Ninety-Six Hours of Darkness

by Angie

Buck had reached a point where he could not sleep. He could not even keep his eyes closed unless he put his arm over them. The flashlight gave only a couple of minutes of wan light before dying completely. He drank part of another bottle of water. The cold feeling started faster this time and he lay shaking before he began to yell again. He pummeled the box until he was too weak to raise his hands again. He fell into an exhausted slumber.

Staring down at his chest, he was surprised at how little pain he felt. Blood poured from the knife wound, filling his cupped hands and pouring out of them. In the background, he was vaguely aware of the bar fight happening around him. Glass bottles shattered and tables crashed as bodies were slammed into them. Buck reached for the edge of the bar and looked up at the pretty barmaid. Inez’s eyes widened in horror at the sight before her. She screamed and grabbed a clean towel from under the counter as she raced to his side.

“Senor Buck? Senor Buck, can you hear me? Madre de Dios! Nathan!”

The room darkened and his knees folded. Inez guided him to the floor sitting against the bar. Nathan rushed across the saloon and dropped to his knees. He pulled back the towel that Inez had pressed around the knife. He quickly replaced the towel and guided the woman’s hands back to applying pressure around the wound.

“Josiah! Chris! Get over here! Ezra and Vin, get these people out of the way! JD, run up to the clinic and start water to heating. Inez, I’m gonna need plenty of clean towels.”

Buck’s blue eyes fluttered and he reached out his hand.

“Chris? Looks like the end of the road, cowboy.” It hurt terribly just to breathe. He looked up and into the eyes of Vin and JD. They looked so young, innocent and green. “I don’t want to die, Nate.”

“You ain’t going to die on me, Buck. Just hold on.”

“We’ve got your back, Bucklin. You just hang on.” Vin’s voice cracked with emotion.

The next time he opened his eyes was in the clinic. Nathan had removed the knife and was stopping the bleeding. He could hear the men talking over him.

“He’s lost too much blood, Chris. I don’t know what I can do for him.”

A pale, shaky hand reached out.

“Nate? Transfusion?”

Vin looked up from where he sat next to Chris on the side of the bed. His eyes were puzzled. He looked at the two men and then back to the pale, weak form on the bed.

“What’s he talking about?”

“A transfusion. When you take blood out of one body and put it in another.”

“Let’s do it! What ever it takes, Nathan. He can have as much of my blood as he needs.”

“It isn’t that easy, Vin. I’ve seen men die from getting the wrong kind of blood.”

“How do you know which kind is right?” Chris asked as he got caught up in the conversation. It sounded like a plan that would save his friend.

“There’s no way of knowing.”

“Nathan, you and JD and Ezra have compatible blood types. You and Ezra are Type O and JD is Type A just like me. Trust me, Nathan.” Buck’s eyes pleaded with the healer.

+ + + + + + +

It was nearly midnight before Chris shook off the sedative. He was in his own bed at the ranch. He rolled to his side and saw Vin sitting in a chair at his bedside with his stocking feet resting on the corner of the bed. The events of the afternoon paraded thru his mind again and he moaned softly. The Texan immediately awoke and reached out to the team leader.

“Easy, Chris. Lay still for a minute. The sedative may not have worn off just yet.”

“What time is it, Vin?”

“Almost midnight. The others just crawled into bed. You need something to drink?”

“No. I’m just going to lay here and try to go to sleep again. You know he only has 29 more hours, don’t you?”

“We’ll find him, Chris.”

The smell of coffee lured the agents into the kitchen. JD and Ezra were making breakfast and talking softly. Chris and Vin stood in the door and listened as the other two talked.

“I can’t go back there by myself, Ezra. Not even to get my clothes. I just can’t face the place. There’s just too much of him there. I’ll keep expecting him to walk thru the door.”

“You’re welcome to use my spare room, Mr. Dunne. I have more than enough room and it would be good to have someone there when I go undercover. I’m sure that some of the others will be glad to help you move your belongings.”

