Parts 1-6 | Parts 7-9 | Parts 10-13 | Parts 14-17
Once he had the door open, Buck had used more of his dwindling strength to help Josiah back to the mattress beside the puddle of water that was their lifeline. Drained, he sat down against the wall to drink some water and rest a moment. The sun had set, and as darkness rapidly overcame their prison, Buck slipped into a deep exhausted sleep. Only with the return of the sun did he begin to awaken again. It was a slow painful process, he made no attempt to stifle the cry of pain as his arm slipped against the rough wall as he pulled himself up, coming away raw and bloody. Almost everything he touched seemed to tear at his skin these days - it was pale, dry and paper thin, or so it seemed. Josiah was still sleeping or possibly unconscious. He didn't rouse when Buck called his name and shook him. In the vain hope that he might wake later Buck drew in the dust beside him
GONE FOR HELP
Then he crossed the room and tried to squeeze through the narrow gap. He almost made it. Almost - but not quite. Not to be defeated at this stage he slowly and painfully removed his shirt, shoes and jeans. Had he possessed a mirror he would have been shocked to see how thin he had become in just a few days, his ribs and hip bones all too prominent. Now dressed in nothing but his boxers he tried again. It hurt. It hurt a lot; his damaged ribs protested the pressure on them, malnourished skin tore as it was raked over concrete and rusty steel but he made it, stumbling and falling free on the other side. Getting back on his feet and then pulling his clothes back thought the gap took even longer then taking them off. His fingers refused to co-operate with his mind when it came to fastening buttons, and in the end he gave up on most of them; as long has his jeans didn't fall down, he didn't care. The hanger was as he remembered it - the hanger doors were closed, but the small pedestrian door stood slightly ajar. Once outside he took a moment to breath and smell the fresh air before heading down the overgrown gravel track that he hoped would lead him to civilisation - or at least to a phone.
+ + + + + + +
After she had checked on the boys that evening, Maggie had joined her husband in bed. The two of them lay in each others arms they cried and remembered in equal measure. Sometimes they just lay together in silence before drifting off to sleep sometime after one in the morning. When she woke, Maggie was horrified to find it was already nine. Leaping out of bed she didn't even bother to pull the drapes, switch on the light or even put a robe on over her old nightshirt as she darted next door to check on the boys. The door was locked; peeking in she could see no bodies, only debris. Well it was after nine, they were probably having breakfast someplace. She ran back to wake Ryan and that was when she found the note. It had clearly been pushed under the cabin door but in the semi-dark and in her haste she had missed it on the way out.
We have gone to search.
Hank can tell you where.
Don't worry we have all
we need. You can join us
or go home, but we are
The printing was Chris' but each of the boys had signed it.
"Wake up!" She shook Ryan violently. "For God's sake wake up!"
"What's happened?" he asked as he sat up.
"Look!" She shoved the paper in front of his face.
Snatching it he read and then re-read it. "Hank? Who the hell is Hank?" he asked.
"How should I know? Is he with the posse?"
"No, don't think so."
In no more than three minutes both were dressed, calls to Chris' cell phone proved fruitless, but that was not unexpected as cell phone reception in the area was patchy at best. They were running out of the door, intent on heading for the sheriff's office, when an old Dodge truck pulled in and headed toward them.
"Mr Larabee!" the driver called, making them look back.
"Hank? Hank Russell?" Ryan ran to intercept the truck, Maggie trailing behind him.
Hank Russell was a trusted hand on his father's ranch. He stopped the truck and was barely out of the vehicle before Maggie set upon him, slamming him with surprising strength up against it.
"What have you done?" she demanded. "Where is he, where's my son?"
"I took them to the drop of point, just as I was told. Didn't you know?"
"Of course we didn't know! Do you think I'd let him go off alone after I lost "
Ryan pulled his wife back gently but firmly. "Darling, let him explain." With that he looked over at his father's ranch hand. "And it had better be good."
+ + + + + + +
Once they knew where they were going to search, Chris had called the ranch and spoken to the foreman. The men at the ranch were surprised no one had requested their help and were more than willing to help. Chris read them the long list of their needs. Seven horses, with tack, seven sleeping bags, three tents, slickers or Australian cattle men's coats for all of them, plus two spare ones, a first aid kit, two pairs of walkie-talkies, flashlights and supplies for at least five days. Hank had arrived at about three in the morning, towing the long gooseneck trailer. All five boys piled into the truck and they headed out without even turning off the engine. Once they found the dirt track turn-off that - on the map - stopped dead at the boundary to the military land, the trailer was unhooked and Chris went with Hank in the truck to scout out how close they could get the long horse trailer. While they were away the others got the horses out, tacked them up, stowed their personal items in saddle bags, attached their sleeping bags in their water proof stuff bags behind the saddles and filled canteens from the bottled of water Hank had purchased. All the other supplies were loaded onto the two spare horses. Nathan was still nervous about riding, but mounted up on the reliable Henry and with the others around him, he felt more able to cope. Besides, he wasn't going to be left behind.
As it turned out there was a clearing where they could back the trailer in almost at the boundary. Dawn was breaking as they mounted up and headed down the track to the dilapidated fence and rotten gate that marked the boundary of the military land. They had hoped they wouldn't need the horses, that they could just explore the track in the truck, but just beyond the fence was a narrow stream running between deep banks. The steel frame of a bridge crossed it, but there was no sign of any decking.
+ + + + + + +
"Once the boys mounted up and headed out I came back here, just as young Chris told me to," Hank finished.
"And you normally take orders from seventeen-year-olds?" Ryan demanded.
"When he's the boss' grandson and says he's speaking on your behalf - yes!"
Ryan broke away from the hapless ranch hand, walking a few strides away as he tried to get his temper under control.
"I'm sorry sir, I didn't know." Russell cleared his throat. "We, that is all of us at the ranch, we've been waiting to help! We wanted to help find Buck and Mr Sanchez as well." Ryan looked back at him. "We just wanted to help."
"We understand," Maggie stepped between her husband and Hank. "But we need to know where they are."
