the roadway, staring down the canyon. Then he bolted into the nearby forest and the sounds of retching could be heard.
"No, I dont suppose it will," the Sergeant said sympathetically to the others.
"Ill get him," Nathan said, moving off in the direction the younger man went.
"Thanks Nate," Chris whispered, keeping his eyes locked on the bag and the photo.
"Is there anything else I can do for you?" Sergeant Black asked. About the same time, one of the CHP Officers was calling him over across the roadway.
"No, I appreciate you letting us know," Chris said, offering his hand again. Sergeant Black went back across the roadway about the same time Nathan came walking back up with JD. "Why dont the rest of you head on back to Denver. Vin, do you mind if I take your jeep and you catch a ride with Josiah?"
"Whats up?" Vin asked. He didnt like the idea of any of them being alone right now.
"As long as were this close, I thought Id just go on up to the cabin and stay the night," he answered.
"You sure you dont want company?" Vin asked with a frown.
"Nah, Ill be fine," Chris replied with a tired sigh. "I just need some time to think."
Vin knew why Chris wanted to go to the cabin. It was a beautiful and peaceful place that was just Chriss and Bucks, and he could understand why Chris would seek his solace there. Years ago, the cabin had been built by Sarahs great-grandfather, and Hank Connelly eventually inherited it. Chris, Sarah, Adam and Buck spent many a long weekend at the quiet mountain retreat, fishing and swimming, hiking and exploring. It was supposed to have gone to Sarah, and after her death Chris should have been sole owner of the cabin. But Sarah knew how much Buck loved it there and delighted in the calm it offered. At the time of her death, they found a surprise in her will. She made it clear the cabin was to be equally owned by both Chris and Buck. It could never be sold without the permission of both partners, and she knew neither would ever sell it. In her own way Sarah was making sure the two stayed close.
As much as Chris opened his ranch outside Denver to the Team, and Buck shared his apartment with JD and the rest of the Team was welcome at any hour, the cabin was strictly for the two of them. Vin and JD had each only been up there once, and that was that only under very special circumstances. The others didnt even know for sure where it was.
"All right," Vin agreed reluctantly, tossing Chris his keys. "Call me if you need anything."
"Thanks Vin," he said quietly, looking up at the others waiting by the Suburban. "About JD "
"Dont worry," Vin replied. "Ill stay with him. I figure we can just hang out tomorrow, not worry about the arrangements til Monday."
Chris nodded and closed his eyes against the pain. God, he hated those kinds of arrangements.
* * * * * * *
Almost the moment he hit the water and went under, Buck was kicking his way back to the surface, frantically twisting and pulling on the ropes until his hands came free. His head popped out of the water and he took a deep gulping breath then took a quick look around. The runoff from the rain hadnt inundated the area yet, so the river was running but not too swiftly; he knew how fast that could change. With powerful strokes, he made his way to the closest bank. He came out of the water sputtering and coughing, making it onto solid ground before he collapsed.
He was wet, cold, barefoot and hurting. The world was spinning wildly around him as he closed his eyes and lay back down, giving into the darkness pulling him down.
When he woke up again, it was dark. Now he was shivering from the cold as he stumbled to his feet and stood swaying, looking around in confusion. The sound of the now-roaring river drew his attention and he took several involuntary steps backward, tripped over a tree limb and fell onto his butt. The impact sent a jarring pain to his head. He reached up instinctively and felt the exposed bullet crease. All the dried blood had been washed away during his swim. His brows creased in confusion. Was I shot? He ran his fingers through his hair and found it matted with mud and fallen leaves from where he had been lying. His eyes were puffy and swollen, his bottom lip split. He looked down at his socked feet and wiggled his toes. When he realized how thirsty he was, he crawled back closer to the water. Every movement was a painful contest for his attention between his head, his ribs and his back, causing him to go slowly. He stopped at the rivers edge, scooped a handful of water and brought it back to his lips. After several drinks, he found that little effort drained his energy. He lay back down for a minute to gather his strength.
Between the gunshot wound and the blood loss, the beating he took in the van and his impromptu swim, he wasnt really even thinking, just acting on instinct, self-preservation taking over. He levered himself back up to his feet and looked around again. Some part of him deep inside took over, guiding his steps up the mountainside.
