Ninety-Six Hours – The Aftermath

by Angie

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5

Chris drove by the ranch to let the others know what was happening. They found Dr. Franklin sitting in the recliner watching JD as he slept. The kid was sitting on the floor with one arm thrown across Ezra’s legs and his head resting on the edge of a small throw pillow. Josiah and Nathan steered Chris and Vin into the other room to bring them up to speed.

“JD’s had a rough afternoon, Chris. He says he’s moving out of the cess pit. He’s afraid of Buck now. Emily got him calmed down and then he got upset about not having any place to stay so Ezra offered to let him move into the condo. That got him all upset again. He pretty much cried himself to sleep there,” Nathan explained.

“Will he be okay?”

“Depends on what happens when Buck gets back here. Where is he anyway? Some Deputy called here and said that they’d found the jeep,” Josiah asked.

“Place called ‘The Watering Hole’ clean over in the next county,” Chris answered.

“Until they get him to the drunk tank at the jail, that is,” Vin injected acidly.

“You asked them to lock him up? Have you lost your mind?” Nathan asked, his voice becoming loud enough to waken the others.

“It’s for his own good! Maybe he’ll take the time to realize that he’s in over his head!” Chris yelled.

“Buck’s in jail? Geez Chris, I didn’t know you were that mad at him!” JD cried as he came to his feet.

“Okay, before anyone becomes any more upset, lets all take a minute and calm down. JD, earlier this afternoon weren’t you more worried that Buck was safe than anything else? He’ll be safe at the jail for the moment. Chris, I would like to go with you when you bail him out, okay?” Emily asked.

“Then you better get your shoes and lets go. Ezra, you and JD head for your place and take Josiah with you. I don’t want everyone here when we get back. No argument, JD. Consider it an order, all of you. Lets go Doc.”

+ + + + + + +

When Kevin and Desmond deposited the unconscious body on the bunk, they stepped back for a moment to catch their breath. Desmond studied the troubled expression on Buck’s face before he spoke.

“How long are we keeping him here?”

“Just a few hours. They’ll be here and take him back to the ranch,” Kevin answered, completely unaware that Buck was semi-conscious and listening to every word.

‘Back to the ranch. Back to the ranch. TO THE RANCH. THE RANCH?’ The words rolled around until they touched the exact right nerve. When Buck sensed the man moving close, he lashed out and fell off the bunk.

The startled deputy backed away when he saw the terrified expression on the prisoner’s face. He moved back in and tried to help him to his feet. Buck braced himself against the edge of the bunk and tried to lash out with his feet again. The two men backed away and left Buck in the cell.

The ride to the jail was made in silence. Vin glared at Chris a couple of times before huffing angrily and crossing his arms across his chest. Nathan and Dr. Franklin sat in the back and observed the byplay between the two men. When the truck rolled to a stop, the Texan was out and had slammed the door even before the ignition was shut off.

Buck toppled onto his side and lay shaking on the floor. When Kevin came in and offered to remove the cuffs, the terrified man only pushed away until he was under the bunk. Using his feet, Buck wedged himself against the wall and clenched his eyes shut.

The two deputies tried to explain that they tried to remove the handcuffs before Chris and Vin came within sight of the cell. They could not have prevented the explosion that occurred the moment the Texan caught sight of Buck huddled beneath the metal bunk. Vin whirled on the nearest man, Desmond, and slammed him into the wall.

“What in the HELL did you do to him?” Vin screamed as his hands tightened on the struggling man.

Deputy Schoenfeld drew his gun by reflex and pointed it at Vin’s back as he balanced his weight evenly on his wide-spread feet. For several tense moments the only sounds in the corridor were the ragged, angry breaths of the frightened and enraged men. Finally, Emily found her voice.

“Gentlemen, can we please not start shooting, please? I think there had been a misunderstanding here.”

Nathan reached out and pulled Vin off of the deputy and nudged him toward the cell. Kevin eased back and holstered his weapon to check on his partner before removing the key from his belt and passing it to Chris. The blonde opened the cell door and moved in, crouching down as he approached the bunk.