"Yes ma'am! I can take you but you'll need horses, and supplies. But "
"They've got two hours head start on you already, if it rains " Hank looked up at the heavy overcast sky.
Ryan marched back to join them. "Then wed better hurry, hadn't we?"
+ + + + + + +
Buck tried not to think about how much his feet hurt, he hadn't remembered hurting his feet before. Perhaps it was because the pain in his feet was new that he was more aware of it than any of the other pains. The trouble was it was more and more difficult to breathe - he felt as if each breath was fighting its way past molasses. The track seemed to go on forever, just an endless narrow strip of grass and moss growing up between the old gravel. Mostly it was straight and flat. He had no concept of the passing of time; he just walked, hoping against hope that the track would lead him to help.
The first rain drops were falling when the endless track became a dead end. Ahead he could no longer see it stretching before him instead, there were just trees. Buck came to a halt. He wanted to scream, he wanted to cry, but he had no strength for either. It took his fever- and starvation-befuddled brain some time to realise it was not a dead end, but a junction. The rain was coming down in earnest now as he tried to decide to go left or right. At home, back in Denver and before he lived with the Larabees, he used to walk to the high school, down to the end of the road and turn right. He had no strength to make any more decisions so he turned right, the way that used to lead to home.
+ + + + + + +
"You think its rotted away?" JD asked, looking at the bridge frame.
"No, more like it was never here. If you ask me this is their back door, if they needed it they brought some kind of decking with them." Chris looked down at the stream. Despite recent rain, after a long hot summer the water was still shallow and running slowly. The trouble was the banks were steep and slippery. "Reckon you can make it, kid?"
JD nodded. He'd only just learned to ride but he was a natural, with more confidence than ability. Luckily Buck had found him a safe, willing little horse who took good care of him. Chris nodded and looked back at Nathan. The tall African-American teen was gripping his saddle horn with grim intensity.
"Don't worry Nate, we'll get you over, just let Vin lead you and hang on," Chris assured their friend.
Nathan nodded. "Okay Chris." He let Vin take his reins. "Don't lose me."
"Don't intend to, just hold on, you can pull your legs up to keep them dry, but only if it isn't going to unbalance you. Lean back going down, hold the back of the saddle with one hand, lean forward on the way up," Vin advised.
It was no easy thing the banks, as well as being steep, were greasy with surface water. JD's spry little horse jumped the last part, landing in the water with all four feet.
"Hold on JD!" Chris shouted, "Let him find his own way up."
"I'm okay," JD called confidently.
Pony through his head up, faltering on the back, but Buck's big grey - acting as a pack horse and being lead by Chris - had no intention of stopping and continued on, nudging Pony on. Ezra led his chestnut on confidently, tugging on the lead rein of the other packhorse as he went. This horse was less than keen.
"Come on you miserable glue factory," he muttered as he gave the rope another tug. In the end, boy and both horses slithered down the bank, waded through the water and scrambled up the other side.
Finally it was time for Vin to lead Nathan over. They had left them until last, so that both horses were keen to reach their herd on the other bank. In the end Peso and Henry made short work of the crossing.
Chris led his friends and brothers on through the rain with grim determination. Since the bridge was clearly unusable Ezra had pointed that the kidnappers couldn't have used it in the way they did, since they were in a car.
"We know there has to be another way in, somewhere. Let's just hope we can find their trail." Chris looked back at the others.
"I reckon one of them two kidnappers must have served here once, how else would they know about it. Even the locals didn't know," Nathan realised.
"Most likely," Vin agreed.
Deciding they had talked enough, Chris pushed Pony into a canter. The others, even Nathan, followed him without hesitation.
+ + + + + + +
They had gone about five miles when Chris raised his hand and pulled his horse up into a brisk walk.
"We need to give the horses a breather," he explained. "Nate?"
"How you doing?"
"I'm gonna be stiff tomorrow, but I'm ok for now."
"Good to know. JD?"
"I'm okay," JD almost snapped. He was only two years younger than Ezra, but no one kept asking Ezra if he was okay. All he wanted was to find Buck.
"Chris doesnt mean to be patronising, he's just doing his job," Ezra explained, pulling Chaucer up beside him.
"As the leader. Christopher is one of life's natural leaders, he can't help it."
JD looked away from Ezra and back up to Chris. "I guess. We will find them, both of them - won't we?"
"I have every confidence."
They walked for about half an hour and then pushed on into a canter again. In this way they covered the ground to the first turn-off in just three hours. The turn-off was actually a crossroads.
"Do we split up?" Vin asked.
Chris debated with himself. They had the two-way radios, though their range was limited.
"Okay, Vin take Nate and take the left. Check in every thirty minutes, if you don't get a reply head back."
Vin nodded and then dismounted. As the others watched he pulled out his penknife and proceeded to cut an arrow shaped notch in one of the trees. Before anyone could ask, he explained.
"You know Maggie and Ryan are on to us by now - right? So we might as well tell them where we are and where we have been. No point them searching the same place twice."
Chris turned down the right hand track, knowing Vin would put a similar mark on a tree leading to the left-hand track. Using the same pattern of canter and walk the three of them followed the track for about an hour. Suddenly it opened up into a clearing and in front of them was a bunker. It was made of concrete set back into the mountainside so that it was half buried. Taking up most of the front was pair of huge steel doors painted in peeling mud green paint. As one they all dismounted.
"You two, hold the horses," Chris commanded.
"But Chris " JD began to complain.
"Do as Chris says," Ezra warned.
Ezra knew - even if JD didn't that there was the very real possibility that there were bodies inside. He wanted to find Josiah and Buck, but not like that, so he was happy to let Chris take the first look.
+ + + + + + +
Buck looked up through the persistent rain to see a bunker in front of him. He stood and stared at it, unable to contemplate its significance. Had he walked in a circle? No, no he was sure he hadn't. This was not the bunker he left; the small pedestrian door was firmly shut and bolted. He had walked all day and come to a dead end. Darkness was beginning to edge the sky, so he walked up to the bunker doors and tried to open the small one, but it wouldn't move. The big doors were padlocked, the chain and lock old and unused for years. He turned back to retrace his steps. There was nothing else he could think to do. His mind could focus on only one thing, find help, and there was no help at this empty bunker, so he left it behind.
