ATF-Two Blood AU
With the sliding window of the truck open to the bed, Buck could easily get into the cab if he wanted. Chris told him that he was out of his mind, riding in the open bed like he was, but Buck only whined until he relented. The blond was about at his limit with the wolf.
The duo had been camping in the woods for a week, courtesy of a successful raid on a group that was trying to make 'dirty' bombs to blow up military installations. Buck had come across one of the group's members at a gun show where the man tried to enlist his help to get more than the legal limit of explosives. Playing the 'good old boy' salesman, Buck had gotten the names and location of the house where they were making the bombs. Under the premise of delivering the materials, at five times their market value, Buck had confirmed that they were indeed making bombs. Thanks to Buck's quick thinking and quicker talking, the bust had gone down without a hitch. Since the rest of the team had been doing follow up on suspects pegged by the counter-terrorism task force, Travis gave Chris and Buck a few days off. They applied for and were granted vacation days to make the whole week.
For the entire week, they had only fished and lounged around the camp, enjoying the quiet and renewing their friendship. Since the formation of Team 7, they had drifted apart slightly and it was good that they were able to spend some time together.
The last night of their vacation was a hunter's moon. Chris awakened to musical howling on the night breeze and an empty sleeping bag on the other side of the tent. Shaking his head, Chris rolled over and went back to sleep, hoping that no one decided to take a shot at his lupine friend.
Chris had shaken his head in irritation as Buck refused to change back when they got up later. He understood how his friend needed to indulge his lupine side from time to time but he really would have preferred his help to break camp. Fortunately, they had traveled light and he got everything packed up on his own while Buck frolicked in the river. Now, they were coasting along the winding blacktop, headed toward the park exit.
"You'd better get up here and put your clothes on. I doubt they'll let me take you with me like that," Chris called out the open window. In the mirror, he could see Buck's head, mouth open, tongue lolling out, as he enjoyed the breeze and scenery. With a soft bark of agreement, Buck slipped through the open sliding window into the back seat of the extended-cab truck.
The deer, startled by the scent of predator on the breeze, leapt out of his hiding place ... directly into the path of the oncoming truck. "Oh fu-" Chris managed, jerking the wheel sharply as he tried to avoid the young stag. He heard a canine yip of pain as Buck was thrown against the door and into the floor. A small yellow Pontiac came around the curve, the driver's eyes going wide at the massive truck bearing down on her. Chris saw the car and tromped on the brakes, turning the wheel again. The passenger front wheel dropped off of the blacktop causing the wheel to spin through Chris's hands. "Buck!" Chris screamed in warning and panic just as the truck left the road.
The big black Dodge rolled end over front and then slammed down on its side, sliding until it came to rest against a massive pine tree. The driver of the Pontiac stopped, in part because of the accident and in part because of the dead deer that was gorily splattered across the road. Fumbling with her cell phone, she called for help.
Ranger Todd Russell had seen a lot of strange things in his twelve years with the Forest Service but this was something he would remember for a long, long time. Arriving first on the scene, he had tied on to the bumper of his truck, rappelling down to the overturned truck. Lying on the passenger side against the tree, the windshield had shattered but remained more or less in one piece. He could see the driver, suspended by his seatbelt, unconscious.
"Sir? Can you hear me? Sir?" Todd called as soon as he thought the man could hear him. Suddenly, a blur of dark and gray appeared, growling, snarling and barking furiously from inside of the cab. A wolf! Stumbling back until he fell on his behind, the ranger grabbed for his weapon. Holding it up in front of him with both hands, he watched the wolf. The animal seemed trapped in the cab, settling back on his haunches where he could see out through the broken glass. When he was reasonably certain that the wolf wasn't coming out of the truck, he took one shaky hand off of the gun to key the mic on his shoulder. "Russell to base, have animal control respond to my 20. I've got a wolf inside of the damaged vehicle. We'll need catch poles and tranquilizer guns," he said as calmly as he could.
"Did you say the wolf was inside of the vehicle?" the base operator asked.