JD looked up at the clock. His expression became even more distressed.

“Only about 21 hours left. By this time tomorrow …”

As the incredibly huge tears began to roll down the kid’s face, Vin stepped past Chris and pulled JD’s head into his chest. He rubbed the tense shoulders until the hiccupping breaths gave way to gut wrenching sobs. Chris moved to stand where he could lay his hands on the distraught young agent. Ezra stood, staring out the window as his knuckles turned white from the death grip he had on the edge of the sink.

The phone on the wall rang and startled all of them. Chris picked up the phone and wiped the tears from his eyes before pressing it to his ear.


“Agent Larabee, this is Dr. Morgan from the lab. I wanted to let you know that we are in the process of analyzing the evidence found on Mr. O’Neill’s body. So far we don’t have anything conclusive. Most of the hair and fibers are from the apartment. The female hostage called in a little while ago to ask for an officer to pick up a few of the kidnapper’s things that she found in the apartment and we will start on them as soon as they arrive. Will you be at this number all day? I will call you as soon as we have anything.”

+ + + + + + +

The cuts on the backs of Buck’s hands were still trickling blood. The darkness was working tortures on his mind as the drugs acted on his nervous system. He began to imagine that he could see lights in the dark. He reached for the lights, striking his hands again on the top of the box. Despair assailed him as he rolled to his side and wrapped his arms around his ribs. In the silence, even the sound of his own breathing sounded like a train rumbling and the sound of his heart beating was like drums. He kicked at the side of the box in frustration, too weak to even cry out anymore.

The dream picked up right where it had left off. He was still in the clinic feeling like something the cat wouldn’t bother to drag in. He could hear Nathan and Chris arguing fiercely on the other side of the room.

“I’m not sayin’ I won’t do it, Chris, but if it isn’t right he will die. The doctors I worked with couldn’t even tell me why it worked sometimes and not others. I ain’t even gonna tell you what they would have said about givin’ him my blood.”

“But he seems so sure about it, Nathan!”

“He’s out of his head right now! You gonna trust his life to delirious ravings?”

Another voice intruded on the argument.

“Gentlemen, I am willing to participate in this transfusion but I am concerned about becoming the instrument of his death.”

The healer sighed and squeezed the tightening muscles on the back of his neck. Ezra’s words echoed in his mind. He didn’t want to be the instrument of Buck’s death either. Taking another look at the pale form on the bed, he made his decision.

“I’ll try it, Chris. We’ll give him Ezra’s blood first and see how he does. I just hope we’re doing the right thing.”

Nathan had picked up the transfusion kit at a store in Cooper’s Bluff a couple of months ago along with a few other new medical instruments. Their town doctor had died and his widow sold off all of his things to pay her way back east. He had been especially keen on the medical books. He hadn’t had enough money for them and asked the storeowner to hold them for him until the next month. To his surprise, the others had gotten together and chipped in to buy him the books for his birthday the following week.

He carefully examined the rubber tube and the needles on both ends. After determining that there were no cracks in the tube, he dropped it into the hot water and left it for a minute. Using the special tongs he had gotten with the instruments, he removed the tube and let the water drain out. From the corner of his eye, he could see Ezra removing his jacket and shirt.

“Chris, ease Buck over on the bed. I’m gonna want Ezra right beside him.”

Watching to see that his instructions were being followed, Nathan moved closer to the bed. He had picked up a bottle of whiskey on his way across the room and he set it on the bedside table. He poured a measure of the alcohol in the cup he had sterilized in the boiling water and dipped the needle in it for a minute.

“Put some pillows behind Ezra, I don’t want him sitting up. If you start feeling light headed or sick to your stomach, sing out, hear?”

The gambler’s green eyes widened and he nodded. Nathan didn’t miss the hard swallow Ezra made when he saw the needle glinting in the sunlight.