It took Maggie and Ryan sometime to organise borrowing some horses and a trailer. Hank had left the long gooseneck trailer on the track where the boys had mounted up. Then they had to get their own supplies together. By the time they were negotiating the stream beside the broken bridge they were some five hours behind. Nevertheless they pressed on, pausing every now and again to call over a walkie-talkie. It was tuned to the same waveband the boys were using, but there was no reply to these calls. Hoping this was only because the boys were out of range or in a radio dead spot, they pressed on.
Eventually they came to the first junction. Like the boys, they stopped and debated which way to go. Just as they decided to go left, Maggie spotted the fresh carvings on one tree. Two arrows, one down the track, one back the other way, and next to it a crude 'VT'.
"What do you think it means?" Ryan asked.
"That Vin and presumably the others have been down there and come back?"
Ryan nodded. "Yeah, that's what I thought."
Finding a matching mark on the right hand turning they headed further on down the main track. It was getting dark, and the rain hadn't let up once.
"Damn that boy, what the hell was he thinking," Ryan asked. "Don't answer that, I know what he was thinking. He wants to find them."
+ + + + + + +
The bunker Chris, Ezra and JD found was locked. The small door was either rusted shut or bolted from the inside and the big doors were secured with a padlock that looked as if it hadn't been disturbed for years. Vin and Nathan found a matching bunker, equally secured. After Vin marked the trees they continued the search. An hour and a half further along the road they found another pair of turn-offs. One track led to a locked bunker, the other led to another junction with three tracks leading off it. In all they found seven bunkers - all were locked up tight. There was no evidence anyone had been there recently. As darkness began to fall they reached yet another crossroads. This one seemed different; it was wider.
"Time to make camp," Vin announced.
"No!" Chris snapped.
"Yes." Vin looked up at the grey, rain-spewing sky. "An hour from now it's gonna be blacker than a witchs heart. We need to pitch tents, see to the horses and get some food inside us while we can still see. There's a flat patch of land right there; we need to do this now. We don't look after ourselves we're no use to Buck and Josiah."
Chris glared at him.
"He's right," Nathan said softly, even as he dismounted.
Ezra followed him.
Only JD remained on his horse, in Buck's absence loyal to Chris.
With Chris mute and still mounted, Vin began to unpack one of the tents. Ezra stepped up to help him, while Nathan moved to the second packhorse to get the other tent.
"JD?" Nathan called softly.
The thirteen-year-old slowly tore his eyes from Chris to look at Nathan. "Yeah?"
"I could use a hand."
JD seemed to debate for a few moments; he looked over at Vin and Ezra, who were now unrolling one of the large simple tents.
"JD?" Nathan prompted.
With everyone else making camp and the light fading, Chris finally gave in. In his heart he knew they were on the right track - he ached to keep going, to keep looking, but logic was against him. Reluctantly, he dismounted. Once his mind was made up, he set-to, helping raise the tents and care for the horses while Ezra and Nathan unloaded their saddles, sleeping bags, personal possessions and food into the newly erected tents. Vin and JD led the horses to a nearby hollow that had filled with water where could drink, then returned them to the tether line Chris had set up. Once all the horses had been given a nosebag full of corn and oats, the boys gathered to eat and try to keep warm and dry. There was no way to make a fire, so they all huddled in one tent to eat jerky, cookies, chips, raisins and soda. Eventually Chris and Nathan moved into the other tent. They had decided to split that way simply because Chris and Nathan were the biggest and the tents were really only designed for two, but putting up three tents hadn't seemed worth the effort. Besides, no one wanted to sleep alone, not even Chris.
+ + + + + + +
In Vin's tent things were a little snug, and while Ezra and Vin weren't entirely comfortable with this, JD craved the physical contact as a form of security - he needed to know he wasn't alone. Vin stiffened involuntarily when JD rolled toward him; his forehead was pressed against Vin's shoulder, one knee just touching his thigh. He didn't blame JD, the poor kid had lost so much already.
"You okay kid?" Vin asked softly.
"I guess." Came the less than convincing reply.
"What about you Ez? You doin' okay?"
Ezra was lying on his side, his back to Vin. "Well, lets see I'm cold, wet, hungry okay, not really hungry but I crave hot food - I'm tired and Mr Sanchez and Buck are still missing; so no, I'm not okay."
"Hey Ez, were all in this together - ya know!" Vin hissed angrily.
Ezra sighed dramatically. "I know, I know, but you asked how I was, so I told you - okay?"
"Yeah, okay," Vin relented.
+ + + + + + +
"Chris?" Nathan asked hesitantly, speaking to Chris' back.
"I that is, I wanted to say thank you."
"Thank you?" Chris rolled over. "For what?"
"Letting me come along. I know I'm not family at all, but I feel like it I am, and I'd have gone crazy waiting at home. See? There I go calling your place 'home' it's just -"
"Nate, stop it, you're one of us, always - we'd never have left you behind."
"Will you stop saying that and get some sleep."
"Yeah, tha night Chris."
+ + + + + + +
Maggie and Ryan had pitched their borrowed tent in a small clearing to the side of the track. Having zipped two sleeping bags together they snuggled together for comfort and warmth.
"I think the boys may be right about this place," Ryan stated. "This track is drivable, assuming there's another way in. We didn't look here partly because of what the geologists told us and partly because the maps said it was a closed military area. Well look at it, I'd say the military haven't been using this place in years."
"Seems that way."
"I know the geology is wrong, they told us that, but "
"What if this place has never been properly surveyed? If it was a closed area and besides, when I was seeing to the horses I noticed the stones around here are different to the ones on the track. What if the gravel on the track came from where we've just been searching?"
"You mean oh God! We might have wasted all that time. We have to tell someone!"
"There's no cell phone signal here, I tried. And we are way out of range for the radios. Tomorrow one of us rides back. We need proper search teams out here."
Maggie nodded "Tell me this is all one long nightmare," she whispered as they lay spooned against one another.
