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Vin practically flew back to Buck and JD’s apartment. He’d thought about calling JD as soon as he left the Morgue, but decided this was something he had to tell his young friend in person.

"JD!" he called out, going straight to the downstairs bedroom the younger man had retreated to the night before. When he found it empty, he turned around in the living room. "Where are ya, kid?" he asked, directing his voice toward the kitchen.

"Up here," came JD’s voice from Buck’s bedroom at the top of the stairs.

Vin shook his head and smiled, taking the stairs three at a time. When he got to the doorway, JD was just folding one of Buck’s sweatshirts and putting it away in a drawer. Vin took in a glance his friend still in his pajama bottoms, the puffy red eyes, the mussed hair and a badly concealed sniffle.

"Buck never could get in the habit of putting up his clean clothes," JD said sadly, not looking up. He finally closed the drawer and stepped away from the dresser. He walked toward the team’s sharpshooter and finally looked up. "What?" he asked, embarrassed at the bemused expression on Vin’s face.

"Don’t be gettin’ in the habit of puttin’ Bucklin’s things up for him," Vin replied, exaggerating his Texas accent the way he did when he was up to something. "A grown man ought to be able to do it himself. Wouldn’t want ‘im to get used to it, might spoil ‘im."

"What are you talking about?" JD demanded, stopping in his tracks and staring at Vin angrily.

Vin reached out and touched JD lightly on the arm. "He ain’t dead, kid. He wasn’t in the van."

"What?!" JD asked, trying to process the words, then Vin could see the same hope he felt in JD’s hazel eyes. "What are you talking about?"

"That errand I had to run – I just got back from the Coroner’s Office," Vin explained. "They did fingerprints and DNA on all three bodies from the van. None of ‘em were Buck."

"Are you sure? What about the watch?" JD countered, hoping against hope Vin had the answer.

"They probably took it off him when they got his wallet," Vin offered. He’d been running the possibilities through his head all the way home.

"If he’s not--" JD started, but found he couldn’t say the word. "Then where is he?"

"Well, I guess it’s up to us to find him," Vin replied. "We know he was in that van when they left the garage, so I suppose that’s where we start and work our way from there. Get dressed while I get the rest of the guys to meet us at the Office."

JD nodded and just about flew down the stairs to his bedroom.

Vin was right behind him, but at a slower pace. He made it back to the kitchen, picked up the phone and made the calls. Three times he repeated the wonderful news, and three members of the team were heading to the office to get to work on bringing their ‘brother’ home. Vin frowned as he hung up after dialing the fourth member’s home phone and getting Chris’s answering machine. He left a curt message, "Call me at the office." Then he tried Chris’s cell phone and still no answer. Vin checked the clock on the kitchen wall. ‘Chris shouldn’t still be at the cabin,’ he thought, ‘he was gonna head home first thing this morning.’ Vin decided he didn’t have time to go all the way out to the ranch before he met the others at the office. It would have to keep for now, and he’d keep trying to reach Chris.

* * * * * * *

Chris had resumed his place in the chair by Buck’s side. He’d brought a basin of water and a washcloth with him and had been bathing Buck’s face and chest, trying to bring the fever down. He’d set the cloth down and had dozed off for a minute, only to bring his head back up when he heard the sound of Buck moaning and moving around. "Buck?" he said softly again, putting his hand on the other’s chest again, preparing in case he started struggling again.

At the sound of Chris’s voice, Buck’s eyes came open slowly. This time there was no panic, no struggle. He looked up at Chris, his brows knit in confusion. "Chris?" he mouthed, but no sound came out, his voice lost with his dry mouth.

Chris nodded in relief. "Thirsty?" he asked, already knowing the answer. Without waiting for Buck to finish nodding, he reached for the cup of water he had waiting.

Buck started to bring his arms out from under the blanket to try and sit up, but Chris just patted his shoulder and shook his head.

"Here, let me help you," Chris said, holding the cup up to Buck’s lips. The injured man only had to lean up a fraction and Chris tipped the cup so the water went down Buck’s throat.