* * * * * * *
It was almost midnight by the time Chris pulled into the gravel driveway to the side of the cabin. The next wave of storms that had settled into the area swept in with a vengeance. The wind had the trees bending and swaying and the lightning was creating bizarre shadows all around. The sound of thunder was muffled by heavy rainfall as it fell on the canvas top of Vins jeep, occasionally mixed with a louder burst of hail.
It was usually a two-hour drive from Denver to the road that led to the cabin. He had driven the narrow and winding dirt road that led to the cabin very carefully in the dark. He berated himself when he found he was unconsciously thinking that he didnt want to meet the same fate he believed his oldest friend had suffered. He also couldnt help feeling some satisfaction in the fact that the ones that hurt Buck had died with him.
He sat in the jeep, hoping for the rain to let up for a minute. Just the thought that his fun-loving and kind-hearted friend was gone forever was enough to take the breath away from the Team Seven leader, tough-as-nails never-give-an-inch Chris Larabee. But knowing that Buck had died thinking Chris wanted him out of his life made the almost unbearable pain in his heart a physical thing. He closed his eyes and laid his head on his arm as it lay across the steering wheel.
Hed made one stop at the small town on the way up the mountain to the cabin. The liquor store was still open and the clerk was more than happy to sell the somber-looking man in black the two bottles of Jack Daniels he had asked for. They now sat in the seat next to him, wrapped in a plain brown paper bag.
Chris sat up and pulled his jacket a little tighter around the collar, then picked up his package before opening the door to the jeep. He stepped out into the deluge, his head bent into the wind. He made it to the porch and almost lost his balance when he slipped on a wet slick spot, recovering in time to save his precious package. He was shaking the excess water out of his hair as he reached for the doorknob. It was a time-honored tradition passed down from Sarahs great-grandfather that the door was never locked, allowing stranded or lost travelers to use the cabin in an emergency.
Opening the door and going inside, he looked over and found the small battery-powered lamp that was always set on a shelf by the door. He turned it on, giving his eyes time to adjust to the dim glow it provided.
The cabin itself was a simple affair. At the time he and Sarah began using it, it had only one room; he and Buck had spent several vacations and weekends adding two separate sleeping areas and a small bathroom on the back. The large main room was basically the same as it had always been. There was still no electricity; that had been in the planning stage before Sarah and Adams deaths. There was a fireplace on one side of the room, with an old but comfortable couch in front. A low table sat in front of the couch. Opposite the door was the kitchen area with an old cast iron wood-burning stove, a sink with a manual pump bringing water up from the river, and roughhewn open cabinets and cupboards. They still held the dishes Sarah had brought up with them the first year of their marriage. The only change they had made was adding a small butane powered refrigerator that was only operated when someone was there. There was a small table and several wooden chairs set haphazardly around it. On the other side opposite the fireplace was the old sleeping area. Where once there had been a set of bunk beds secured to the wall, there was now a doorway to the new bedrooms, and flanking both sides of the doorway were shelves. One set of shelves held towels and linens and comfortable clothes that obviously belonged to both men. On the other shelves were books, lots of them, along with a collection of Adams things; neither Chris nor Buck ever had the heart to throw them away.
Chris took off his jacket and shook the rain off outside before hanging it up and closed the door. He slowly moved across the room and snagged a glass from the cupboard, then went over and sat on the couch, not even bothering to light the other lanterns or starting a fire to warm up the room. He poured himself a good measure of the whiskey and sat staring at it in the dim light.
As he sat unmoving for hours, outside the storm raged on. The wind blew tree limbs and branches down against the side of the cabin, making it sound like it was under some kind of attack. He all but ignored them, lost as he was in his memories and misery. Memories of his friend, through good times and bad, washed over him. Several times he picked up the glass to bring it to his lips, only to set it down again as the memory of the last time hed seen Buck would come crashing back to him in vivid remembrance.
Sometime around four in the morning, he finally found himself needing to use the bathroom. He stood stiffly and went down the small hallway.