“Okay, let’s do this. You have to be still when I put the needle in, okay?” Getting another nod, Nathan dampened a cloth with the whiskey and rubbed it over the bend of Ezra’s arm as he studied the blue vein just beneath the skin. With one last deep breath, he began.

The only indication of pain Nathan noticed in the gambler was a slight gasp when the needle bit into the tender flesh of his arm. It was a good stick and the rubber tube immediately darkened as it filled with blood. Casting a final glance at Buck, the healer eased the pressure off of the clamp at the other end of the tube. He let several drops of blood leave the needle before he tightened the clamp again. Wiping Buck’s arm with the cloth, he studied the vein.

The ladies man never even flinched as the needle slid into the vein. Nathan released the clamp and let the blood flow. He kept a hand on each arm and watched Ezra closely for any sign of difficulty.

“Open and close your hand slowly and let me know if your hand starts feeling numb or anything. You’re not feeling dizzy or sick are you? You’re looking pale, even for you.”

“Rest assured, Mr. Jackson, I will let you know the moment that this procedure produces any untoward effect. However, the sight of those needles has left me feeling somewhat weak in the knees.”

A slight smile spread across Chris’s face.

“I thought I was the only one. How much longer, Nathan?”

“Just a couple of minutes. If he doesn’t show any reaction, we can do it again tomorrow if he needs it. I don’t want to draw too much at one time.”

“Mr. Jackson? The light headedness you mentioned is beginning.” Ezra’s eyelids fluttered and he let his head back against the headboard as they closed. Nathan quickly closed the clamp and withdrew the needle, applying pressure with the whiskey-moistened cloth. He bent the arm up and placed Ezra’s other hand on it to hold it to his chest.

Lifting the tube to let the last of the blood flow toward Buck, Nathan removed the other needle and repeated the actions he had used on Ezra. Chris took hold of the folded arm and held it over Wilmington’s heart.

+ + + + + + +

Team 7 sat around the living room of the ranch in a morose silence. Every time the grandfather clock chimed, one of them would sigh dejectedly. Vin jumped up and walked out onto the deck to pace. JD got up and went into the kitchen and made another pot of coffee and washed out the used cups. Josiah sat with his eyes closed as he tried to direct his mind in prayer. Chris bolted from the house and into the yard where he took up an ax and began to cut up kindling. Nathan moved around the group, assessing their emotional states to keep his mind off of the deepening sadness he was feeling. He had called Rain to update her on the situation and stood on the deck watching over the others as he listened to her cry. Ezra followed JD for a while until the young agent asked him to go away. He then took up a spot on the deck to watch over Chris.

The ring of the cell phone startled the southerner and he quickly pulled it from his pocket.

“Agent Standish? It’s Mickey, from the diner? I think I found the guy you’re looking for. He says he overheard the guy talking about what he was going to do with the box, but he’s scared to come to you. He wants you to meet him at the donut shop on Madison.”

“I’ll be there in half an hour. Thanks, Mickey.”

Five pairs of eyes followed the undercover agent as he dashed off the deck and thru the house. The Jag threw gravel as it tore off down the driveway. Although he had a red light for the car, he had never used it before that moment. Roaring down the highway, he passed car after car as he raced back into downtown Denver.

The phone rang at the ranch and Nathan moved from his deck chair to answer it only to find Josiah had gotten to it first. The profiler nodded as he listened to the caller before thanking him and hanging up the phone.

“They found mud in the grooves of O’Neill’s shoes and they’re trying to match it a specific area. The technician said that the man has been around livestock recently, there were bits of hay and manure in the mud.”

+ + + + + + +

The man in the dark box could no longer distinguish reality from the dream. Buck alternated between weeping and pounding on the box and sleeping. The drugs in the water were distorting his memories until the dream images seemed more real than the world around him.