He took several swallows before he pulled back and smiled at Chris gratefully. "Thanks," he said softly but clearly. He looked past Chris at the room around him. "We’re at the cabin?"

Chris nodded and turned partially away from Buck to set the cup back down.

"God, everything hurts," Buck groaned, picking his head up and trying to look around the room, then he lay back down. "Sarah and Adam here too?"

Chris twisted back around and looked at Buck with concern and surprise.

Before he could reply, Buck took one look at the pain in Chris’s eyes and knew something was wrong. "What? What happened, Chris? Did we get in a wreck? Was I driving? Are they okay? I didn’t hurt them, did I?" Buck was firing questions at him faster than Chris could come up with the right answer. "Oh God," he finally moaned when Chris still hadn’t spoken. "Sarah! Adam!" He tried to get up into a sitting position, leaning up on his elbows. "Where are they, Chris?"

Finally Chris found his voice. "They’re fine, Buck. Yeah, you were in an accident and got hurt, but you were the only one."

"You’re sure?" Buck persisted.

Chris could see there was something at the back of his mind that Buck was trying to remember, and he also instantly realized he was dealing with some kind of severe head injury if Buck thought Sarah and Adam were still alive. "Yeah," he replied, trying to calm his aching heart. "They’re not here – they’re back home. You need to lie back down and get some rest. You had us scared there for awhile, Pard."

Buck allowed Chris to push him back down gently, accepting another cup of water Chris offered him.

"Think you could eat?" Chris asked. "I still got some soup on the stove."

Buck thought for a moment, then nodded. "Yeah, I am hungry," he answered.

Chris stood and walked toward the kitchen.

"So what exactly happened?" Buck asked.

Realizing Buck was lost in past somewhere, Chris knew he had to choose his words carefully or risk sending Buck back to the distressed state he was in before. "We were working an escaped prisoner case – they got the drop on you and took you hostage – you were in the van when it got chased down and crashed. We think you were thrown from the van on impact and wandered off. It took us awhile to find you, but you managed to make your way here to the cabin. Turns out you got banged up pretty good." Chris had been trying all day to figure out how Buck had survived the crash, and he had just given his friend the best theory he’d come up with.

Buck was quiet, trying to remember. There was something about Chris’s tone of voice; Buck could tell there was still something the other man wasn’t telling him. He could see bits and pieces, but nothing was really clear. Finally he just shrugged and said, "Guess I’m lucky."

"No," Chris said, coming back with the bowl of soup, setting it down on the table. He stood in front of his friend, laying one hand on the top of Buck’s head, ruffling his hair like he used to – just the way Buck did to bother JD from time to time. "We’re lucky – you’re still alive."

"Thanks Chris," Buck smiled shyly.

Chris’s heart ached again for the way things used to be back then. There was a time when Buck wanted nothing more than to do a good job so his partner and friend would be proud of him. He realized that was the time and place Buck was lost in. And he could certainly understand why Buck’s mind would want to go back there. Chris was a different man back then, back before…

He and Buck had shared a friendship closer than most brothers. After Chris met and married Sarah Connelly, Buck had tried to back away and give the newlyweds their space. But Sarah would have no part of it. Somehow she knew how lost Buck would be without his ‘family’, but they both knew that he would have given it up if he truly believed that was what Chris Larabee wanted. And from that day to this, Chris was still trying to understand what he ever did to deserve that kind of loyalty.

He sat down and helped Buck into a semi-sitting position. He pulled the covers down and handed Buck a spoon, allowing him to feed himself. Buck ate slowly, but finally finished what was in the bowl. Chris took the bowl out of his hands and helped him take another long drink.

When Chris moved away to put the bowl in the sink, Buck pushed the covers back and swung his legs over to stand. He looked down and his eyes widened. He blushed unconsciously when he realized he was naked. He wrapped one of the blankets around his waist and tried to stand. As soon as his feet touched the floor, he felt an intense pain and a hiss escaped between his lips.

"What do you think you’re doing?" Chris called out, hurrying back over just in time to catch Buck as he swayed unsteadily and almost lost his balance.

"Got to see a man about a horse," Buck replied, looking in the direction of the hall where the bathroom was.