"That's affirmative. And it's the biggest timber wolf I've ever seen," he replied.
The paramedics stood on the road, waiting for the 'all clear' to come down to extricate their patient. Four additional rangers showed up, two donning heavily padded suits before joining their fellow ranger near the truck. The long catchpoles reflected the sun, momentarily blinding Ranger Russell for a moment. When the blind spot disappeared, two more of his coworkers were standing in front of him, one armed with a high-powered tranquilizer gun, the other with a rifle. Although timber wolves were endangered and protected, they would kill the animal if it attacked.
"How do you want to do this, Nick?" Bill asked as he glanced from the truck to his partner.
"Well, we need to get that glass out of the way. Lester, can you get up on the driver's side? Maybe you could pop the glass and we could grab him before he gets out," Bill suggested.
Casting a glance at the injured man's arm, hanging barely inches above the wolf's head, Lester raised his eyebrows, "You're assuming he won't rip that guy's arm off if we upset him?"
"He postured up and growled when I got too close. I'll bet that he'll be more interested in the two of you than in that man," Todd said as he moved away from the direction the animal would come if he came out.
Todd boosted Lester's partner up near the wheel well on the front of the cab so the wolf wouldn't see him until he tried to knock the glass out. Bill and Nick stood ready with the catchpoles while Lester aimed the tranquilizer gun.
The wolf started growling as soon as he felt the truck shift under the weight of the man on the side. When the safety glass was punctured and then peeled back, the animal burst from the cab, snarling and snapping his teeth. When the air cartridge propelled the tranquilizer dart into the animal's shoulder, it flinched, turning to try to reach the small irritation. Bill managed to get his pole in position, catching the wolf as it turned toward Nick. Lester quickly reloaded and fired a second dart. The air was filled with the sounds of a furious animal, valiantly fighting against the metal cord around his neck. Nick managed to get his pole on, trying to help Bill drive the animal to the ground.
"Jesus God he's strong!" Bill shouted as he leaned into the pole.
"I don't dare give him any more of the tranquilizer," Lester yelled, now holding the rifle against his shoulder. He could tell that the drugs were working; the wolf's struggles were growing uncoordinated. Finally, the wolf sank to the ground, still growling deep in his chest. They continued to hold him until his breathing evened out. Nick loosened his loop, carefully moving it to close the open jaws.
"Nice and easy now," Bill cautioned as his partner pulled the muzzle from his pocket. Although the animal appeared deeply asleep, all of them knew he could still turn on them. Once the muzzle was in place, they dragged the sedated wolf away from the truck.
The paramedics stabilized the driver, carefully releasing the seatbelt to lower him to the ground. His pupils were unequal but reacting to the light, showing that he had a concussion. Once in the Stokes basket, they rushed him into the waiting ambulance.
A cage was carefully lowered down to the accident site for the wolf. He would have to be examined by a trained vet before he could be released. Nick and Bill manhandled the animal into the cage and steadied it as it was winched up to the road. It took six men to hoist the cage to the bed of the Ranger's truck.
Vin ran into the ER, his long hair wildly tangled by the wind. He hadn't taken the time to put the top on the jeep when he got the call from the hospital. A nurse had found his name and number in Chris's wallet. His boss and good friend was in the hospital with a concussion and other unspecified injuries. But worse than that, they hadn't been able to tell him anything about Buck, saying that there had been only one person in the truck.
"I'm looking for Chris Larabee," he said to the nurse at the desk, out of breath from running. She consulted her computer screen before directing him to room 206. In the unfamiliar building, it took him a few minutes to orient himself and find the room. Standing in the doorway, he stared. A thick bandage surrounded Chris's head. Wires ran from the neck of the hospital gown to a machine at the side of the bed, showing his heart rate and respiration. An IV ran into his left arm from a nearly full bag on the pole. The sheet and blanket were drawn up under his arms, smooth and free of wrinkles.
"Can I help you?" the nurse asked as she slipped past him.
"Yeah, I'm ... uh ... Vin Tanner, his friend. Someone from the ER called me a couple of hours ago. How is he?"