He subconsciously noticed the rain and wind had stopped. Coming back out, he reached for the glass again, intending to take it all in one gulp and climb into the nearest bed, when another loud crash came from the front of the cabin as something hit the front wall heavily. Sighing, he put the glass down and went toward the door, only intending to take a quick look around at the damage. As he stepped through the threshold, he suddenly tripped over something lying on the ground. He barely caught his balance in time to avoid falling. Cursing under his breath, he drew his leg back to kick what he thought was going to be a fallen tree limb out of his way, hoping to vent some of his frustration at the same time. He glanced down to make sure he hooked his foot under the limb to give it a good kick away without hurting himself.
His eyes suddenly widened in shock and he froze mid-kick. "Oh my God!" he said out loud, "BUCK!!??"
His face drained of all its color and his mouth went dry and he just stood there and stared, not even breathing. Only when Buck moaned did Chris suddenly come back to his senses. "Buck?" he whispered and knelt by his friends side, reaching out a hand to gently touch the others face. "How in Gods name?" he began, but he cut the thought off as he remembered there were more immediate and pressing matters to attend to.
"Buck Buck, wake up," Chris said, gently tapping the side of the pale and drawn face. "Come on, Buck Dont do this to me." But the dark-haired man remained unconscious. Besides the bullet graze on his forehead, he could see a number of other injuries. But Buck was there and Chris took comfort in that he seemed to be breathing okay and that was what mattered most to him.
He manhandled him up, grimacing in sympathy when Buck groaned and tried to pull away. "We got to get you to a hospital, Pard," he said softly. Chris knew he had to get him to the jeep and take him where they could find help. Once he had Buck strapped in the passenger seat, he took only a second to run back and pull the cabin door closed. He pulled the keys to the jeep out of his pants pockets, fumbled them around until he found the right one, and put it in the ignition.
"Buck, can you hear me? Come on, Big Dog, wake up," he kept repeating, but still the unconscious man didnt stir. Keeping one hand on Bucks chest to steady him, he turned the jeep down the dirt roadway. He was going as fast as he dared, considering the condition of the road, when suddenly he slammed on the brakes and brought the jeep to sliding stop. One of the big pine trees had been uprooted in the storm and lay across the roadway. There was no way around it and it was too big to drive over even in the four-wheel drive vehicle. Chris just sat and stared in disbelief and frustration for a second before uttering a loud curse and putting the jeep in reverse, going back the way they came. He pulled the jeep up close to the front door of the cabin.
Chris could tell by just the one touch earlier that Buck was freezing, then he noticed the shivering and his teeth chattering uncontrollably. He knew the first order of business was to get him in out of the cold and out of his wet clothes.
Aided by the adrenaline pumping through his system, he managed to grasp Buck by his belt and stand him up. All the while they were moving, he was calling to his old friend, urging him to wake up and open his eyes. He maneuvered him over to the couch, where he tried to sit Buck down carefully, but he winced when Buck fell bonelessly into a semi-sitting position.
Chris quickly stripped him of his soaking wet jacket and shirt, then unbuttoned the jeans and worked them off as well. Chris thought about trying to move him to one of the bedrooms, but decided it would be easier to leave him on the couch; besides, it was closer to the fire. He ran over to the shelf and grabbed all the towels and blankets he could get his hands on. He scooted Buck over a little and placed a towel under the wet spot that had formed before Chris got his wet clothes off. He used another towel to dry off the rest of his body, saving his head for last. He very carefully toweled the rain and debris out of his hair, making sure he didnt touch the long red groove on his forehead. Chris then lay his tall friend down the length of the couch, removing his wet boxers and pulling off the tattered and torn tops of his socks, then covered him with several blankets.
He left Bucks side reluctantly to work on building a fire in the big fireplace. There was still a good supply of logs and tinder in the box next to the fireplace. Once he had a roaring fire going, he reached inside and groped around the bottom of the wood box, coming out with several worn bricks. These he put on the metal grate close to the flames. It was an old-fashioned but well used method of getting warm. When the bricks were good and warm, he would wrap them in one of the heavy towels and put the warm stones at Bucks feet.
The next order of business, Chris thought, is getting help. He went to his jacket and pulled out his cell phone. It was a long shot, he knew. Hed been there often enough to know it was almost impossible to get a signal strong enough to get a call through. He blew a breath out in frustration when that hadnt changed. So that just left doing what he could to make Buck comfortable until he could remove the fallen tree and get Buck back into the jeep and go for help. That would mean waiting for daylight.