"Okay," Ryan agreed.
"So we're in bed, at home."
"Any minute now Buck's gonna come home from a date. He'll try to come upstairs silently, but he'll fail."
"Trying to miss the squeaky floor board on the last but top step, he'll overbalance and stub his toe."
"Hop once or twice - which sounds like a pile-driver - then limp on tiptoe to the bathroom."
"Normal bathroom sounds, he tiptoes back and tries to open the bedroom door silently but it clonks when he shuts it - I must adjust that hinge - then falls into bed."
Maggie sighed. "Yup, just like that. He's at home in a nice warm, dry bed and Josiah is in his house, sitting up way too late reading as usual with Ezra sleeping safely upstairs in his own room."
Ryan leaned over and kissed his wife softly on the neck. "Yeah honey, that's right."
+ + + + + + +
Josiah had little concept of time let alone day or night. His fever was mounting and he was slipping in and out of consciousness. When he was conscious he was often not lucid. Occasionally he'd be aware enough to remember where he was and the significance of the open door.
"God speed Buck," he whispered. Then he turned his eyes skyward, looking up through the hole in the ceiling. "Lord, that boy deserves to live, even if you can't see your way to saving this poor sinner, you have to save him, because he doesnt deserve this and too many other people will be irrevocably damaged by his loss. I dont know how much longer I can keep it together here, so I'm relying on you to take care of him for me."
+ + + + + + +
When it was too dark to walk anymore Buck found his way to an especially large pine tree - even with the persistent rain the thick cushion of pine needles under the tree was still dry. With difficulty he managed to crawl under it and, curled into foetal position, slipped into an exhausted, fevered, dreamless sleep.
Sometime in the night it stopped raining and as the pre dawn lighted the sky the campers began to get ready to mount up. Maggie and Ryan had decided that Ryan should be the one to go back and organise a proper search party to come into the old and now clearly disused military enclosure. They both wanted to stay, but Maggie convinced her husband he was better able to organise a new search than she was.
The boys were striking camp as fast as they could, but it seemed to take too long to feed and water the horses, eat some trail mix and pack up the tents and sleeping bags. Vin was already saddling Peso before the others were even half way ready.
"Where do you reckon you're going on yer own?" Chris asked as Vin prepared to mount.
"I got a hunch, need t' check on something." Vin pulled himself up into the saddle.
"I'll come with you."
"Nope, no time, get them ready. I'll be back, I promise."
Chris regarded the young Texan, then nodded his approval. "You got a radio?"
"Yup." With that he turned his horse away and set off down the track heading in the same direction they had been travelling all the day before.
Vin could hear Chris explaining his departure even as he walked away. It was tempting to head off at a gallop, but his horse was cold and stiff, so he walked; after a while he'd move the pace up to trot, then canter. Eager to get on as he was, having a lame horse wasn't going to help anyone. There was something about this particular track, he couldn't pin it down, it just seemed to be different. By the time he was able to push Peso into a gentle canter it was daylight. The track became wider, but he found no side turnings. Something caught his eye, something out of place. Reining his horse he turned around and dismounted.
"So, what am I looking at, boy?" he asked out loud.
Peso was more interested in eating the lush grass at the side of the track.
"Yeah okay, have some." He watched as the cantankerous horse began to crop the grass. That was when he saw it, right there under Peso's nose. Despite the rain, there was clear evidence - well clear to Vin at least - that a car had passed by. It wasn't recent, but if he could see it then it could not have been all that long ago. He squatted down, pushing Peso's big nose out of the way. A small, low branch has been snapped back, the broken end still pale, and the edge still sharp. There was only one reason a car would come this way. Pulling the disgruntled Peso away from the lush grass, he mounted up and turned to head back to the others as fast as he could. He'd gone no more than a couple of paces when he pulled up and looked over his shoulder. The track had been rising steadily, but not much further on however it seemed to crest. Continuing to the top wouldn't take much longer, and he had a hunch, so he turned Peso back and headed on up.
+ + + + + + +
A hacking coughing fit that felt as if he was hacking up one, if not both lungs pulled Buck from sleep. He was exhausted - he'd just woken up and he was exhausted. The coughing at least had forced him onto his hands and knees. That was at last halfway to being on his feet. It hurt to breath, it felt as if there was a band of iron around his chest, each breath tightened the band a little more. With his brain focused on the need to draw breath, the pain from his other injuries faded, but not the weariness that invaded him. He had to get up - Josiah was relying on him, he had to get help. Reaching up he managed to grab one of the lower branches, except that he couldn't seem to make his hand hold on. With some effort he raised the other arm up and forced his one good leg to move.
It took three attempts to get upright. When he did finally make it up, he had to hang onto the branch for some time gasping for breath and coughing. Now that he was upright, his head pounded, that band around his chest had a smaller friend around his head.
What am I doing? Oh yeah. Help I have to get help. Thinking seemed to require a lot of effort. Josiah, I have to help him, he needs me. Come on Buck, it's just walking. You can do walking, been doing it most of your life.
Releasing the security of the tree he ventured out onto the track.
Which way, which way, think damn it! Think!
In one direction he could make out a blurry image of some kind of building. He knew Josiah was in the building, the room, with water and the nasty smell, the room with the door. The door he opened.
I opened the door, I opened the door and left it open.
He squinted at the building, it was hard because he couldn't seem to focus, but the doors looked closed.
Those doors are closed, that isn't the room.
Finally he turned around and began to stumble up the track.
+ + + + + + +
Vin galloped back down the track to where he left the others. He'd been away longer than he had anticipated and Chris was going to be spitting blood, but he might have saved them days.
Right on cue as he pulled up Chris started in on him. "Where the hell have you been?" he demanded. They were all mounted up, having struck camp and been waiting for him impatiently.
"That way," he gestured over his shoulder. "is the main access road, as far as I can see it leads to a ranch at the bottom of the mountain, reckon that's the main way in."
"They probably used the ranch as a cover, you know to hide the soldiers and check the trucks and stuff coming and going," JD added.
Nathan was about to tell JD he'd seen too many James Bond movies when Chris agreed with him.