"He's got a serious concussion, cracked ribs and bruised internal organs. He hasn't regained consciousness yet. He's listed as serious but stable," she answered after consulting the chart. The nurse who did the admitting paperwork noted that Vin Tanner was listed on the laminated Power of Attorney card she had taken from the patient's wallet. "The doctor will be around in a few minutes to check him again if you'd care to wait."
"Thanks, I will. Listen, my other friends will be along shortly, can we get a few more chairs in here?"
"We have a limit of two visitors in the room per patient, Sir," she explained.
"Then you can explain it to them when they get here. Listen, I need to talk to someone who was at the accident site. Is there any way you could find out how I would go about that? There should have been another man in the truck with him."
"The paramedics and the rangers said that there was only one person in the vehicle ... oh, and a wolf. They couldn't move your friend until they took care of-"
"A wolf? Do you know what happened to it?" Vin asked, suddenly very worried about Buck.
"They tranq'd it and took it to the vet."
"Which vet? Where is the office?"
The young nurse looked at the man as if he'd certainly lost his mind. His friend was in serious condition and he was asking about a wolf? She shrugged her shoulders, "I don't know where but you can call the ranger station, they might be able to help you."
"Thanks!" Vin said as he ran from the room. Once on the parking lot, he pulled his cell phone. "Ezra, how far away are you? Good, come on to the hospital. He's in room 206. I've got to see a man about a wolf. Yeah, that's what I'm thinking," he said before disconnecting the call and dialing for information.
Dr. Jerome Kirk looked at the sedated wolf and shook his head. He had never seen so prime an example of timber wolf, not even in a zoo. A series of X-rays had shown a slight skull fracture, nothing life threatening, but it would be necessary to keep the animal for a few days observation before returning him to the park. The rangers had stayed to help him move the wolf for the X-ray, then to the enclosure before departing. From the amount of Ketamine he had received, he would probably begin to waken very soon. He still couldn't understand how the animal came to be trapped in the cab of the truck with the injured man. Shaking his head, he checked that there was water in the bowl before going back to his office to write up the reports.
The jeep slid to a stop on the gravel parking lot and Vin leapt out. The rangers who had taken control of the wolf had gone off duty so Vin was checking both of the veterinarians listed in the phonebook. Stopping at the counter, he flashed his ATF ID at the girl behind the counter. "Did the park rangers bring an injured wolf in here a few hours ago?" he asked.
Missy Kirk stammered out a hesitant reply, looking over her shoulder for her husband. In spite of the badge, the anxious, wild-eyed man across the counter made her nervous.
"I need to see him, right away," Vin demanded.
"What possible need could you have to see that animal, Mister ...?" Jerome asked as he stepped out of his office.
"Vin Tanner, Denver ATF. I just need to see the wolf. Was it brought here? Was it injured? Shot?"
"Timber wolves are an endangered species, Mr. Tanner. The rangers wouldn't shoot one unless they had no other choice. Now, please tell me why you need to see the animal."
Taking a couple of breaths to calm down, Vin considered what would be the most reasonable answer. Ever since they found out that Chris's best friend was a Two-blood, they had been trying to prepare for something like this. "The wolf belongs to the man who was driving the truck. He's very worried about him," Vin replied.
"That's interesting, considering that the man was still unconscious when you walked through the door. You see, I was on the hospital with my sister-in-law, who works over there when you pulled up," Dr. Kirk said.
"Okay, he will be worried about the wolf when he wakes up. Now can I see him?" Vin tried his best contrite expression, the one he learned from JD. When the vet nodded, he was relieved. Walking through the treatment area, he followed the man out to a row of cages covered by a sturdy roof. Only one animal inhabited the large runs, a very large timber wolf.
The animal launched himself at the fence, growling and snarling fiercely. The doctor and Vin both froze in their tracks at the vicious greeting. Vin recovered first, stepping past the startled vet to squat outside of the gate. "Easy now, Buck, settle down," he said calmly. To his dismay, Buck threw himself against the gate, snarling like he'd never seen Vin in his life. "What did they do to him?" he demanded of the doctor.