Chris moved back to the fireplace and put his hand close to the warming bricks. He could feel they were already warm enough. He raised the blanket at the bottom and placed the warm stones near but not touching Bucks feet. Before placing the blanket back down, he couldnt help but notice the battered and bloody condition his feet were in.
After tucking the blanket securely under the couch cushion, Chris went to one of the kitchen cabinets and drew out two more lanterns; they were both kerosene and Chris had them lit and going in a matter of minutes. Now the cabin was bathed in light.
Chris stood back and did a mental inventory of his friends condition. Starting from the top, there was the gunshot wound. He could see it was long and shallow, and he was grateful that it had not started bleeding again, but touching it softly with his fingertips it was red and warm. His heart went out to his friend when he took in the still swollen and discolored area around both eyes, knowing someone had to have beaten him repeatedly to cause that kind of damage. The split lip was still visible and a bruise ran down the length of his right jaw. He lifted the blanket from Bucks torso and noted the several black and blue areas on his abdomen and ribcage, along with a number of scrapes and abrasions. Buck then unconsciously turned onto his side and drew his knees up, his arms wrapping protectively around his sides. Chris noticed the bruised and raw wrists and the boot shaped mark on his back before covering him up again. When he realized Buck was still shivering, he added another blanket to the pile already on top of him.
Chris went to the kitchen table and pulled one of the straight-back chairs over to the couch. He pushed the small table out of the way, not even noticing that the still full glass tipped dangerously close to spilling and one of the bottles fell over and rolled across the surface, coming close the edge but not falling off.
He went back to the kitchen and primed the pump, then pumped water into a pitcher. He brought the full pitcher and another glass back to where he was sitting, to be ready when Buck woke up.
He finally sat down next to his unconscious friend, the adrenaline rush spent. He put his head in his hands, resting his elbows on his knees and sat unmoving for several minutes. He finally picked his head back up and looked over at his oldest friend. This is all my fault, Chris thought. If he hadnt chased Buck out of the saloon last night was it only one night ago? none of this would have happened. He was physically and emotionally drained, but refused to leave Bucks side. He slid out of the chair and onto the floor next to the couch, laying one hand on Bucks chest and putting his head down on the arm as it was stretched out. It wasnt the most comfortable position he had ever fallen asleep in, but it would have to do. Before long, the only sound in the cabin was the twin breathing of the sleeping friends.
* * * * * * *
True to his word, Vin stayed with JD. After Josiah dropped them off at the Federal Building, they retrieved Bucks truck. Not wanting to go home just yet, they picked up a six-pack of beer and drove around Denver for a couple of hours. They would talk for a while and just ride along in silence for a while. Finally Vin pulled into Bucks parking spot at the apartment.
"Ya dont mind if I crash here with you tonight, do ya?" Vin asked.
JD just shrugged in answer and made his way slowly up the stairs to the door. Once inside, he went straight to his room and closed the door, shutting Vin out in more ways than one.
Vin sighed and made himself comfortable on the overstuffed sofa.
After far too few hours of sleep, the phone rang.
"Not again," Vin moaned. He waited for JD to come out of his room, but the younger man didnt show. Finally he rolled off the couch and stumbled into the kitchen and grabbed the phone off the stand. "Hello," he said shortly.
"Agent Tanner?" came a soft feminine voice.
"Yeah," Vin replied groggily, trying to remember where he knew the voice.
"This is Cheryl Miller from the Coroners Office. Im sorry if I woke you," she said. "Assistant Director Travis gave me this number. He said I could reach you here."
"Thats okay," he replied, remembering the Assistant Medical Examiner. He knew from working with her, she was one of the best and most conscientious working in the Denver office. "What can I do for you?"
"I really need you to come down to the Morgue right away," she answered.
Vin rubbed his temples before continuing. "Now? Cant you just tell me whatever it is?"
"No. Theres something I need you to see and it has to be in person. Its important," Cheryl replied.
Vin couldnt help but hear the excitement in her voice. "All right, Ill be there in about thirty minutes," he said, quickly figuring the time it would take to get there from Buck and JDs apartment. "Ill see you in a little while." Vin sighed as he hung up.