‘I’m dying, Chris. The transfusion didn’t work and now I’m laying here dying. It hurts! I don’t want to die right now! I want to see JD grow up and have kids of his own. Hell, I want to have kids of my own some day.’

In his despair, Buck was giving up. With the little bit of fight he had left, he opened and poured out all of the bottles of water. He knew that the drugs in the water were making him feel worse. He ate the last apple and choked down a few bits of the jerky that were left in the bottom of the bag.

+ + + + + + +

The jag came to a stop and Ezra leapt out. He didn’t want to take a chance on missing the informant. Running into the donut shop, he looked around for Mickey. The homeless man was sitting in the farthest corner booth with another man. The southerner forced himself to be calm as he approached the table so as not to frighten the other man.

“Mickey, good to see you again. Let me get you something to eat before we begin.”

Knowing that the old man had a terrible sweet tooth, Ezra went to the counter and ordered several iced donuts and three cups of coffee. Returning to the table, he slid in next to his informant and avoided eye contact with the other man. He slid the coffee across the table and waited for one of them to speak.

“Okay, here’s the deal,” the man began quietly, “You gotta protect me. The guy was crazy, talking all out of his head. He said he’d kill me and leave me in a box if I told.”

Pulling a picture of O’Neill out of his pocket, Ezra asked, “Is this the man?”

“Yeah, that’s him. He’s crazy! Had this whole crew of men working on this box. When it was built and they helped him get the Fed he killed them.”

“This man can’t hurt anybody. He was killed yesterday evening in an FBI raid. Did you hear where he was planning to bury the box?”

“He said something about a farm. Laughed about burying him under a pile of hay. ‘A needle under a haystack’ he kept saying over and over.”

“But you don’t know where the farm was located? Any little thing could mean a lot.”

“I’m sorry, mister. I told you, the guy is crazy. Just kept laughing about a needle and a haystack. I have to get out of here! I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you anything more.”

Ezra caught the man’s hand and pressed a small roll of bills into it with one of his cards.

“If you ever need anything, call me.” After the man left the shop, the southerner also pressed money into Mickey’s hand. He clapped the old man on the shoulder and sadly returned to his car.

Returning to the ranch as Josiah and Nathan were trying to coax the others into eating, Ezra collapsed on the couch and closed his eyes. He could hear JD protesting that he couldn’t eat anything and Chris ordering him to stop whining and eat. Vin’s voice was sharp as he criticized the team leader for being cruel. The two older agents separated them before the argument could come to blows.

Josiah guided Vin to the living room and parked him in the recliner and nudged JD into the corner of the couch. Both of the young men looked at Ezra briefly before glaring at the kitchen doorway.

“Did your informant have anything useful?” Josiah asked softly as he sat across from JD.

“A needle under a haystack. That’s what O’Neill said. He killed all of his accomplices as soon as the box was buried on a farm somewhere.”

JD jumped from the couch and left the house, head down and running for the barn. Only a few yards behind him, Vin followed to make sure that the kid didn’t hurt himself. He found the sobbing young man standing in the stall with Buck’s horse. The Texan leaned against the stall door as he offered his silent support.

The phrase rolled around in Josiah’s mind. O’Neill had been some place where there was mud and manure. A needle under a haystack. A backhoe to dig a hole big enough to bury a box larger than a coffin. A needle under a haystack. Suddenly, he came to his feet, yelling.

“Chris, he’s been here the whole time! Nathan, oh my God, he’s right here!”

Both men ran out of the kitchen and stared at Josiah as if he had gone over the edge. The profiler ran out of the house and headed for the barn. The other three agents ran after him, skidding to a halt at the edge of the haystack.

“A needle under a haystack, Ezra, don’t you see it? Chris, you said that the men showed up here with the backhoe and had dug the trench and covered it and moved the haystack! It has to be here!”