Buck recoiled. They were coming for him! They were taking him to the ranch! He had to get away but his hands were secured behind his back! No escape was possible! Terror coursed thru him as the first pair of hands reached for him.

“NO, please! I can’t take it anymore! Don’t put me in the hole again!”

The words ripped thru the three men like razorblades. To see their big, fun loving, ladies man so afraid was incomprehensible. Chris reached for Buck again only to find Vin pushing his hands away. The Larabee glare flashed brightly for a moment before Dr. Franklin reached out and laid calm hands on the tense ones.

“Vin is right. Talk to him first. He’s lost and confused and afraid right now. If you drag him out of there you’ll only further traumatize him.”

The two men dropped back onto their heels and drew several deep, calming breaths. Chris closed his eyes and tried to find the words. He remembered the words Buck had used to clam and soothe him when his world had blown apart. Easing the painful memory out of the way, he reached for the words.

“Buck? Can ya hear me? Come on, man, open them baby blues for me. I need to talk to ya for a minute, Buck. Please?”

While Vin spoke, Chris eased his hand in and stroked the top of Buck’s head. When the ragged breathing dissolved into tears, the two men eased the big man out from under the bunk. Nathan pressed the keys to the cuffs into Vin’s hand. As soon as the cuffs slipped free, Buck wrapped his arms around Chris’s waist and buried his face in the blonde mans stomach.

By the time Chris and Nathan manhandled Buck into the back seat of the Dodge, Vin had apologized profusely to Kevin and Desmond. Seeing how distraught the ATF agent was over the incident let them know that he was sincere in his apology. They assured him there were no hard feelings and urged him to go tend to his friend.

Buck was secured by the seatbelt in the corner of the back seat for the ride back to the ranch. He never even twitched on the ride back. As soon as Nathan tried to ease him out of the truck, all the alcohol in his stomach spilled onto the gravel. Chris pushed to Buck’s side and held him firmly until the dry heaves passed. After a cold shower, Chris poured Buck into bed and settled into the rocker someone had knowingly placed at the bedside.

The nightmare was back in vivid, living color! Buck could feel the plywood touching his skin! He kept his eyes clenched shut because he knew that it would be dark when he opened them. He turned on his side and drew his knees up for warmth. An anguished moan escaped his lips.

It was the sound that wakened him, the soft moan. Chris opened his eyes to find that Buck had kicked all the blankets off the bed and was now curling up in a fetal position in the middle of the mattress. He carefully lifted the blankets and eased them up over the trembling body. With firm, even strokes he soothed Buck until he straightened out and rolled to his stomach. Like a contented baby, Buck sighed and smacked his lips in his sleep.

The sun was well on its was across the sky when the men with the jackhammers started their encore performance in his skull. Their guest accompanist turned out to be Chris and his amazing snore! Rolling over carefully, he nudged the bare feet resting on the corner of the mattress.

“Huh? Buck? You okay? Feeling sick?” Chris asked as soon as he opened his eyes.

“No, not sick. Not yet anyway. Don’t you have work today?”

“Called in sick. Needed to be here with you today. Why don’t you grab a shower and I’ll go see what’s for breakfast. Don’t be all morning!”

On his way to the bathroom, Buck looked out the window. He was bitterly disappointed to see that aside from the Dodge, the only other vehicles out front were Nathan’s and Dr. Franklin’s. Pushing the flight urge away, he stepped into the shower.

Vin was sprawled out on a chaise lounger in just his cutoffs, soaking up some sun. He had all but forgotten about Emily, who was kicked back on the glider watching the horses in the field. JD had called as soon as he figured it was a ‘decent’ hour to find out about Buck. After assuring the young man that his ‘big brother’ was all right, Chris had extracted a promise that the young man would not return to the ranch until he said it was all right.

A dishtowel flicked lightly on his backside and Vin opened one eye. Nathan motioned him into the house. After retrieving his tee shirt from the lawn where it had blown off of the porch rail, Vin entered the house and sat down. Nathan and Emily were already seated and Chris was bringing in a pot of coffee and a plate of bagels and Danishes.