"Nothing! Nothing at all! He was darted and brought in here. He has a skull fracture but it isn't serious. I find it very hard to believe that animal is a pet, Mr. Tanner."
Vin looked at the wolf with a more critical eye. There was no way there was another wolf that looked that much like Buck. But he had never seen Buck acting so ... wild. Turning to the doctor, he glared for a moment. "Don't do anything to that animal until I get back."
Leaving the doctor puzzled, Vin returned to the hospital. Ezra, JD, Josiah and Nathan were there, all sitting in Chris's room when he got there. "Nathan, I need to talk to you for a minute. Has he come around at all?"
"What did you find out about Buck?" Josiah countered. JD had also come to his feet. On the way to the hospital with Ezra, he had chewed his nails until they bled.
"That's what I need Nathan for, they've ...," Vin glanced over his shoulder to see if there was anyone to overhear, "got him in a cage at the vet's office. I'm really worried about him ... he didn't act like he recognized me at all."
"Was he injured?" the medic asked.
"The doc said he has a skull fracture but nothing life threatening."
"How was he acting?" Josiah asked.
"Wild," Vin answered, his shoulders slumping.
"Let's go," Nathan urged. JD was already out the door, heading for the elevator.
"Wait, let me get something of Chris's, maybe it'll 'remind' him," Vin suggested, turning to rummage through the clothing in the bag the nurses had stuffed into the small closet. He pulled out the shirt Chris had been wearing, stuffing it into another bag.
Buck attacked the fence again as soon as he spotted the men again. JD had never been afraid of the Two-blood before now. Talking softly, Vin knelt on the sidewalk outside of the cage. "Easy now, Buck. It's all right. Just settle down," he said as he pulled the flannel shirt from the bag. With trembling hands, he held it closer to the chain-link fence. Buck continued to growl and hurl his body against the gate. After several minutes, Vin got up and walked over to where a long pole rested against the wall. He draped the shirt over the end, using it to put the shirt over the fencing. The material fluttered to the concrete and Vin withdrew the pole, backing away from the cage to where JD stood, staring in horror. Buck continued to growl and bark for a minute before turning to examine what had been dropped behind him. He sniffed the shirt for a while, then picked it up and carried it to the far corner where he lay down with it.
"They gave him a pretty high dose of Ketamine to bring him down, that could be why he's acting like that," Nathan explained, as he came out of the clinic.
"Will it wear off?" Vin asked hopefully.
"In time. But we got an even bigger problem ... they want to relocate him ... to a remote range in Canada. They think he was poached from there as a cub."
"This just keeps getting worse and worse," Vin moaned.
At the hospital, Chris twitched as he made his way toward consciousness. A familiar, rhythmic sound gave him something to focus his attention on as he fought to make his eyelids obey.
"I think he's coming around," Ezra said, rising to lean closer to the bed.
"Chris, can you hear me? Squeeze my hand if you can hear me," Josiah said softly. Both men stared at the hand Josiah held, exhaling in relief when the digits tightened. "Can you open your eyes for me?"
Out of focus, blurred blobs caused Chris to frown for a moment. Finally, the blobs resolved themselves into Josiah and Ezra. He dared not move, sensing that it would be painful. Just drawing each breath was hurt enough for now. It took him a moment to assemble a whole thought before he could speak to them. "Wha' happened?"
"You hit a deer and missed a car. You're in the hospital," Josiah answered as Ezra rang for the nurse. They waited as Chris processed that bit of information.
He remembered the deer, then the car, then ... pain filled tumbling, breaking ... tree limbs ... horrible crunching noise, then ... as he drew a sharp breath, the nurse arrived, forestalling the question that was growing exponentially in his mind.
"Well, it is good to see you awake, Mr. Larabee. You were pretty banged up when you arrived. Don't try moving around just yet. Would you like a drink of water?" She poured the liquid into a cup, popped the cellophane wrapper off of the straw and stuck it in between his lips without giving him an opportunity to accept or decline. "I'll go call the doctor and let him know that you're awake," she said, leaving as quickly as she'd arrived.