He went to the bathroom and splashed cold water on his face. Looking at his reflection, he thought to himself he looked like crap.
"Well hell boy, that aint hardly possible." He could hear Bucks voice as the memory sprang to his mind how the ladies man would always respond when someone told him that.
Vin bowed his head for a moment, his eyes stinging as tears clouded his vision, and he knew he was just beginning to realize how much he was going to miss his friend. Then he pulled himself together and walked out of the bathroom, looking for something to write JD a note with.
* * * * * * *
The sunlight streaming into the cabin finally brought Chris awake. He sat up with a start and looked around in confusion. Then, at the sight of Buck sleeping on the couch, his recollection returned and he stood stiffly.
"Buck?" he said softly leaning over and touching the other mans face. He tapped it lightly, hoping the big man would awaken, but he didnt respond. Chris did notice he had stopped shivering. He frowned and moved his hand to place it across Bucks forehead. "Damn," he said under his breath. The injured man was burning up from a fever. "Buck, can you hear me?" Still there was no answer. Chris cast his eyes heavenward in despair. He had to go to work on removing the big tree blocking the road out, but he was having trouble with the idea of leaving Buck to wake up alone and hurt.
Taking a deep breath, he straightened up and walked to the kitchen. He started a pot of coffee going, then gathered up the kerosene lamps and put them away, seeing they had run out of fuel during the night. He spent a few minutes in the bathroom, then came out in time to pour himself a cup of coffee.
While he drank, he walked back over to Bucks side. He couldnt help notice the flushed face and rapid shallow breathing. How did he find his way to the cabin? he wondered again.
Chris did a quick silent calculation of just far Buck might have walked in the storm. From somewhere near where the van had left the roadway, out of the canyon and over the mountain He shook his head in disbelief. He knew better than any one just how stubborn his oldest friend was, but this was above and beyond even for Buck. Well if he could make it here on foot in the rain and already hurt, Chris vowed, then the least I can do is to get him down off this mountain.
He put his cup down on the table and sat himself in the chair again. He rested a hand on Bucks shoulder and spoke quietly. "I dont know if you can hear me or not, Pard, but you just hang in there. Im doing the best I can to get us out of here. Ill be back as soon as I can."
He stood up and opened the door, taking a look back inside but Buck still hadnt moved. He went to small storeroom on the side of the cabin and picked up the ax that was leaning against the back wall. Carrying it to the jeep, he got in and drove back to the fallen tree.
Coming to a stop, he got out and took the ax with him over to the obstruction. He began working on the big tree with quick, even strokes. Until he could get the tree out of the way, they were stuck here on the mountain.
* * * * * * *
Instead of thirty minutes, it was almost an hour later before Vin found Cheryl in her office. "Sorry Im late," he explained. "Traffic was a mess."
"Thats okay," she said with a smile. "Um Agent Tanner--" she began.
"Its Vin," he interrupted.
"Oh, okay Vin," she said, looking behind Vin. "Agent Dunne didnt come with you?"
"Nah," Vin replied. "I let him sleep."
Cheryl looked disappointed. "I was hoping to give him the good news too."
"What good news?" Vin asked, confusion evident in his blue eyes.
She handed Vin a photograph of a hand. "Can you identify this?"
Vin looked at the photo. It was a mans hand, on the wrist was Bucks watch. "Yeah," he replied, his expression turning dark with anger. "You called me down here for this?"
"Wait--" she said quickly, handing him another photo. "Look at this one."
It was same mans hand, but no watch. And there was a crude tattoo of links forming a chain around the wrist where the watch had been. "Buck doesnt have a tattoo," he finally said, his brows knit in puzzlement.
"Thats what I thought," Cheryl said with a smile. "Beside the fact its obviously a jailhouse tattoo. As soon as I saw that, I knew it couldnt be Agent Wilmingtons. And I was right Ive already compared the fingerprints from his file."
"Youre sayin?" Vin asked hesitantly.
"Im saying this arm recovered from the van and believed to be Agent Buck Wilmington is actually that of Alex Romero, former prison guard and suspected associate of Roberto Cruz." Although she was doing her best to speak in a completely professional manner, she wasnt succeeding very well, especially after she saw the spark of hope in the handsome Texans eyes."