Buck came down the stairs several minutes later. He had showered and shaved and looked very much like his old jovial self except for the haunted look in his eyes. Warily, he circled the couches and took a seat opposite Emily. His eyes drifted over the food, but to reach for it would put him within arms reach of the shrink and that made his stomach ache. Vin came to his rescue by fixing a couple of bagels and sliding them to the other end of the table. Pouring a cup of coffee for himself and one for Buck, he took both cups and moved to the far side of the couch.

“So, it’s us versus them?” Emily asked as she observed the obvious division in the room. She, Nathan and Chris were on one side of the room and Vin and Buck were on the other.

The light of protest lit in Buck’s eyes and Emily held up a hand.

“Before you deny it, tell me something. Where would Josiah sit if he were here?”

Both Buck and Vin’s eyes drifted to the couch where Emily sat.

“And if Ezra were here?”

Their eyes met and then shifted to the couch closer to Vin.

“And if JD were here?” Emily asked quietly.

Without hesitation, all of them watched as Buck actually reached for the spot next to him.

“Suppose I told you that JD would not sit there? I think JD would be more comfortable over here, closer to Ezra. How would that make you feel?”

“You don’t know JD,” Buck challenged. He could feel the flight urge building along with the anvil chorus inside of his skull.

“I think I’ve gotten to know him pretty well in the past few weeks. He’s actually spoken to me a lot about you, especially after the other morning.”

All three men could see the color drain from Buck’s face. Nathan shifted in his seat and watched the other man carefully. He had been sharply vetoed when he suggested giving Buck something to ease his hangover before beginning their ‘intervention.’

“He said he wouldn’t tell,” came the whispered defense.

“So he was supposed to be afraid to come near you forever?”

“He’s not afraid of me!”

It wasn’t Emily, but Chris who responded.

“He was afraid of you, Bucklin. That’s why I took your gun the other night. He wouldn’t even come I the bedroom with you until I had it.”

Buck’s head dropped and his shoulders heaved with silent sobs. His hand reached out for the empty seat next to him. Vin moved closer to offer comfort.

“Buck, I’m not trying to hurt you. I’m trying to make you see how much you’re hurting yourself. You aren’t dealing with this and you must. The deeper you try to bury the pain, the more it will hurt when it comes out. Your friends can deal with what happened if they know you are getting well but the longer it takes for you to come to terms with it, the longer they will languish.”

“You can tell she’s been talking to Ezra,” Buck injected.

“Will you talk to me about it? Now? Today?” Emily pushed.

Buck looked at the quilt draped over the back of the couch and pulled it to his lap as he nodded. Vin cocked his head to ask if he was sure and got a wan smile. The three men slowly backed out of the room and headed for the barn.

Every few minutes, one of them would glance toward the house and sigh. Every stall had been cleaned and fresh straw put down. The loft and been cleaned and the horses brushed to within inches of their lives. It seemed like an eternity since they had left Buck and Emily to talk.

A feminine voice coughed politely so as not to startle the three men who were staring into space. A reassuring smile graced her lips and their hearts beat freely again.

“He’s sleeping,” she said in answer to the question scrolling across the blonde man’s hazel eyes. “I gave him something for the headache. He’ll sleep for several hours.”

“He get it off his chest?” Chris asked as he came to his feet.

“This isn’t a one shot deal, Chris. He’s talking to me. He’s hurting and he’s scared.”

“Scared?” Chris challenged. The idea that Buck might still be afraid appalled him.

“Yes, scared! He’s afraid of losing JD, of losing his job or his mind. He held on to a lot of the fear from his first encounter with O’Neill, buried it deep. It was like a dormant virus, the right catalyst sent the poison coursing thru him. He’s also still grieving.”

Chris dragged a hand thru his hair. The only thing his friend could still be grieving over had to be Sarah and Adam. His eyes flooded with tears as he stared at Emily.

“Yeah, I can see that thorn has infected you too. I’ll be back tomorrow to talk to him again. Keep him calm and talk to him if he wants but don’t push. Keep the others away for the night. As much as I hate to use it, keeping the others away is keeping him off balance and that allows him to talk.”

“No, JD?” Vin queried. “That’s harsh, isn’t it? He’s been hovering over the kid since he got out of the hospital.”