"Right, so I also found evidence a car had been up that way recently, so "
"They have to be somewhere down that track there." Ezra pointed to the one track they hadn't yet explored.
"Right!" With that Chris wheeled Pony around and headed out to search, the others following.
Vin drew up level with Chris. "Didn't mean to be so long, sorry."
"Don't, I should have trusted you, it was a good call."
+ + + + + + +
He didn't know it, but it was almost noon when he managed to make out the dark blurs in the distance. The blurs, which he at first thought to be trees, were moving. Buck stood still, trying to make his brain tell him what he was seeing. As he stood there the blurs came ever closer and there was a noise, a kind of rumbling thunder. Someone was shouting, it sounded like his name, but he wasn't sure about that, everything sounded muffled and far away.
"BUCK!" Chris bellowed.
Abandoning the packhorse he was leading, Chris kicked Pony into a flat out gallop.
The blurs were much closer now and he though he could make out a word, it sounded like his name. Why was a blurry moving thing calling his name?
Chris? Is it Chris? Sounds like him.
By now Chris was pulling Pony to a halt and he swung down before the black horse had even stopped.
Buck finally understood he was rescued, and with that knowledge his resolve, his drive and his strength left him. His knees buckled under him. His stiff and swollen knee sent him toppling sideways, but Chris was there to catch him.
"I'm here brother, I've got you." Chris' own knees now gave way as he too sank to the damp ground, Buck's head and shoulders on his lap, arms wrapped protectively around his brother.
"I've got you, I've got you," Chris repeated over and over again, rocking gently.
As the brothers sat there, their family arrived to help. Vin managed to stop JD rushing to Buck as soon as his feet hit the ground.
"I know ya need t' be with him kid, but lets just give them a sec and let Nate take a look at him," he explained.
"Me?" Nathan looked around, somewhat bewildered.
"Well yer taking them classes at school and yer always reading medical stuff."
"Yeah, but I don't know nothing, not really."
"Hell yer know more 'n we do."
Nathan looked at the faces before him, then at Chris, still on his knees rocking his brother and assuring he was safe.
"Please Nate," JD added his own plea.
With that Nathan handed his reins to Ezra, who was staring at Buck, looking very pale and had said nothing. Vin came to stand beside him.
"It don't mean Josiah's dead," he whispered softly. "Him being on his own, we don't know what happened."
In response all Ezra could do was nod dumbly, eyes still fixed on Buck.
+ + + + + + +
Nathan did want to become a doctor one day, he studied for it all the time and took as many extra classes as he could. Not just because he was going to be dependent on a scholarship if he wanted to attend medical school, but also because he found them fascinating. Now he tried to remember everything he had read as he approached Buck and Chris. Kneeling down in front of them he tentatively reached out his hand and touched Buck's.
"Hey Chris, I'm just gonna take a look at Buck - okay?"
Chris didn't look up or speak, but his grip on Buck seem to get fractionally tighter. Ignoring this Nathan took in as much information as he could using his eyes and hands. Buck was limp and unresponsive, he looked gaunt and pale, so pale his skin looked almost transparent. His hands were a mess of cuts and raw blisters. Among the first aid classes Nathan had takes was one on wilderness survival, he even had a certificate to prove it and had passed with distinction, so one of the things he really did know about was hypothermia. That was what really worried Nathan; Buck was cold, so cold his skin felt like a marble slab.
"Chris?" he prompted, but got no response. "Chris?" he tried again, more forcefully.
Finally tear-reddened forest green eyes looked up at him.
"We need to get Buck warm, he's too cold. You understand? We have to get him warm and get him to drink water, as much as we can."
Finally Chris seemed to snap too, just as Vin was depositing the first sleeping bag on the ground beside them. Suddenly everyone seemed to be in motion, all doing as Vin directed. In no time two sleeping bags were unzipped and lay one on top of the other beside Buck and Chris. Nathan and Chris moved Buck over to them and then, with his Chris lying beside him for added warmth, two more sleeping bags were added on top. They tried to get him to drink, and though he didn't wake he did manage a few swallows.
"Josiah must be someplace down there." Vin was pulling himself back up onto Peso. "I'm gonna take a scout, see if I can find him.
"I'm coming!" Ezra began to get back on Chaucer.
"No I " Vin began to protest. If Josiah was dead he didn't want Ezra with him when he found the body.
"Let him go with you," Nathan looked up. "It won't be no worse then waiting here."
Vin looked over at Ezra, now mounted and a determined set to his jaw. There was probably no way to stop him in any case.
+ + + + + + +
As Vin and Ezra rode off, Chris seemed to become aware of more than just Buck. He looked on as Nathan tried to see if there was any more he could do to help. He'd already told JD to bring the water over, but they had been unable to coax more than a drop or two into Buck's parched lips. Nathan carefully removed Buck's sodden tennis shoes and socks revealing feet that were bloody with raw blisters. No one said anything. Nathan checked both legs, encountering the swelling at the left knee. With deft skill he used his pocket knife to slit Buck's jeans from ankle to above the knee, unable to suppress a hiss of worry when he finally saw how swollen it was.
JD had been hovering behind Nathan. He understood Chris needed to be with Buck, but so did he. He needed to know the one person in his life that he trusted to always be there was going to be alright. He'd trusted his mother and she had died, and he guessed as a baby he'd trusted his father - and who knew where he was? Buck had stepped in and taken on the role willingly, grasping it in both hands, and JD loved him for that.
They all knew Maggie and Ryan had to be in the area, hopefully Hank had given them the radio frequency they were on. Much as he didn't want to do it, Chris was going to have to swap places with JD. It wasn't fair to ask JD to try and locate and co-ordinate the rescue efforts, he was the eldest, he had to do it. He directed JD to help Nathan gather their horses, which were now milling about grazing at the side of the track. Once a tether line was strung between two trees and the horses secure he reluctantly ceded his place to JD.
"Snuggle in close there, kid," he encouraged. "He needs your body heat - right Nate?"