Grabbing a pitchfork from inside of the barn door, Josiah began moving the used hay. Vin came out of the barn and watched the older man with a confused look on his face. Suddenly, Josiah uncovered a PVC pipe sticking up out of the ground. It had a U-joint on the top and a mesh form around it to prevent anything from getting into the pipe. Nathan immediately ran for the house to call for help.

After clearing an area around the pipe, Josiah and Chris pulled the U-joint off of the pipe and looked down into the darkness. Lowering his face to the opening, Chris began to yell.

“Buck! Buck, can you hear me? Buck, answer me!” He immediately pressed his ear to the opening and listened for any kind of response. Hearing nothing, he began yelling again. “Buck! Buck Wilmington, can you hear me?”

+ + + + + + +

In the dark, he was hallucinating. It was getting harder to breathe and he was getting weaker. Buck heard the voice calling his name and he wept. ‘This has to be the end,’ he thought sadly. Closing his eyes, he lost consciousness.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan ran back to the barn, breathlessly shouting for them to listen.

“I called 911. They’re going to rush a rescue unit out here. They’ll bring the excavating equipment. It’ll take them about two hours to get the heavy machinery up here. We can start moving the haystack, it’ll give us something to do.”

The team attacked the haystack with a vengeance. The rescue unit arrived and JD directed them to the barn. The men didn’t have the equipment to do much more than stand and watch until the specialized unit arrived. It was a half hour before that unit arrived and Chris was going out of his mind with worry that they were too late.

An optical cable with a light on the end of it was lowered down the pipe. The grainy image appeared on the small black and white monitor. In the wan light they could see a collection of plastic water bottles. Turning the cable gently, the image showed a bloody foot. Chris’s knees folded and he began gasp for air. The paramedics pulled him to their gurney and forced an oxygen mask onto his face.

The team stood, frozen with horror as they stared at the grainy image on the screen. JD’s hands opened and closed convulsively as he fought to control his rampant emotions. Ezra stood at the young man’s side, horror showing plainly in his green eyes. Vin stood a little farther away from the crush of people, he couldn’t see the picture but he had seen the reaction of the blonde man and was responding in kind. Even as the Texan’s knees folded, Josiah was there to catch him and guide him to Chris’s side. Nathan stood behind Chris with both hands on the leader’s shoulders to prevent him from bolting again.

The optical cable was removed and a different cable fed into the pipe. The new cable had a super-sensitive listening device on the end. The technician had a set of headphones on his ears as he maneuvered the cable into place. The cable was also attached to a small screen that rendered sound into visual images. Ezra and JD stepped forward and got a peek at the screen. A series of lines appeared on the screen and the technician looked up and nodded to one of the others.

“He’s breathing. It’s labored, but he is breathing. We need to pipe some heated oxygen down there. Also, get the mic line and attach the optical cable to it, I want to try to talk to him.”

The technicians rearranged the cables while another piece of equipment was brought close to the pipe. The oxygen line was attached to the other cables and they were fed down the pipe. The oxygen concentrator purred softly as it began its lifesaving work. The technician pulled the headphones off and offered it to the two men standing beside him.

“Talk to him. Stay calm and don’t let him hear that you’re upset. Can you do that?”

JD shook his head and looked to Ezra. The southerner took the headset and slipped it over his ears. He swallowed hard as he heard the faint sound of the labored breathing.

“M-M-Mr. Wilmington? Buck? Can you hear me? You’re going to be all right. We’ll have you out of there shortly. Just stay calm. Buck? Can you say something?”

+ + + + + + +

The voices were back. It wasn’t Chris this time, it was Ezra. He thrashed in the box, striking the collection of plastic bottles as he pressed his hands to his ears. He had to shut out the voices! He curled into a tighter ball.

In his mind, he replayed the last part of the dream. He had survived the transfusion and was on his way to recovery. Emotionally as well as physically, he now shared a deep bond with Ezra. He owed the gambler his life. There was an abundance of gentle teasing about Buck developing better manners and a new wardrobe. The ladies man offered to give JD a transfusion to see if it made him more attractive to the opposite sex.