“I know. I need him to admit to the reason he’s responding to JD the way he is. He can talk to him on the phone, briefly. He’s exhausted, physically and mentally, so he may sleep a lot over the next few days. I’ll be spending the night tomorrow night if that’s all right?”

“Whatever he needs,” Chris stated before leaving the barn and heading for the house.

The phone rang and Ezra calmly folded the newspaper. JD shifted nervously in the big recliner and stared at the phone. Seeing the hopeful, excited puppy look in the young man’s eyes, Ezra sighed.

“Standish residence. Yeah, how’s he doing? Thank goodness. I understand. I’ll tell them. Okay.”

Ezra replaced the phone in the base and looked at JD and then at Josiah, who was standing in the kitchen door trying not to look too eager.

“Chris said that Buck spoke to Dr. Franklin today. It’s a start. She wants us to refrain from seeing him until he deals with some of his issues. They’ll have him call you this evening, JD.”

The young agent slumped into the recliner for a moment before bolting up the stairs and into the guest room. Throwing himself on the bed, he wept from frustration and relief. When Josiah looked in on him later, JD was asleep. In his arms was Buck’s coat that he had picked up by mistake when they went to get his clothes the night before.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of spicy tomato sauce tickled the sleeping agent’s nose and he twitched. Only Nathan made the sauce that called people to the table by scent alone. Buck pushed the quilt back and looked around the living room. From the shadows on the wall, he could tell that he’d been asleep for three or four hours. Sitting up on the couch, his headache seemed almost gone and for that he sent a kindly thought to Dr. Franklin.

The morning’s discussion ran thru his mind like a runaway train and he winced. Even without touching on the most recent trauma, he had found plenty to talk to her about. From some of the deepest recesses of his mind, he had dredged up plenty of pain. She had asked him to tell her about where he’d lived growing up. As the list of cities rolled out he had inadvertently let slip some of the anger he had felt about being uprooted so often.

+ + + + + + +

It was the longest length of time he could remember being in one place. Football tryouts had begun and young Bucklin had made the first two cuts. Because of his size, the coach wanted him for a blocker but he also threw beautiful spirals that eerily always found their mark. He arrived home one afternoon to the unmistakable signs of relocation. His mother saw the hurt on his face and she tried to comfort him but he turned away and went to pack.

+ + + + + + +

During the discussion of his feelings toward his mother, he also let slip a deeply buried secret. He had already told her what his mother had done for a living. It didn’t shame him that his mother was a whore, it bothered him deeply that she arranged and paid for his first sexual encounter.

He found out purely by accident several months afterward that the young woman who had so bewitched him and taken his virginity was an acquaintance of his mother. When confronted with the truth, she had admitted to knowing and paying the girl. She’d wanted him to learn the ‘right way’ safely. The girl had been thoroughly screened before being set up with the 14-year-old boy.

Delving into his past had devastated him to the point that he had become physically ill, prompting Emily to give him a shot to settle his stomach and ease his headache. They jumped briefly into his time in the military before he’d dozed off.

+ + + + + + +

The smell of the spaghetti sauce called again and he levered himself to his feet and headed for the bathroom. He secretly hoped that the others would be there when he got into the kitchen but found only Chris, Nathan and Vin.

“How do you feel?” Nathan asked softly.

“Not too bad. The explosions in my head have eased. That smells damned good there, Nate.”

“It’ll be ready in half an hour. There’s cold tea in the fridge,” the medic offered. He knew that Buck had been sick and would be dehydrated from all the alcohol.

“The others coming?” He asked hopefully, though it didn’t look like there was enough food for all seven of them.

“Nope, just us tonight,” Vin answered, sparing Chris of delivering the bad news.

Buck took it as punishment and his expression dropped. He sullenly opened the refrigerator and pulled out the pitcher of tea and poured a large mug for himself before trudging out to the deck.

“This is about the lowest I’ve ever seen him,” Vin commented.

The atmosphere at the Standish abode was no better. JD was sulking at being kept away from Buck. In spite of the fast paced hockey game on the tube and the delivery pizza, the kid moped. Josiah had long since given up trying to entertain or placate the young man and was now ignoring him. Ezra had dug out every card game he had, Uno, Rook, Mille Borne, Skip-bo and Pit only to have JD sigh and turn away.