"Let me help," Chris admonished, taking Buck’s arm across his shoulders and allowing the tall man to lean on him heavily.

Buck was limping badly and placing each step gingerly, trying to find some place on his feet that wasn’t bruised or sore. Each step was torture to his sore ribs and abdomen, but he was determined not to give up. He had to prove that he wasn’t helpless, that he could do it himself.

While he was in the bathroom, Chris came back out and grabbed some of Buck’s old clothes from the shelf. He handed him the long sleeve flannel shirt and sweatpants, which he took and put on.

By the time he got back to the couch with Chris’s help, Buck was exhausted and he sank heavily back down onto the soft cushions and pillows. He leaned back, panting deeply, eyes closed.

Chris felt his head again – it was still pretty warm. "Buck?" Chris called quietly, trying to get the other’s attention.

Buck just looked up at him with tired eyes.

"Listen, I have to go back out for a little while," he explained. "There was a storm last night and a tree fell across the road. We’re stuck here. I need to finish cutting it up so I can move it out of the way. I got to get you out of here and get you to the hospital."

Buck frowned at Chris’s last statement.

Chris just smiled at the familiar scowl. "Will you be okay?"

Buck just nodded with a yawn, settling back on the couch. Chris helped him rearrange the pillows then covered him back up with just one blanket. He showed Buck the cup of water he left in Buck’s reach.

"I’ll be back just as quick as I can," Chris said, already heading for the door. "You just stay there and take it easy, okay?"

"I’ll be fine, mother," Buck teased, already closing his eyes.

* * * * * * *

Since it was early afternoon and neither had eaten anything, Vin and JD made a stop on their way into the office. Vin pushed the doors open with his foot, his arms full of pizza; JD was right behind with several different beverage containers.

"Any luck, Ezra?" Vin directed his question at the immaculately dressed undercover agent.

"I’m sorry," he replied, shaking his head. "I’ve contacted as many of my informants as possible, as well as any known associates of Roberto Cruz. Either no one knows what happened or they’re not willing to talk about it just yet."

"Okay," Vin acknowledged, setting the food down in the middle of Buck and JD’s desks. The others stood and came over to help themselves to lunch. "Anything JD?" he asked, coming up behind him just as JD was slamming the phone down.

JD bit his lower lip and shook his head. "Nothing but his damn voice mail again!"

Nathan looked up past the younger agent and met Vin’s smile with a small one of his own. ‘Did JD realize just how much he sounded like Buck just now?’ he thought to himself.

"It’s not like Brother Chris to be out of touch like this," Josiah said. "He did say he’d be here this morning, didn’t he Vin?"

Vin shrugged his shoulders. He knew the team leader had been hurting when he left to go to the cabin, but he was sure Chris would be back, it just might take a little longer for him to come to terms with what they thought was Buck’s death. "Well, until he turns his phone back on or calls in, we’ve got no way to let him know it wasn’t Buck in the van," Vin finally said. "In the meantime, we’ve got a job to do."

"But if Buck’s not dead, then where is he?" JD asked, looking around the room at his fellow agents. He hoped for one but didn’t really expect an answer.

"All right, where do we stand?" Vin asked, sipping on his soda through a straw.

"Well, we know Cruz escaped yesterday morning, with the help of the prison guard, Alex Romero," Nathan began.

"We know Cruz’s brother shot and kidnapped Buck," JD added, his voice colored with anger.

"We also know Buck was in the van when it left the parking garage downstairs, and his personal effects were found in the van," Josiah theorized, "which probably means they were removed from him while he was still in it."

"We know where the van was first chased by the CHP and where it ran off the road and crashed down the canyon," Vin contributed, "taking Alex Romero and Franco Cruz with it."

"According to my sources," Ezra said, "our Mister Cruz has returned to Mexico via a private plane he hired in Cheyenne, which was probably his brother’s intended destination. But there was no one matching Buck’s description with him at the time he boarded the aircraft."

"We’ve already called every hospital and emergency clinic from Denver to the Fort Collins area," Nathan said. "No one matching Buck’s description was brought in. And I called Sergeant Black. He said he’d have a team out at the crash site within the hour."