The dream traveled forward and he saw them again, healthy and whole. They were riding together across the plains, seven abreast. The spirit of brotherhood and camaraderie was so strong he could almost taste it and feel it on his skin. As the last vestiges of the dream faded, tears rolled down his cheeks.

+ + + + + + +

The backhoe and an excavator arrived a little over an hour later. In that time, they had all tried to talk to Buck. They pleaded with him to speak to them to no avail. The only consolation they had was that they could still hear the labored breathing and what sounded like soft sobbing.

The two pieces of equipment made short work of reopening the trench. The work slowed as they neared the level of the box. They didn’t want to risk jarring the box and the man inside. They had widened the area to allow room to get men into the hole with shovels.

The sun was going down and they still had not recovered the box. The rest of their ‘family’ joined the members of Team 7. The Travis’s arrived together, followed by Nettie and Casey Wells. Rain Jackson arrived, bringing medical supplies that the paramedics requested. Two vans filled with ATF and FBI agents arrived. The media was kept at the edge of the Larabee ranch; the judge didn’t want them putting his men’s fear on display for the world to see.

A bonfire was built to give those waiting a place to warm up. Inez arrived with her restaurant sized coffee maker and boxes of sandwiches that had been donated by one of the Subway stores that the men frequented. The women moved amongst the men, handing out coffee and sandwiches and simple comfort to those gathered.

Finally, around ten o’clock, there was a cry of discovery. They had found the top of the box. A crew of men jumped into the hole with shovels. In a few minutes they had cleared the top of the box. Shovels were exchanged for crowbars as they began to try to open the top of the box. The paramedics moved closer to the hole and prepared to receive the injured man. The members of Team 7 surged forward as the others pulled back.

The sound of long nails being drawn out of the damp wood created a screeching sound that was right out of a horror movie. The top sheet of plywood was lifted out of the hole and the rescuers stepped back to study what they had revealed. There was a thick layer of insulating sound batts inside of the framework. The material was pulled out and handed up. They surveyed the next layer before digging into it with the crowbars.

The six ‘brothers’ reached for each other as they watched the next step. Hands touched shoulders and wrapped around waists as they drew closer together. That layer of plywood was attached with screws instead of nails and required more work to lift it off. The plywood groaned and cracked as it was pried off. The men dropped the crowbars and reached under the edge to lift it out of the way.

If they thought they were prepared for what they were about to see, they were wrong. Buck was covered in blood with vomit in his hair wearing only his boxer shorts and tee shirt. He was curled into a tight ball and shaking. There was a thin layer of water in the bottom of the box. A collection of plastic water bottles lay in one corner.

The paramedic leapt into the hole and gently touched the shaking form. Chris and the two younger members of the team surged forward and were carefully restrained. Two more paramedics jumped into the hole and began to try to assess Buck’s injuries. Rain Jackson was lowered into the hole and knelt on the dirt at the side of the box.

“Get him out of there!” Chris called.

Nathan gently spoke to the blonde, “They don’t want to do him any more harm. They want to discover exactly how badly he’s hurt before they move him. Be patient, Chris.”

A stokes basket was lowered into the hole and the three men eased Buck out of the box. He was tense when they tried to lay him on his back and uncurl his body. A groan of pain floated free from his lips and Chris made another attempt to get to his side. It took both Josiah and Nathan to hold him back this time. A blanket was placed over him and the basket was then gently lifted and carried to the edge of the hole.

Once the basket was placed on the ground outside of the hole, the team surged forward. Nathan reached out to draw his wife up and then stepped back to let her work. Bags of warm saline were piggybacked and IV lines were started. An oxygen mask was pressed to his face. His vitals were recorded and an EKG started. The stokes basket was placed on top of the gurney and carried toward the waiting ambulance.