Nathan nodded as JD pulled off his boots and wriggled his way down behind Buck. Nathan used a third sleeping bag as a pillow for Buck, having noticed his breathing seemed somewhat noisy, though he said nothing to the others about this. While they were getting settled Chris remounted and got set to make his way back up the track. He'd tried the radio once, but picked up nothing but static. From the look of the land they were in a slight hollow, so hopefully if he got back to the crossroads he'd have more chance to pick up a signal.
"I'll be back as fast as I can!" he called, then he turned and galloped off.
"Hear that Buck? Chris is gonna get help. It won't be long now, soon you'll be all warm and safe - okay?" JD, who had one arm wrapped around Buck, pulled him a little closer, alarmed at how cold he felt.
Nathan cleaned and dressed some of the worst wounds on Buck's feet. He just hoped Chris could contact someone fast.
+ + + + + + +
Maggie had never felt so alone, with Ryan heading back to organise a real search party she was on her own. Pushing her borrowed horse and packhorse as fast as she dared, she was searching for more marks that the boys had been that way. She should have backed Chris up when he refused to abandon the search - if she'd stood firm they would be searching together. Now all her children were out - somewhere - alone, scared, facing God knew what.
Her thoughts were interrupted when she became aware that the radio had come to life. Pulling the horses to a halt she tried to make out what the caller was saying, but all she got was static and random whistles. This was the first time it has made any noise since the last time Ryan had called. Since he was now further away from her, whoever was calling had to be closer. Hope sparked in Maggie as she pushed the horses on again.
Please God let it be Chris.
A few hundred yards further on, she pulled up again and tried to make out some of the words.
"He..o?" >STATIC< "I " >STATIC< " elp. Over."
It was hard to tell with the static, but it sounded like Chris. She pressed the send button.
"Hello Chris? It's Mom, can you hear me? Over."
>STATIC< "Mom?" >STATIC< "B...k." >STATIC<
"What? Buck, did you say Buck? Over," Maggie pleaded, but it was no good, all she got was more static. Kicking her horse on and tugging on lead rope of the packhorses she pressed on. "Come on you glue bait you, move your dumb ass!"
A hundred yards further on, she tried again.
"Hello? Chris, come in son. Over."
"Mom? Oh thank God. Mom, we found Buck!"
Chris hadn't said 'over' so there was an uneasy pause while Maggie tried to decide if he was going to speak again.
"Mom, did you hear me?" Another silence. "Oh, over."
"I heard you, is he is he?" Now it was her time to forget radio etiquette.
"He's alive but he's real sick. Where are you?"
It took some time to work out where she was in relationship to her son, but once they had their bearings, she was on her way, Hurricane Maggie to the rescue.
+ + + + + + +
Vin and Ezra rode as fast as they dare, desperate to cover as much ground as possible but not miss anything. They had decided that dishevelled as Buck was he clearly hadn't been out in the woods for the whole time, so their first intention was to continue checking bunkers. The first three they found were locked up tight, just like all the others. Then they came to the first of another group of three. Even as they approached, the small, open door called to them. Neither was aware of giving their horses any commands, but both horses sped up as they approached, sliding to a halt only a foot or so from the door. They didn't stop to tether their mounts either, just dropping the reins and hoping they would stay put as they ran in, shouting for Josiah as they went. The vast hangar was dark, only a small puddle of light spilled in from the door. Only when confronted by darkness did they pull up. No one had answered their shouts.
"We need light," Ezra commented somewhat superfluously. "I've got a flash light in my saddle bags."
He was turning to go when Vin stopped him.
"No, look!" He pointed into the inky gloom beyond the light's reach. Now that they has calmed down a fraction and their eyes had adjusted to the reduced light something was visible. A thin line of pale light running along one wall and across the floor.
Approaching with more caution they reached the small door to the former armoury. They could see the huge bolt on the door still in place, as was the apparently old and rusty padlock, yet the door stood ajar, open where it should have been hinged.
Inside there was light, not a flashlight or a fire, but weak daylight.
"Josiah?" Vin called through the gap.
There was no response. Handing his slicker to Ezra, Vin tried to squeeze in. The gap might have been big enough for him had he been wearing less bulky clothing, and had an old but persistent nightmarish fear of being trapped not gripped him. He pulled back, unable to push himself on. He didn't say anything, he couldn't find a way to explain his failure in such a perilous situation. It turned out he didn't have to.
"Let me try." Ezra pulled his own 'Drizabone' duster off followed by his thick sweat top. He tried, but he too became stuck. Not to be defeated he pulled of his shirt and pants as well. It took a lot of grunting and some pushing from Vin, but he made it. Even before he was through he thought he could see a figure, sitting propped against a wall in the shadows.
"Mr Sanchez!" Ezra called as he pulled his clothes back on and ran over. "Josiah?"
The big policeman made no response - he didn't move, his swaddled hands lying limp in his lap.
Maggie and Chris galloped toward each other, speeding up when they made eye contact. Without dismounting, they greeted each other with a brief hug.
"Where? Where is he, please, promise me it's true," she begged.
"Back that way, down the track, but he's sick Mom, we have t' get him outta here fast."
Maggie was desperate to head off and find her lost son, but there were things that needed to be sorted out.
"What about Josiah?" she asked.
Chris shook his head. "No so far. Vin and Ezra are still looking."
"Right, good," Maggie worked to make her mind concentrate on what needed to be done, but it wouldn't. All she could think of was getting to Buck.
"Mom?" Chris prompted.
"He's, he's, um, getting help, he's getting a proper search party organised." She was still in a daze of worry and relief.
"Then we need to contact him. Did you come across the stream, by the dismantled bridge?" Maggie didn't respond. "Mom?"
"Wh't? Oh yes, yes, the bridge." She suddenly seemed to comprehend what he was saying. "Hank!"
"He's waiting with the trailer, his radio can reach the police! I, we "
"I'm on it Mom, you go that way, you can't miss them." Chris waved his arm down the track as he took off in the other direction.
Not having to explore all the sidetracks and their bunkers he reckoned he could get close enough to contact Hank in no more than two hours. He could feel how tired Pony was, and he sympathised, but they both had to keep going.