When he grew tired of watching Buck pace, Chris handed him the phone.

“Call JD before I have to kneecap you!”

Ezra and Josiah exchanged a glance when the phone rang. Waving a hand, Ezra indicated for JD to answer it and the two older men retreated to the balcony to watch the sunset. For a couple of minutes, the phone conversation was stalled. Both of them desperately needed to apologize but neither knew quite how to bring it up. Buck finally broke the ice.

“I spoke to Dr. Franklin today,” he offered softly.

“She’s nice, isn’t she?” JD asked.

“Yeah. It wasn’t as bad as I thought. She didn’t ask many questions and I just kinda tossed stuff out.”

“Me too. We talked about Mr. Fuzzles,” JD said as a warm blush colored his cheeks.

+ + + + + + +

Only Buck knew about the kitten. JD had found it while in the surveillance van during an ice storm. The bedraggled feline was half starved and nearly frozen to death when the young agent had found it. Not able to leave the animal to die, JD had tucked it inside of his coat and kept it. Sequestering the tiny ball of fur in his bedroom, he managed to keep it hidden for four days. That was how long it took for the fleas to leave the kitten in search of something more appetizing. Buck had urged JD to find a suitable home for the kitten after the flea bath and bug bombing the apartment.

It took two weeks for JD to find Serena. The little girl was sitting on the bench outside of the laundry room of the apartment complex crying her eyes out. Her beloved cat, Garfield, had to be put to sleep because he had gotten too old and the child was devastated. After getting permission from Serena’s parents, the kitten was decked out with a satin bow and sent to his new home. Buck had stumbled upon JD crying as he packed up the assortment of toys they had lavished on the tiny ball of fur.

+ + + + + + +

“I still miss him,” Buck admitted.

“Are you watching the game?” JD asked.

“Nah, can’t sit still that long. How’d you get Ezra to watch?”

“He’s out on the balcony with Josiah. They’re getting tired of ‘babysitting’ me.”

“They aren’t babysitting. We all need each other right now,” Buck defended.

“Well, I just need to go home. Ezra’s so picky about his stuff.”

The conversation ran out of steam and they hung up. Josiah and Ezra crept back in after seeing JD throw himself into the recliner again. They didn’t ask and he didn’t offer.

Nathan massaged Buck’s shoulders for a couple of minutes before watching him curl up on the end of the couch and stare at the TV. After a couple of hours of mutual silence, the men went to bed. The silence was oppressive.

An anguished cry sounded moments before several loud thumps emanated from the guest room. The other three men hit the stairs at an all out run. Chris flung the door open and his the light switch. When the room was bathed in light, the three men stared in shock as Buck, foundering in his blankets, was frantically searching for something at the side of the bed. Chris cautiously circled the bed, calling softly.

“Buck? What happened, big guy? Did you fall out of bed?”

It was the way he had always wakened Adam from a nightmare and it worked on Buck too. The confused blue eyes struggled to focus as Buck’s hands continued to pat the carpet around him. He blinked at Chris as the blonde knelt and placed a hand on his shoulder.

“You seen my gun?” Buck asked in a decidedly nervous tone of voice.

“I put it away, remember?” Chris reminded gently.

“How am I gonna protect JD without my gun?”

Chris slid an arm across Buck’s shoulders and pulled him in close. ‘God, he sounds so scared.’ As he smoothed Buck’s tee shirt he rocked slightly on his knees.

“JD is safe, Buck. He’s with Ezra and Josiah. Let’s get you back to bed now, okay?”

They got the ladies man settled back in the bed and Chris sat with him until he was sure Buck would stay asleep. He left the light on as he crept out of the room and returned to his bed. It was a long time before he got back to sleep.

The sun peeked over the horizon and painted the sky with orange, pink and gold streaks. A small flock of geese flew overhead, their voices arriving ahead of their bodies on the breeze. A small fish, being chased by a slightly larger fish, leapt out of the water casting rings on the surface of the pond and Vin Tanner scratched his thigh where a mosquito had bitten him the night before.