The paramedic turned to face the six men pressed close to the open doors. “I can take two of you with us. The rest of you will have to follow.”

Hands guided Chris and JD toward the ambulance. There was no discussion amongst the men. JD climbed in first and Chris after him. The doors were closed and the ambulance began to move away. There was a surge of bodies, pushing the four remaining team members toward the 17 passenger vans. The four of them, along with the women in their lives were loaded into the van and it moved into place behind the ambulance.

The paramedic monitored Buck’s vital signs as he watched the two men at his side. The younger man kept reaching out and drawing back his trembling hand. Finally, the paramedic took JD’s hand and moved it to cover the battered hand of his friend.

They arrived at the hospital and Buck was immediately whisked into an examination room. Chris and JD clung to the side of the gurney every step of the way. Neither man heard any of the doctor’s comments as their attention was focused solely on the face of their friend.

Blood was drawn and sent off to the lab. The doctor ordered packed cells for transfusion. There didn’t appear to be any broken bones. The saline solution was working well to combat the dehydration. Hot water bottles and a warming blanket were set in place to raise his body temperature. The lab work came back and the doctor was shocked to find such high levels of blood thinner in Buck’s bloodstream. He ordered a drug to combat the blood thinner to be added to the IV line.

The nurse lifted Buck’s hand from JD’s and began to clean the split knuckles. They were gauging the effect of the blood thinner by watching the wounds as the dried blood was cleaned off of the cuts. The antiseptic stung and Buck’s hand twitched.

“Hey, he moved!” JD’s voice was bright with joy.

The eyelids fluttered and the blue eyes opened once for a moment. Chris reached out and stroked Buck’s forehead gently. The blue eyes opened again and looked around in confusion. A look of fear crossed the man’s face and he tensed. The nurse tightened her grip on his hand and spoke soothingly.

“It’s all right, Mr. Wilmington. Just relax. You’re going to be fine.”

The blue eyes drifted up to the nurse and then to the young man standing next to her. His breathing quickened and he rolled his head back over to the man on the other side of the bed. He broke out in a cold sweat before he began to struggle to sit up. The nurse tried to restrain him until JD pulled her hands away. Buck wrapped his arms around Chris’s shoulders and sobbed.

The blonde man’s tears mingled with Buck’s as the two old friends clung to each other. After several minutes, Chris eased his friend back onto the bed. The blue eyes struggled to stay awake and lost. The nurse smiled warmly at the contented expression on the mustached face.

It took a couple of hours to get Buck stabilized before he was moved to a room. His body was gently washed as the nurses and doctor checked him for other injuries. The rest of the team crowded into the room. The nurse brought a cot and one of the recliners that she swiped from the maternity ward. The men rearranged the room to suit themselves and settled in for the long haul.

The nurse came in and swabbed an area on Buck’s forearm before tapping him with a sharp, pointed object. She started a stopwatch as the droplet of blood welled out of the tiny cut. JD watched her with great interest until she stopped the watch and wiped over the small wound.

“What are you doing?”

“The doctor wants us to keep a close eye on his blood clotting time. It appears that the water your friend was drinking was laced with a drug that dangerously thinned his blood. We’ve been working to counter it with another drug but we have to be careful not to give him too much. Has he wakened at all?”

“He’s opened his eyes a couple of times and took some water. He hasn’t said anything yet, he just looks around and goes right back to sleep.”

“You look like you could use some sleep yourself.”

“I will when I get to talk to him.” JD picked up Buck’s hand and rubbed the back of it, carefully avoiding the butterfly strips that had been placed over the small cuts.

“It may be a while; he was pretty weak when he came in. You really should get some rest. I’d hate for you to be sick from exhaustion when he does finally come around.”

From the corner of the room came a gruff voice, “JD, lay down before you fall down.”