+ + + + + + +
With Josiah unresponsive, Ezra was having to force himself not to panic. Vin passed him as much water as they were carrying, both sleeping bags and all the food. The door was wedged firm, and Vin just didn't have the strength to move it. There was nothing for it but for Vin to leave Ezra and ride for help.
"Now, see, we have water, cookies, jerky - as I recall you are partial to jerky." Before he came to live with Josiah, Ezra had never eaten jerky, his mother considered it uncouth. But once he tried it he was surprised how pleasant it was. "Vin will bring help, he is most resourceful, I have every confidence. Why don't you try and drink something?" Ezra held the water bottle to the parched, fevered lips of his saviour, pleased beyond belief when the big man swallowed a few drops.
After he had coaxed as many drops into Josiah as he thought he could, Ezra allowed himself some water and a little jerky, followed by a cookie. He shivered; the stark concrete room was damp and cold, though the rain still held off. Reluctant as he was to leave Josiah's side, Ezra collected the sleeping bags, opened them up, and used them to cover both of them.
"Now isn't this cosy? All we have to do now is wait not long he won't be long." Ezra repeated, more for his own comfort than anything. He proceeded to tell Josiah how they had found both him and Buck, including their raid on the search headquarters.
"I appreciate that picking the lock and participating in what was technically trespass is a violation of my parole. I do trust you will not hold it against me, considering the reason and the outcome."
+ + + + + + +
Having every confidence that Chris would bring help, Maggie set out again. The unfortunate packhorse had finally understood that life would be much easier if it kept up with Maggie's borrowed paint, and thus they made good progress.
The first thing she saw was a streak of red on the ground and a dark figure huddled over it. For a terrifying split second she though the red was blood, and though she quickly realised it was only the sleeping bag, the fear remained as she approached. As Chris had before him, Maggie dismounted before her horse had even stopped, all but falling to the ground as she reached her lost son. With hands fluttering with emotion, she reached out to touch his pale cheek while the other hand covered her mouth.
"Oh my God," she breathed, tears spilling over to roll down her cheeks. "Oh darling," she bent to kiss him, her hand now pushing back the ever-uncooperative dark hair. "What have they done to you? You're so cold."
"Ma'am?" Nathan tried to get her attention, but she didn't respond. "Mrs Larabee," he tried again, placing a hand on her shoulder.
"What?" Finally she looked around. "Oh Nathan, you're here, good." She suddenly seemed to notice JD, lying behind Buck. "JD, what's the matter, are you okay?"
JD nodded. "I'm fine."
Nathan quickly explained that JD was helping to keep Buck warm, then he went on to ask where Chris was. She had begun to explain about Ryan and Hank while never taking her eyes of Buck, when the radio burst into life. This time it was Vin. Explaining as fast as he could about Josiah.
"I reckon we're gonna need tools to get him out, over."
"I heard all that, over," Chris' voice cut into the conversation, I'll pass it on to Hank. I'm on my way back."
Chris arrived back about half an hour after Vin.
"Hank's made contact with Dad, he knows they're okay, help's coming, he's trying to get a helicopter." Chris looked up at the darkening sky; there was rain in the air. "I think we should try and get Buck moved into the bunker with Josiah and Ezra." Chris had formulated a plan on the ride back and was now taking charge. "Vin?"
"That door into the bunker, is it big enough for the horses?"
Vin looked over at their mounts, judging their width against that of the door. We might have to take the saddles off em, but yeah, I reckon so.
"Good, now Nathan "
"Chris, wait," Maggie pulled her eyes away from Buck. "I don't like the idea of moving Buck, why can't we just put up a tent here?"
"Because there's no place to pitch it except here on the track, which is gonna be hard to do. There's no place here for the chopper to land, but assuming this bunker is like the rest," he looked at Vin, who nodded. "There is space in front of it, if not to land at least to hover in close. A chopper's gonna freak the horses out, so we need to get them well away or under cover. We can't get Josiah out without help, so we need to be close to give Ezra all the support we can while we wait."
His mother was about to raise more objections, but Chris cut her off. "We found them Mom, we got this rescue organised and we know what we're doing. Buck was on his feet when we found him and he's improving, right Nate?"
"He's a lot warmer than he was, thanks to JD," Nathan confirmed.
"Right so we get them together, under cover, we'll leave markers on the road and if needed we can build a fire on the bunker roof, so they can find us." Not waiting for his mother's agreement, Chris began dividing up his work force.
Nathan and JD had cut one of the tents into long strips of nylon, now they were weighting them down on the track in the form of an arrow. Chris and Vin got the horses organised while, Maggie, bowing to the inevitable, tried to rouse Buck enough to get him on his horse.
+ + + + + + +
Buck had been aware of people around him for some time, but it was so nice to be warm and still that he made no effort to open his eyes or try and work out who they were. He remembered seeing someone coming, someone who was going to rescue him, someone he knew, but who? He just didn't seem to be able to remember. The voice he could hear most of the time was female and familiar, but he still couldn't work it out.
"Buck darling, you need to wake up now, sweetie." Maggie ran her hand along his stubbled cheek.
Buck felt the touch - it was soft and soothing and comfortable, like the voice.
Maggie had seen some reaction to her voice; Bucks eyes had moved but not opened, his head had even moved yet he remained unconscious. By now the arrow was set up and JD was holding the reins of all the horses. Beau, Buck's own grey was no longer a packhorse, but stood ready to carry his master with his normal patience and strength.
Chris watched his mother. He knew she didn't want to move Buck, he knew she didn't want to cause him any further pain, but it was getting darker and rain was already in the air.
"Mom?" Maggie looked up at Chris, confusion on her face. "I'll get Buck up."
She was going to protest, but there was something about the set of her son's jaw, so reminiscent of both his father and grandfather, that told her to leave it. Chris was a man, almost eighteen, and he was in charge, for now.
Once she was out of the way and with Nathan standing by, Chris bent over his brother. He didn't want to do this, he hated himself for it, but it had to be done.