After Buck had wakened them all, the Texan had been unable to go back to sleep. The small, frightened voice had once again stirred the insecurities that had been troubling Vin for a long time. They lingered just beneath the surface, reminiscent of the movie Jaws, waiting to catch him unaware and lay him open.

Ever since his ma had died, Vin had tried not to love anyone again. His young mind reasoned that it would hurt less to lose people if he didn’t love them. It was a survival tactic that has helped him to survive the Social Service system. Being moved from one home to the next without loving anyone had kept him sane. He’d seen the ones who were foolish enough to love their new families. They sat, shell shocked, while their belongings were gathered and packed, or worse, left behind.

The military had honed his detached attitude by putting him in Special Services and training him as a sniper. Bounty hunting was easy when you didn’t have to worry about getting home in time for supper or in one piece. All of that changed when he met Chris. His gut tightened when he thought about the way things were now. They depended on him to protect them during raids or busts. ‘How can I protect JD without my gun?’ The words echoed thru Vin’s mind. O’Neill had shown them just how fragile they were. They couldn’t protect each other.

Chris glared at the clock before giving up and throwing off the blankets. He jerked on his clothes as if angry with them. He glared at his reflection in the mirror for a while. He just felt so damned helpless. Buck had been with him thru hell and high water. The blonde man had come to count on that reassuring presence. His greatest fear was that he would lose that presence. It made him scared to see how vulnerable Buck was right now. Chris was thought of as a bad-ass when deep down he was just the head of a damned good group of men. He could feel it all sliding thru his hands like sand.

Striding silently thru the house, Chris let himself out onto the deck and leaned against the rail next to Vin. Neither man spoke as they watched the new morning blooming around them. With a deep sigh, Chris turned to study Vin’s fine features. The sharpshooter’s eyes were unfocused as he faced the horizon.

“Couldn’t sleep either?” Vin’s voice was a mere whisper on the breeze.

“This thing with Buck is eating me up inside.”

For the next hour, the two friends stood watching the sunrise, lost in thought. When Nathan slipped out and pressed mugs of coffee into their hands, he was acknowledged with a smile and a nod. The smell of bacon frying brought all three into the house to find Buck cooking breakfast.

“Figured you guys have been carrying me long enough. Sit down and take a load off,” Buck said by way of explanation.

Just as the last of the breakfast dishes were being loaded into the dishwasher, Dr. Franklin arrived. She smiled brightly as she clasped her notepad to her chest. Buck handed her a cup of coffee and motioned for her to follow him. They walked down to the lake and sat on the dock for a long time.

The phone rang and Chris reached over to answer it.

“Chris, Orin. Listen, you know I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t have to but I need the best and I need you now.”

By the time Chris hung up the phone he was shaking. Travis had gotten a call on a cold case that the team had kicked around several months ago. A string of murders that were scattered loosely around the Denver and Colorado Springs area had turned out to be connected. Eight young men in classic gang dress had been found shot, execution style, in various empty warehouses. Now Travis wanted to send Vin and JD undercover to try to infiltrate the gang they believed to be responsible. The director really only needed the two young men but knew he’d never be able to pry them away from the others.

“Go get Buck, we gotta talk,” Chris said in a deadly level voice.

Buck took the news calmly and hid his emotions under a thick blanket of passivity until Chris’s truck disappeared down the driveway. Turning to face Dr. Franklin, he pushed everything down deep inside and asked her to leave.

+ + + + + + +

The team met in the conference room to go over what intel they had so far. The surveillance photos were blurry and grainy. The gang, calling themselves ‘Los Loco Lobos,’ had taken up residence in an old factory building. They were bringing in shipments of guns and explosives. Somehow they had procured a shipment of C-4 and had enough to take out a couple of city blocks.

The insertion was simple. The police had picked up several of the gang members on suspicion of solicitation. They would toss Vin and JD in the lockup and hope they made the connection. Dressed in shabby, beat up clothing, the two young agents looked as if they lived on the streets. Nathan took JD aside and when they returned, it looked as if he had beaten the boy.

“Whoo, what did you do, Nate?” Josiah asked as he tipped JD’s bruised face upwards.