Vin nodded his thanks, knowing they had been hard at work even before he and JD arrived.

"So how do we find Buck?" JD asked.

"We start at the last place we know Buck was – the van," Josiah explained.

Vin shuffled through a stack of papers and grabbed one before he started talking. "According to the accident report," he began, walking over to a large map of the state of Colorado hanging on the wall. "The CHP first saw the van on the bridge here," he pointed, "Off the Interstate and on the old highway. They did a 180 at the roadblock and the pursuit units went after them."

Nathan joined him at the map. "They bailed off the highway and caused an accident in this intersection," he added. "The pursuing units stopped to check on the occupants of the vehicles and one of the CHP units stayed behind while the other CHP and the County unit continued the pursuit."

Now Josiah stood up. "The van turned off onto this road, which they apparently didn’t know was just a back road to Masonville. It twists and turns and then goes right back to the highway again. Very narrow and very slick in the rain."

It was Ezra’s turn. "Even considering the weather and road conditions, at the rate of speed they were reported to have been traveling, they should have been well past the location where the pursuing units observed them again."

"So why did they catch up to them so quick?" Vin asked, looking at JD, waiting to see if the younger agent was putting the pieces together.

JD just shrugged impatiently and shook his head.

"They had to have stopped between here and here," Nathan pointing from the highway intersection to the crash site.

"Think about it, John Daniel," Josiah urged softly. "What would make them take that kind of risk, stopping in broad daylight, knowing they were being chased and would eventually get caught?"

JD snapped his fingers. "Buck!" he exclaimed. "They didn’t want to get caught with him in the van! So they stopped somewhere and threw him out or got rid of him."

"They must have come to the conclusion that had they been discovered with Buck, and considering the injury he suffered from the gunshot wound, they would be charged with kidnapping and even attempted murder on a Federal Officer," Ezra added.

"Had to be, JD," Vin said. "If they just tossed him out, they would’ve been long gone and the pursuit units would’ve found him right away."

"So if he was tied up or hurt bad or unconscious, they could’ve just put him behind a rock or a tree or something and they’d think nobody would ever find him," JD said. The other agents couldn’t help but notice the way JD began worrying on his bottom lip as he stared at the map.

"What is it, JD?" Nathan finally asked.

"The storm last night," he said, chewing on his bottom lip. "And all that rain."

"You know better than most just how stubborn Brother Buck can be," Josiah said, trying to offer JD some hope. "I hope you’re not giving up on him."

"Of course not!" JD answered crossly. "I’m just worried he might catch pneumonia or something. You guys have never had to live with him when he’s sick." He stood up and took his jacket off the back of his chair. Walking to the door, he turned and was waiting for the others to join him. "Well, what are you waiting for?" he asked.

Vin looked pointedly at the clock. "By the time we get up there, it’s gonna be near dark," he started. He held his hand up when he saw JD open his mouth to protest. "I ain’t sayin’ we ain’t goin’, but you got t’ understand. If we go traipsin’ around in the dark, we could destroy whatever tracks there might be up there that can help us find Buck. And after all that rain, it’s gonna make findin’ anything pure luck."

"That’s assuming Buck was in the van when the miscreants in question began their fatal run from the law to begin with," Ezra added. "There’s still the very real possibility he’s somewhere right here in Denver."

"I don’t know, Ezra," Josiah said thoughtfully. "With Buck’s things still in the van, I can’t help but think he must have been in it, too. He might have been thrown out in the crash."

"We all just assumed the body was Buck’s because of the watch," Nathan conjectured. "And the accident investigators did what they could to look for anyone ejected, but between it getting dark and the storm rolling through, they didn’t have much time to look around."

"I’ll take JD with me and head on up there," Vin said. "We’ll start at the intersection they took off the old highway and work our way up to the crash site. If Buck’s out there, he’s got to be somewhere in between. We’ll check in with Sergeant Black when we get there. They might could use the extra manpower. If we work both sides of the roadway, we shouldn’t miss him."

"What can we do to help?" Nathan asked.