"Buck!" he called loudly, giving his brother's shoulder a firm shake. "Come on, time to wake up bro, we need to move out, we're burning daylight."
"Yeah, that's right, come on, wake up, Mom's waiting to say hi."
Buck finally recognised a voice. Chris. Chris was calling him.
"Come on, up boy!" Chris called loudly, giving Buck's shoulder another firm shake.
Damn Chris, can't ever wait, always now with him. I'm coming.
Blearily eyes finally opened, a frown creased his brow. Instantly Chris voice softened. "Hello, welcome back." Buck didn't respond, he just frowned and blinked owlishly at Chris. "We need to move out, get under cover and help Josiah." Buck seemed to comprehend. Chris even detected a faint nod.
Nathan held a bottle of water in front of Buck. "You need to drink."
"I'm not " Buck said vaguely.
"Drink it!" Nathan instructed firmly, then since Buck's hands were in no condition to hold a bottle he held it to Buck's lips. Thankfully he was so dehydrated he just drank instinctively.
Once Buck had had a good amount Nathan nodded at Chris as he pulled the bottle away. "Think if Nate and I help you, you can get up on ol' Beau?" Chris asked.
"Beau?" Buck whispered.
"Yeah, the big lug's here for you, I know you love that big, dumb, old horse."
"Not dumb," Buck protested.
"Right, so you claim."
With that Chris pulled the sleeping bags back and took hold of his brother. Nathan stepped in behind him and with both of them supporting him Buck made it to his feet. Even with the others taking almost all his weight he couldn't help a stifled grunt of pain as his feet and swollen knee took even a little weight. Buck looked up and was surprised to see JD and his mother beaming at him.
"Hi," he greeted weakly.
"Mom," there was a tone in his voice that as almost begging, and that was all it took. In no more than three strides she was with him, encircling him in her arms her head resting on his chest, his chin resting on her head. When he'd been recovering from surgery earlier in the year, he'd called for his dead mother - but not this time. Now he just wanted the woman he'd called Mom for the past three years to hold him and make it better, somehow.
"It's okay darling. I'm here, I've got you. Youre safe now, it's all over," Maggie repeated these comforting words until she felt JD hovering beside her and moved a little to let him hug JD.
"I knew we'd find you," JD breathed. "I just knew."
Getting up Buck up on his horse took time and it hurt - it hurt a lot - but he tried not to let it show. If Chris said he needed him up, then that was good enough for him. The moment he was sat in the saddle he slumped over the horn, gripping it with white knuckled intensity. He almost didn't notice Vin mount up behind him, but he felt the strong arm that wrapped around his midriff.
"Don't worry Bucklin, I'll take care of Beau. I won't let you fall."
"Fuck you Tanner, ain't never fallen off a horse," Buck muttered, even as he relaxed into Vin's strong embrace.
Maggie shook her head. They never had been able to clean up Buck's language, just improve his self-control.
"You tell him Buck!" JD called from his bay.
Buck managed a smile, but he made no attempt to release the saddle horn or take the reins from Vin.
+ + + + + + +
Ryan had been in the Sheriffs office, trying to convince them to restart the search when Hank's call about Buck came through. He tried not to let the men around him show how much it affected him but failed, tears of joy and relief rolling down his cheeks as fast as he could back-hand them away. He wasn't even aware of the hands shaking his and patting him on the back. They were still poring over maps and trying to contact the military when the news came through that Josiah had been found but was still effectively imprisoned. To get cars and the horse trailer around to the other entrance, the one through the ranch, was going to take hours. Clearly this was too long for Buck and Josiah, and the air evacuation they were trying to organise for Buck suddenly became more urgent.
"We'll find them, I swear it," the sheriff told him confidently.
Ryan could hear himself telling Chris the same thing, but he hadn't done it - he'd given up, he hadn't trusted his heart. He'd left it to his son, his seventeen-year-old son, and a group of boys he was meant to be protecting go out alone and find them. He should have been doing that, he should have been out in the rain in the wilderness.
"Hey Larabee?" the sheriff called, breaking into his thoughts.
"Got the air force on the phone."
+ + + + + + +
Despite his attempts at bravado, Buck hung on grimly and silently as Beau carried him and Vin steadily on. Maggie kept pace beside them on one side and Nathan on the other. No one spoke, the only sound the steady clop of the horses hooves and Buck's wheezy rattled breathing. Chris and JD led the other horses as quickly as they could; they needed to reassure Ezra help was coming, get the horses inside and start collecting fire wood.
JD had hated to leave Buck behind. He still felt the need to see and even touch Buck, to reassure himself it was not an illusion, that he was alive and real. But much as he wanted this he understood Chris was relying on him, and that made him feel good. He was finally being treated as an equal, not the annoying kid who was tagging along and he was eager to show Chris his trust was not misplaced.
The bunker they found was identical to all the others, the only difference being the little door set into the big doors was open and Chaucer was tethered under a tree to the side. Chris tossed his reins at JD as he dismounted and ran inside.
"Ezra!" he yelled.
"In here!" Ezra turned back to Josiah. "See, they're here, Chris is here, it's going to be alright!" Tears of relief slipped unnoticed down his cheeks as Chris head appeared around the door.
"You doing okay?" he asked.
"Mr San I mean Josiah, is unresponsive he seems to have a high fever," Ezra informed him, not bothering to comment on his own condition.
Chris was studying Josiah. He was propped up against the wall, a sleeping bag tucked around him, but from the doorway and in the rapidly failing light there wasn't much more he could discern.
"Keep doing what you're doing Ez. You got enough water?"
Ezra looked down at the bottle beside him. "For now I have sufficient."
"What about food?"
"I have some cookies, but in truth I don't feel that hungry."
Chris knew how he felt. Until Buck and Josiah were safely in at hospital and the doctor confirmed they were going to be okay, he just knew the knot in his gut that he had got the moment they saw a haggard, dishevelled Buck shuffling toward them, wasn't going to leave him.
"We'll get you both out as soon as we can."
"I have faith in you Chris, we will be here when you're ready."
Chris was well aware how much it took for Ezra to admit he had faith in anyone.
"Hang in there, we're coming."