Panic was plain in Chris's eyes as Josiah and Ezra moved back up to the rails. "Buck?" Chris asked. He knew that the other man wasn't in the room with him.
"Vin, JD and Nathan are with him at another facility," Ezra answered. "He is being attended to as we speak. Now try to relax." Chris stared at Ezra for a moment, then his eyes went unfocused, fluttering closed in spite of his desire to stay awake and ask more questions.
"Good answer," Josiah remarked softly.
"Always a grain of truth in any con," Ezra explained.
By morning, Chris was awake, alert and angry. The second time Ezra tried the 'other facility' line, he had been able to see right through the blatant misdirection. Vin finally told him the truth. It was only that he couldn't even bear to sit up that kept Chris in the hospital bed. He was sick with worry about his friend, wondering what had happened that Buck was behaving so strangely. Right after breakfast, he sent Vin, JD and Nathan back to check on him.
Dr. Kirk's office was very busy when they arrived, so the trio bypassed the office, walking around the building to the cages in the back. This time, Buck wasn't snarling and throwing himself at the fence, but he didn't respond to them either.
"You shouldn't be back here," Jerome said, startling the two ATF agents.
"We just wanted to see how he was doing," Nathan said.
"I've got an order from the Park Service to hold the wolf for 72 hours, then he will be relocated."
"You can't do that! Buck's not a wild wolf, he'll be killed up there!" JD protested.
"He certainly acts like a wild wolf. Also, there isn't any record of a wolf being registered anywhere in Denver. It's against the law to keep an animal like that as a pet."
"He's not full blooded wolf," Nathan explained.
"Still not registered. Does Mr. Larabee have a rabies tag for him? Does he have a permit to raise a wolf? Even if he's not full blooded, he's still enough wolf that he needs a special permit to keep him."
"You can't ship him off to Canada. He belongs to Chris. He'll pay whatever fine he has to for keeping him without a permit and get him tags," Vin said.
"You'll have to appeal it to the court, the animal was taken in a federally protected park area, he's under their jurisdiction," the doctor replied.
"When are they coming for him?" Nathan asked.
"Tomorrow evening makes 72 hours, they'll pick him up the next morning."
While making his rounds the next morning, Dr. Harris was confronted by a very irate patient. "Just give me the damned papers!" Chris growled.
"You are in no condition to be leaving the hospital, Mr. Larabee!"
"I don't give a damn what condition I'm in, I'm leaving!" Chris said, glaring at the bespectacled doctor until he took a half step back.
"Chris, perhaps you should give it another night," Nathan suggested. The look he got from his boss would have been a fist if the blond could have managed it and the medic shut up. Josiah had gone to the ranger station to pick up the things that had been picked up from the accident site, bringing Chris some clean clothes to wear. Ezra had finagled a wheelchair that they could take with them. Vin had a bag of clothes for Buck, on the hope that he would see his friends and it would all come back to him.
Nathan went over the assortment of medications the doctor prescribed to Chris. He wanted to be ready for anything. They piled into Josiah's vehicle for the short ride to the vet hospital. By the time they got there, Chris was a raw nerve. It took Nathan and Josiah to get him out of the front seat and into the wheelchair. Vin and JD led the way back to the cages in case anyone tried to stop them. When they rounded the corner of the building, Vin stopped, stunned at the open gate and empty cage. Dr. Kirk came out, a piece of paper clenched in his hand.
"They took him last night. The transport was on its way through and they figured to save the trip. It'll take them more than 24 hours to get him up there anyway."
With a snarl of rage, Chris shot out of the chair, surprising Josiah. Before any of his men could react, he had hold of the veterinarian by the lapels of his lab coat. "That animal is mine! You had no right!" Chris growled. As quickly as the adrenaline came, it was spent and Chris swayed on his feet. Nathan and Vin surged forward to catch hold of him, easing him back into the chair. Ezra handed off a bottle of water he'd been carrying the instant Nathan produced the bottle of pain pills from the hospital.