Everyone was looking at Vin for the answer. He hated being put in the position of being in charge, but when it was necessary, he didn’t shirk the responsibility. "We need someone to stay in touch with Sergeant Black’s office," Vin answered. "And someone to stay here in case Chris calls or comes in."

Ezra raised his hand. "I would be more than happy to fulfill that duty," he said with a shrug and a small smile. "I’m not sure how much assistance I could provide out in the woods. And here I could remain available to my contacts in case they have any new information, essentially killing two birds with one stone."

Vin glared at Ezra for a second when JD flinched at his use of the old idiom. The undercover agent had the good graces to look embarrassed at his choice of words.

Vin then looked over at Josiah. "Would you mind goin’ by the ranch?" he finally asked. He had tried to put worrying about his best friend out of his mind all day, but he realized Josiah had been right earlier – Chris was supposed to be back in town by now, and he should’ve either gotten their messages or showed up at the office.

Josiah nodded before answering. "If you don’t have anything else right now for Nathan, I’ll take him with me."

"Yeah, okay. But be ready to go just in case. We might need your help up there," Vin replied, moving to join JD at the door. "We’ll check in when we get up there. Call us if you hear from Chris."

"God speed, Mister Tanner," Ezra called after them.

* * * * * * *

Buck woke up and sat straight up on the couch. He looked around with a frown, then pressed his palm against his head as a wave of pain washed over him. ‘Where am I?’ he wondered to himself, then recognized the cabin. ‘What am I doin’ here?’ He was burning up and despite the pain that just wouldn’t quit, he kicked the covers off and put his feet on the floor. The move itself almost made him cry out loud. Then he stood slowly and took a few faltering steps toward the back of the cabin. He went down the small hallway, checking both bedrooms and found them empty.

Coming back out, he went back to the couch and poured himself a cup of water from the pitcher, downing it one swallow. His eyes remained half-closed against the light from the setting sun streaming in through the window, causing him even more pain. He took another faltering step and bumped into the small table. One look at the bourbon bottles, one still lying on its side and the still-full glass, sent his mind on a downward spiral into a jumble of thoughts half-remembered.

He could see Chris’s angry face from the saloon, but he could also see Chris there at the cabin.

"Get the hell away from me!"

"Don’t want your help."

"Get out of my life."

"Buck – stop it."

"What the hell’s wrong with you?"

The words and memories were all mixed up in his mind. The more the tried to remember, the more pain it caused him; the more pain he was in, the harder it was to think. He dropped the cup from his hand as he reached up and took his head in both his hands, swaying precariously from side to side.

For every recent hurt Buck remembered, another one from the past would join in the ever-darkening parade. Then suddenly the memory of Chris hitting him at the saloon sprang clearly to mind, as well as Chris pinning him down here at the cabin. And he hurt everywhere. ‘Had Chris done this to him?’ he thought. But one memory kept coming back and seemed clearer than the rest – Chris said he didn’t want him around.

The pain in his heart was overwhelming. He staggered back away from the table and looked around in panic. ‘Was Chris coming back? And if he hit him once, was he going to hit him again?’ The head injury combined with the fever had him reacting in ways he never would have under normal circumstances. For the first time in his life, Buck Wilmington was afraid of Chris Larabee. He felt driven by the instinct to escape. He limped toward the door and opened it slowly. He looked outside first, making sure it was safe. Then he slipped out and hobbled barefoot into the forest.

* * * * * * *

Vin and JD used the time it took to make the trip back up there to talk about Buck. They both realized that there were a lot more good memories connected with their friend than bad.

They arrived at the intersection where the van turned off the highway, then drove slowly up toward the crash site. They both concentrated their attention on the shoulder of the roadway and the surrounding landscape. On the way, Vin took note of the bridge that crossed Big Thompson River. Once at the crash site, Vin realized it was less than five miles from the bridge. Years of experience had him doing the math in his head, but he wasn’t ready to say anything to JD yet.

There were already several rescue vehicles parked along the shoulder and Vin could see movement in the woods below. Vin sought out Sergeant Black and learned the Search and Rescue unit hadn’t discovered any sign of Buck around the crash site yet. He then shared with the Sergeant their idea of backtracking to the highway, in case Buck had been thrown out. Promising to keep in contact, they left Buck’s truck parked at the crash site. Vin and JD started back down on foot, each carefully examining the area just off the pavement.