Smiling sheepishly at the nurse, the young agent pulled up a chair closer to the bed and sat down in it. The nurse shook her head at him as she left the room. JD rested his folded arms on the side of the bed and rested his head on his arms. His eyelids closed as if by magic and he was asleep.

Buck opened his eyes and noticed the dark head near his hand. He reached out and rested his palm on the back of the head. JD stirred only slightly in his sleep and then settled back under the comforting touch.

It was two days before Buck was strong enough to try to talk about what had happened. He had been troubled by nightmares that startled him out of his sleep. The first time, he had bolted upright in the bed, yelling that Josiah had been shot. It took three of them to keep him in the bed and settle him down long enough to show him that the profiler was fine. The second nightmare seemed to center on horses and Vin woke him before it got too out of hand.

The entire team gathered around to hear the ordeal from Buck’s viewpoint. Each man shuddered at some point in the telling. There were smiles and outright laughter at the dream events. Chris sensed that his friend was holding back on some things and vowed to talk to him about them later.

After a weeklong hospital stay, Buck was finally discharged. As he sat on the edge of the bed waiting for the others to arrive, he looked at Chris. The blonde had been nervous all morning, pacing and looking out the window with loud sighs. His hands never seemed to stop moving as he sat picking at imaginary lint on his dark gray tee shirt.

“Okay, Larabee, out with it.”

“Out with what?” The reply tried to come off innocently and failed.

“What ever it is that’s eating at you. You’ve been as nervous as a long tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs since the doctor said I could go home. What’s wrong?”

“Buck, I … I’m just worried about, … I didn’t know how you’d feel about being back at the ranch after … everything.”

“That’s all? Chris, it wasn’t your fault! I love the ranch! My feelings haven’t changed because of what happened. I’ve been looking forward to sitting on the deck watching the sun go down for the past few days. I want to be there.”

The blonde turned and there were tears welling up in his eyes. He blinked them back just as the rest of the team arrived. Vin and JD were arguing about the graphics on some video game they had rented. Josiah had picked up several videotapes for Buck to watch. Ezra had several books on tape for him to listen to while he finished convalescing. Nathan brought him several puzzles. The ladies man had cocked an eyebrow at the idea of puzzles until he saw that they were from the ‘Playboy’ store. A wide grin burst out from under his mustache as he vowed to enjoy putting together the pictures of scantily clad women. JD eased one of the puzzles out of the bag and dropped it like a hot rock when he saw the picture. As the rest of the team enjoyed a good laugh at the young man’s expense, Ezra assured him that he would pass out if any more of his blood rushed into his cheeks.

The group fell silent as Josiah’s suburban turned into the driveway to the ranch. All of them tried to avoid looking toward the area where the box had been buried but their eyes were inexplicably drawn. The hole had been filled and leveled and the haystack was not as large as it had been but the disturbed earth loudly proclaimed the site.

The box had been taken away the morning after the rescue but they had all made a point, individually and in pairs, of going by the warehouse where it was stored. JD and Ezra had nearly become sick at the sight of the bloody marks on the plywood. Vin had shuddered, not able to even get close to the box. Josiah and Nathan had stood shaking their heads in amazement that Buck had survived at all. Chris had become angry when he saw the box. He had slammed his fists into the side until other agents pulled him away.

“Kinda like watching a train wreck. Can’t hardly bear to watch but can’t look away.”

Six heads nodded at the truth in Vin’s statement as the vehicle came to a stop. They all got out and Josiah took the bags of clothes toward the house. Buck looked toward the house but turned and headed for the barn. A look of panic crossed JD’s face and he looked to Chris for direction.

Setting the bags on the porch, Josiah joined the others as they followed Buck to the place where the hole had been. Wilmington leaned against the side of the barn and he suddenly felt drained as he looked at the raw dirt. The tracks from the big excavator were still there and a shudder raced thru him as he stared at them.

“You okay, Buck?” Chris spoke softly as he cocked his head toward his friend.

“I will be, pard, I will be.”