Glaring weakly at the medic, Chris took the pills, washing them down with a swallow of water; he then began issuing orders. "Vin, find out what kind of transport they were using. Josiah, JD, we're going to need supplies ... and see if you can get a copy of the accident report. Ezra ... make sure we won't ... have any trouble at the ... border. Nathan ... I'm going to be sick."
In less than an hour, they were ready. Ezra insisted on driving his car rather than leaving it behind. Vin immediately volunteered to ride shotgun, to make sure he didn't get lost, he teased. JD also agreed to ride in the Jag. That left enough room in the suburban for Chris to stretch out across the back seat, after the floor was padded with coolers and sleeping bags. The transport was taking a slow, easy route north through the mountains. How Ezra had obtained the route they were using, Chris didn't want to know. All that mattered now was finding Buck.
They were somewhere in the middle of nowhere Montana when they caught up with the transport. Josiah settled in behind it with Ezra following behind him. So that the driver wouldn't become suspicious, they occasionally switched places or dropped back. They got off at rest stops so they could stretch their legs. When the truck stopped for the night, they would make their move.
It was the only hotel for 30 or 40 miles so it didn't matter that it was a little, tiny, hole-in-the-wall, mom and pop operation. The two men in the truck were exhausted and needed to sleep. The vet had told them not to mess with the wolf as it was heavily sedated. The other animals had food in their cages. After grabbing supper in the little greasy spoon diner, the men retired to their room and toppled into bed.
"We have to get him out of there, now!" Chris growled.
"We try to break in there now and we will get adjoining cells in the local jail," Ezra scolded.
"Just a little longer, we'll get him back," Vin promised.
It was nearly two in the morning before the last light went out in the restaurant, the cook getting in his battered truck and disappearing into the night. Vin and Josiah sprang from the suburban, attacking the lock on the truck with the tire iron from Ezra's trunk. They rolled the door up out of the way and shined the flashlight around the interior of the cargo area.
"There he is!" Vin exclaimed softly. The moment he set eyes upon the cage, he was furious. The cage was barely large enough to hold an animal half of Buck's size. "Damn!" he cursed.
"Temper, brother, let's just get him out of here," Josiah said, laying a calming hand on Vin's arm. Nodding that he would stay calm, they reached for the cage.
Neither man was prepared for the wolf to spring for the bars, growling and barking angrily. Vin tripped over Josiah trying to get away from the snapping jaws. Josiah steadied him until he could stand on his own, then he spoke, "Go tell them to make room in the back of the suburban, we'll take him cage and all." Vin darted to the back of the truck and leapt down, running silently to Josiah's vehicle. He told the others what they were going to do.
"Here, throw this over the cage, it'll muffle the noise," Nathan said, handing off one of the sleeping bags they had padded Chris with. Ezra slid into the driver's seat after they had rearranged the space for the cage, starting the suburban and backing it closer to the transport truck.
With the sleeping bag over the cage, Buck stopped barking but growled continuously. Nathan helped steady the cage as they slid it in behind the back seat. Vin ran back to close the truck while Ezra ran to start the Jag where JD was waiting anxiously. Quick as the wind, they disappeared.
They had been on the highway for half an hour before any of them spoke. The wolf had been growling steadily since being loaded into the truck. Chris had refrained from even touching the sleeping bag. "What do we do now?" The growling grew louder.
"Talk to him, Chris, let him hear your voice," Josiah suggested.
With shaky hands, Chris raised the edge of the sleeping bag until he could see the eye shine of the cringing wolf. "Hey buddy, it's gonna be okay. Just relax. I'm right here. Settle down Buck." Over and over, he repeated the phrases to the wolf. Gradually, the growling stopped, to be replaced by the sound of the bushy tail thumping. Nathan's cell phone rang, disturbing the quiet that had fallen over the interior of the suburban. He pulled the phone from his pocket, glancing back at the headlights of the Jag following behind them.
"He's settled down some. Yeah, that sounds good. Okay," Nathan said before putting the phone away. "Vin says we should pull off at a rest area and get some sleep."