An hour and a half later they’d reached the bridge; darkness was setting in. Looking down to the river, all Vin could make out were vague shapes concealed in shadows. He was startled by a cry from JD. Running across the road, he joined the younger man at the far side of the bridge just as JD stood up. "What is it?" he asked, seeing JD’s hand clenched in a tight fist. JD held out his hand and opened it, palm up. Vin could see a silver button. "Buck’s?" he asked.

JD nodded his affirmation. "From his jacket, the one he was wearing Friday night."

"Damn," Vin swore softly. He knelt down to get a closer look at the ground. With the rain that had come through the area over night, there just wasn’t much to see. Suddenly, he reached out and grabbed JD just as he was about to step off the pavement and go into the wooded area leading down to the water below.

"Let me go, Vin," he said, struggling to get out of the other’s grasp.

"Don’t even think about it," Vin said.

"But Buck might be down there!" JD declared.

"You think I don’t know that, kid?" Vin shot back. "Look, I want t’ find him as badly as you do, but he wouldn’t want you gettin’ hurt goin’ off half-cocked down there in the dark. You know that." He felt JD relax a little, so he let up on his grip.

"What do we do now?" JD asked, not happy but giving in to Vin’s experience.

Vin took a second to organize his thoughts. "Now we know where to start," Vin said. "Let’s head over to the cabin, and if Chris is there we can use his help. Even if he’s not, there’s stuff we’re gonna need. We need to let Sergeant Black know they’re lookin’ in the wrong place, and we have to get a hold of Josiah, Nathan and Ezra. I don’t suppose they’ll wanna wait ‘til first light to come on up and help."

JD sighed and nodded, then let Vin gently lead him away from the river below and back toward the truck. Once they started back, they broke into a jog.

* * * * * * *

As it grew dark, Chris decided he was far enough done with the tree to take another break and check on Buck. He had most of the heavier limbs lopped off and was working on breaking through the trunk.

As soon as he was within sight of the front door, his heart clenched in concern. The front door was standing wide open. He knew no one else had been there and he was sure Buck was too hurt to go anywhere.

Then he remembered the way Buck was the first time he woke. Had he woken up in that confused state of mind again? Chris shook his head. He wouldn’t dwell on that thought. Pulling to a stop, he ran into the cabin.

"Buck?" he called out going in. "Are you in here?" But his call was met with silence. Chris went over to the couch and looked down at the pile of blankets, then noticed the cup and puddle of water on the floor. "Dammit, Buck," he said aloud. Turning, he went back out the door. "BUCK!" he called out. His only reply was the echo as his voice bounced off the tall trees back to him.

Scanning the ground, it didn’t take Chris long to find the way Buck had gone. He was leaving footprints plain as day in the still-damp ground, and knowing the tall ladies man was barefoot and could barely walk, Chris knew Buck couldn’t get far. His only problem now was finding him before it got dark, which would be soon.

Chris ran back to Vin’s jeep and retrieved the duty-type Maglight from under the seat and went in search of his missing friend.

* * * * * * *

By the time Vin and JD pulled off the main road onto the dirt road leading to the cabin, it was dark. Like Chris had the night before, Vin brought Buck’s truck to a sliding stop when the headlights revealed the fallen tree across the roadway.

"What the hell?" JD asked.

"Well, I guess that explains why Chris never made it home," Vin replied.

They climbed out of the truck and walked over to the tree. They could see where Chris had been working on chopping through the trunk so the tree could be moved.

As Vin began to climb over the tree, JD suddenly grabbed his arm. "Did you hear that?" JD asked.

"Hear what?" Vin replied.

"Shhh – listen," JD whispered, his tone leaving no room for argument.

Then Vin heard it too.

"Buck!" they heard Chris calling. It was faint, but the way sound traveled through the trees and around the sloping sides of the mountain, he might not be too far away.