"Its not Buck," he whispered, almost afraid to say it aloud. "What about the others?"
"Ive already checked the other two sets of remains using DNA analysis. Theyre not Agent Wilmington either," she said.
"Buck his name is Buck," Vin corrected her unconsciously. "He aint dead?" he asked, his voice rising with his hope. When she gave a small nod, he suddenly picked Cheryl up and spun her around in a hug. "He aint dead!" he exclaimed, planting a quick kiss on her cheek, causing her to smile and blush at the same time. "I gotta go," he said, backing out the door.
He paused as he realized she must have been up all night working on this to have the results already. "Maam, I owe you big time," he said with his best Texas drawl. "Anything you want, you got it."
"How about dinner next Saturday?" she asked.
"Deal," Vin called as he made his way out the door and into the hallway, heading for the elevator. Bucklins really alive! he kept repeating to himself.
* * * * * * *
It was almost noon when Chris decided hed better take a break and go back and check on Buck. He left the ax buried in the tree. He was about halfway through trunk. Once he had the trunk split, hed still have to cut through it in several places to make it light enough to use the jeeps winch to move the pieces out of the roadway wide enough to get the jeep through. He still had hours of work to do.
Driving up to the cabin, he parked on the side and walked into the cabin. He went straight to Bucks side, placing his hand on his friends forehead again. He was relieved to feel him move at the touch this time.
Bucks blue eyes flew open, looking around the room in panic. He struggled against the blankets until he had his arm free and knocked the hand away.
"Buck?" Chris asked, reaching out to put a hand on his chest to keep Buck from trying to move too quickly. "Whats wrong?"
But while Chris was speaking softly, Bucks head injury and fever had him seeing and hearing everything completely out of kilter. His whole body was hot and he involuntarily cringed and tried to move away from the supporting touch. The room was tilted and spinning, the few words Chris spoke were echoing loudly and incoherently in his head. Looking right at his oldest friend, Buck didnt recognize him through his hazy and distorted vision.
"What is it?" Chris asked, taking half a step back to give Buck his space, automatically thinking he was probably remembering the night at the saloon and didnt want Chris near him. So he took a deep breath and began to speak the words hed been practicing all morning while working on the tree. "Look Buck, I know how ridiculous Im sorry is going to sound right now " He looked down at Buck and suddenly realized something was terribly wrong. He could tell Buck wasnt really seeing him, at least he didnt seem to recognize him as a friend.
As soon as Chris was a step away, Buck sat up quickly and tried to retreat to the farthest corner of the couch, discarding the blankets as he moved. He drew his knees up and closed his eyes tightly, pressing the palms of his hands against his forehead, trying to stop the pain and the noise. When he felt Chris making a move toward him again, he tried to scoot off the couch and get away.
"Buck!" he cried. "Stop it. Youve got to be still." With Buck as weak as he was, Chris had no trouble grabbing hold of Bucks arms and putting him back in a prone position. This time Chris sat on the edge of the couch and kept a firm hold to keep him down, even though his friend continued to weakly thrash about. When he finally seemed to settle down, Chris reached behind with one hand and poured a cup full of water from the pitcher he had set down earlier. He brought it to Bucks lips and tried to get him to drink, but the confused man just knocked it out of Chriss hand. "What the hell is wrong with you?" Chris said louder than he meant to.
Bucks eyes widened in pain and panic as the strange noises reverberated through his head again. He struggled without success to get up, finally collapsing back into the pillow, unconscious again.
Chris felt a moment of panic when Buck slumped back down, but relaxed when he felt Bucks chest rising and falling in a steady but rapid rhythm. He shook his head in disbelief. Never in all the years theyd known each other had Buck ever reacted to him like that. What was wrong? he wondered. "God, I wish Nathan was here," he said out loud.
Making sure Buck wasnt just playing possum, he finally stood and picked up the blankets where they landed on the floor and covered his friend back up. He then went to the kitchen to fix himself another cup of coffee and a lunch of canned soup. He sat at the table, watching his friend from across the room. There was no way he could leave Buck alone in the condition he was in now. All he could do was hope and pray Vin would realize he hadnt made it back to Denver and would come looking for him soon.
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