It had taken a lot of coaxing to get JD to agree to the injections that would create the colorful bruises without leaving any permanent damage. There were also bruises on his hands and wrists.

“Our intel suggests that the gang is actually paired up. Vin ‘owns’ JD, that way they can stay together. No one will bother them,” Nathan explained.

Vin didn’t like it. He had seen enough of these gangs around Purgatorio and while growing up to know that marking JD as ‘fresh meat’ was setting the young man up for danger. He would need eyes in the back of his head to watch both of their backs. Tying the dark bandana around his head, he sighed.

Even the cops didn’t know that Vin and JD were Federal agents. They were picked up for panhandling and tossed unceremoniously into the lockup. Five other young men glared at them from various places around the cell. JD sank to the floor near the bars and pulled the battered bomber jacket more tightly around his ribs. Vin took a corner and leaned his lanky frame against the bars.

+ + + + + + +

Alone at the ranch, Buck paced. When he grew tired of pacing, he cleaned. He stripped the beds and washed the bedding. He turned the mattresses. Noticing streaks on the glass when he pulled down the curtains, so he washed the windows. By the time darkness came, he was exhausted. And he still could not fall asleep.

With a disgusted sigh, he rolled over and opened the nightstand drawer. He still had all of the sleeping pills he’d palmed since coming home from the hospital. The little blue pills lay in a tissue in the corner of the drawer. He forced himself to swallow one and waited for it to deliver him into a dreamless sleep.

+ + + + + + +

When the evening meal was distributed to the lockup, one of the gang made a move on JD. Vin watched the interaction for a while to make sure the man was interested before he made his move. Striding across the cell, he slipped his leg in between the kid and the gang member.

Almost shaking with relief, JD remembered what he was supposed to do. Hesitantly, he handed his sandwich to Vin and wrapped one arm around the Texan’s leg and pulled himself closer. The gang member backed off and Vin went to his knees, pulling JD into his arms. Rubbing his cheek against the top of JD’s head, Vin broke the stale sandwich into bite-sized pieces and hand fed them to his friend.

The thoroughly rebuffed gang member returned to the slight blonde kid on the bunk and they cuddled up together. Vin kept his arm around JD until the main lights were dimmed. From the motion and sounds coming from the bunk, Vin knew the gang member was ‘claiming’ the blonde kid. When the larger man glared across the cell, Vin nuzzled against the side of JD’s head and shifted the blanket over the two of them.

+ + + + + + +

Bolting upright in the bed, Buck realized that he had been dreaming again. His heart was pounding so hard that he could feel it all the way to his toes. In the dream, he was searching for the others. He’d had an image of them buried in a giant sand dune. He was clawing and digging thru the abrasive material, screaming their names. One by one, he dug them out until he found JD. The kid wasn’t breathing and Buck raised his head to cry out his agony when he woke himself.

Climbing out of bed on shaky knees, he went downstairs to the phone and called Chris.

“Larabee,” the sleepy voice said into the receiver.

“Chris? I couldn’t sleep and I just wanted to … I just wondered,” Buck couldn’t say the words.

“They’re fine Buck. They made contact with the gang and the cops are going to spring the lot of them in a few hours. We put a tag on both of them so we can track them by GPS if we have to. Are you all right?”

The concern in Chris’s voice loosened the tightness in Buck’s chest.

“I had another nightmare. All of you were buried in the sand and I had to find you. When I found JD he was, he had …Oh God, Chris, what if I’m losing my mind?”

“You’re not! You’ve just been thru a load of Hell and you’re still getting over it. Promise me something?”


“That you’ll stay at the ranch and you won’t drink and that you’ll talk to Emily.”

“That’s three things, Cowboy,” Buck teased. He could almost hear the smile spreading over Chris’s face. “I promise. You just take care of the team for me, okay?”

“Will do. I’ll call you later.”

Hanging up the phone, Buck eased back in the recliner and went back to sleep.

Josiah stood in the doorway watching the team leader as he assembled his face. When Chris finally acknowledged him, the profiler asked, “How is he?”

“He sounds okay for right now. Since neither of us is sleeping, how about we grab some grub and eat with Nathan and Ezra?”