JD exchanged a puzzled look with Vin, then bounded over the tree and sprinted toward the cabin. Vin was right on his heels, concern for his best friend fueling his speed. He could not even imagine what depths of anguish would have Chris calling out their missing friend’s name.

They came to a stop at the cabin, looking around for any sign of their friend. JD went into the cabin. "Chris? Are you in here?" He ran from the main room to the hallway to check the bedrooms, but no one was there. Then he came back into the living area and made his way over to the still-warm fireplace. He noticed the wrinkled pile of clothes laid out to the side of the fireplace, obviously placed there to dry. JD held his breath as he walked toward them, his subconscious recognizing them as his best friend’s. He reverently picked up the shirt and held it out, shaking his head in disbelief.

Meanwhile, Vin checked the jeep and found it was also empty, then wandered around the cleared area around the front of the cabin. "JD!" he called, "See if you can find one of kerosene lanterns and bring it here." When he didn’t get a response from his young friend, he made his way quickly toward the cabin.

Vin ran into the cabin and found JD standing with his back to him. The younger agent turned at the sound of Vin’s footsteps and held the shirt toward Vin to see.

"How in the hell?!" Vin exclaimed in amazement, coming to stand next to JD. He bent down and ran a hand along the fabric of Buck’s jeans, then noticed the remnants of the torn socks. "Where in the hell are they?" he asked himself out loud. Then he frowned, remembering the reason for their mad dash to the cabin – Chris calling for Buck. "Come on, JD," he said, standing and giving the younger agent a gentle slap on the shoulders, bringing him out of his stupor. "We need to find those kerosene lanterns they have around here. I might be able to track ‘em in the dark."

They moved quickly across the room to the kitchen area and found the lanterns where Chris had set them under the counter next to the can of kerosene fuel. When Vin tried to light one, he cursed under his breath when he found it empty. He quickly filled his, then handed JD the other lantern and the fuel.

Once JD had his filled, he turned to Vin. "Let’s go."

Vin just nodded in response and took look the lead as they went back outside. Holding the lantern close to the ground, he started from the porch, looking for Chris’s boot prints. There in stark contrast to the darkness around them were the visible indentations of the two sets of footprints. Vin frowned at the barefoot set. He made a motion with his head for JD to follow.

* * * * * * *

"Buck!!" Chris was calling every few minutes, but still he hadn’t heard or seen anything of his friend. The trail was getting harder to follow. He just couldn’t believe the injured man had gotten this far! But as stubborn as Buck was, Chris realized he shouldn’t have been surprised.

It was clear to Chris that there was no logic to the direction Buck was taking, so he was going on the assumption Buck was in the same confused state he had been in earlier. Had he been thinking clearly and simply wanted to leave, their resident scoundrel could have just skirted the road and walked past where Chris was working and made his way down the dirt road to the paved one. The tracks he was following were constantly changing direction, and there were occasional signs of Buck falling and getting back up. Chris could only imagine what an ordeal it was for Buck to be traveling across the forest floor with his feet in the shape they were in.

* * * * * * *

The object of Chris’s search was indeed in a great deal of pain, but stumbled along in a desperate attempt to get away. His breathing was coming in ragged gasps, causing him to constantly stop and rest. Every time he stopped, he would grasp his head between his hands in an unsuccessful attempt to block out the pain. The sounds of the forest echoed in his distorted sense of hearing. The trees seemed to be leaning at bizarre angles and were elongated in his blurred vision. But whenever he closed his eyes, he would see Chris’s angry face. He could see his oldest friend’s lips moving, but try as might he couldn’t hear the words. Buck didn’t know where he was, he only knew he had to get away, driving him deeper into the woods.

Buck had unconsciously made his way to the river, now a swollen and roaring torrent, fed by the rains that had passed through the last few days. Coming out of the brush into a clearing, he tripped and almost fell into the rushing water. He regained his balance just in time and took an unsteady step back. He stood staring at the churning water, almost hypnotic in its effect on the dark-haired man. Finally looking up, he spotted a small rock formation along the bank. He walked over to it and sat down, dangling his feet and sighing as the cold water splashed up and washed over his throbbing feet. He leaned his head back on the rock and let the cool surface penetrate his fevered body.


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