+ + + + + + +

The cop opened the cell door and escorted the young ruffians to the desk. One by one, they signed for their belongings. As a group, they were shoved out of the police precinct building. Vin quickly draped an arm over JD’s shoulder and steered him away from the others. The big gang member, Gerard, called out to him.

“Hey, you guys need a place to crash for a few days?”

Tightening his grip on JD, Vin stopped and studied the man.

“Hey, it’s okay! Finders keepers, I get it. We got a place across town. It isn’t much but it’s dry,” Gerard commented quickly.

“Okay, but no one touches the kid!”

“It’s cool, come on.”

Josiah rested the binoculars on the dash and looked to the team leader.

“They’re in,” he said softly. “God help them.”

“Amen, Josiah,” Chris said as he started the car.

+ + + + + + +

Emily quickly noticed the results of Buck’s nervous energy. The house was immaculate! He was talking nonstop about nothing as he scrubbed the copper bottoms of Chris’s old Revere ware pots and pans. She waited for a pause to ask a question.

“Have you spoken to the others?”

She almost flinched at the speed with which the door slammed in Buck’s expression. He lifted his tightly veiled eyes and nodded. He studied the pale cuticles of his hands without elaborating for a long moment.

“Chris put tags on them so he can keep up with them.”

“Tags?” She had to ask because she didn’t know what he was talking about.

“Electronic tags so he can track them by GPS if he has to. I figure he’ll be having us micro chipped eventually,” he replied with a hint of a grin.

Emily smiled at the image that popped into her mind. She wiggled in her chair as she imagined it. Buck’s smile widened.

+ + + + + + +

The warehouse was abandoned and the gang had quietly set up housekeeping on the top floor Gerard introduced them to the others. Vin’s initial impression had been correct. The nucleus of the gang was a small group of dominant personalities. Each of them had two or three ‘chickens,’ most likely frightened runaways. There was a wide variety of combinations of pairs and trios.

He and JD were given an empty stall of their own. The warehouse had, at one time, manufactured mattresses and was generously littered with pieces of foam and old rolls of cotton batting to use for bedding. After securing their sleeping space, Vin and JD had gone out with some of the others to try to scare up food. Several of the girls were turning tricks to earn money. A few of the boys did too. Vin spotted the surveillance car and shoved JD in that direction.

The older man climbed out of the car and rested against the hood as he watched the young pair approach. They talked for a minute before the driver got out and came around. There was more discussion. The older man took JD by the arm and walked away with him while Vin got in the car with the driver. Gerard turned back to the young blonde ‘chicken’ he had picked up at the bus station.

“They’re predators, Chris! Probably picking up kids on the streets. You have to get JD out before they try something. Buck will have my head if anything happens to the kid!”

“Just keep your eye on the goal, Vin. What are they doing with the guns and explosives?”

“Hell, we just got there! You don’t think they aren’t suspicious? Give me a day or two. Let’s get back, what I’m selling doesn’t take too long.”

Chris didn’t need to ask. He guessed that the kids were prostituting themselves for money. He pulled his wallet and handed over the two twenties. Vin pocketed the bills and they drove back to the place they’d left the others. Chris instructed Vin to meet Ezra at the same corner the next day.

As soon as the car stopped, Vin bolted out and jerked JD away from Josiah. Loud enough to be overheard by the girls on the near corner, Vin spoke to the kid.

“He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Turning on the profiler, he shouted, “The deal was me and your friend! You didn’t say anything about the kid!”

Responding appropriately, Josiah grabbed Vin and shoved him against the wall and pinned him with one arm while fishing a bill out of his wallet. Tucking the ten in the front pocket of Vin’s jeans, Josiah smiled menacingly.

“That’s more than he’s worth.”

Vin shoved free of the man and retrieved JD. After inspecting the fresh ‘bruises’ on the kid’s face, he shoved him toward the warehouse. Three of the girls from the corner followed them. Gerard rushed out to meet them to find out how they’d done with their search for money. Vin willingly surrendered one of the twenties. That night the group ate and a couple of bottles were shared before they retired to bed. A young girl, Carlotta, offered to sleep with them but Vin refused her.

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4 | Page 5