"Sounds good to me. Chris?" When he didn't get an answer, Josiah looked in the rear view mirror. Chris was asleep, his arm draped over the sleeping bag on top of the cage. They got off of the highway less than an hour later.
A few hours later, Josiah awoke to the soft tapping on his window. Vin was looking curiously toward the still-covered cage. Unfortunately, as soon as he opened the door, the wolf began barking, trying to turn around in the close confines of the small cage. Chris, startled, threw himself away from the snapping jaws. Nathan jerked, his eyes practically spinning as he struggled with the door handle.
Several minutes passed before any of them was calm enough to sit down on the benches outside of the restrooms. Buck continued to attack the bars, growling and snapping whenever he saw any of them.
"Something is really wrong with him, Nate," Chris said, casting a worried look at the suburban.
"They probably darted him again to get him into that crate. That's three doses of sedation in a relatively short span of time on top of a concussion. I think we need to get him to familiar surroundings, give him a chance to get the drugs out of his system, then see where we are. We need to get him some water and get moving."
Vin opened the door to the suburban, sending the wolf into a frenzy. He had cut a limb from a tree to push a bowl of water in between the bars. Buck attacked the stick, splashing the water all over. Chris gasped in horror as he watched the wolf baring his teeth at him. Another car came down the exit ramp, forcing Vin to quickly close the door. They all went to the restroom before piling into the vehicles again.
After stopping to pick up Vin's jeep, they drove through a fast food restaurant for breakfast and lunch. To JD's everlasting surprise, Ezra didn't even blanch at the selection available. Nathan switched with Vin, to give Chris someone else to talk to for a while. After an hour or so, they switched again so that JD could try talking to Buck. Finally, they reached the Denver city limits.
As they were rolling up the drive, a thought occurred to Chris. "What are we going to do with him when we get there?"
When they got to the ranch, the guys went to work raising the sides on the largest stall in the barn. They moved all of the horses out to the corral so that Buck didn't scare them. Josiah and Nathan slid 2x4's into the top of the cage to lift it out of the suburban that had been backed right up to the barn doors. JD shrank from the sight of his friend, horrified and a little sick. Wearing thick gloves, Vin popped the lock off of the cage. When all was in readiness, Josiah used a rake handle to nudge the door open. Buck exploded into the stall, still growling and snarling. He backed up against the farthest wall, growling low in his chest.
"Let's just ... back off and give him some room," Chris said, taking a step away from the rails. When they had all dropped back from the stall, Buck moved to the corner to hike his leg. Ezra came back from the house with a couple of thick steaks he'd taken from the freezer and thawed in the microwave. Vin took the plate and climbed the ladder to the hayloft. Once there, he tossed the steaks over the highest rails, landing them squarely in the fresh hay they had strewn in the stall. Buck growled but slowly crept toward the food, finally snapping one up, whirling to return to the corner to 'wolf' it down. He was quicker with the second one. JD fed the hose through the slats and filled the low trough Nathan had dragged in there.
When they all settled back on the bales of hay they rearranged, Buck crept over to the water. He lapped for several minutes before returning to the corner, turning around several times in the hay and lying down.
Nathan brought sandwiches down for everyone, along with beer for everyone except Chris, who got a bottle of iced tea and his pain pills. Less than half an hour after taking the pills, the blond was sound asleep, leaning back against a pile of hay bales. They all settled in for the long haul, even Ezra. Some time during the night, Buck got up for more water, hiked his leg on the corner post nearest Peso's stall, dropped and buried his scat and returned to his spot in the hay. Two pairs of eyes unobtrusively watched, Chris and Vin.
The neighbor's rooster crowed loudly enough to be heard all the way to Chris's barn. Several limbs twitched in response. JD rolled over in his sleeping bag, stretching and settling into another comfortable position. Nathan stirred just enough to see that the others were still sleeping. He glanced over at Chris, still worried that the man had left the hospital too soon. Vin also stirred, rolling over to stare through the slats at the wolf. Buck's eyes moved from person to person before settling on Chris. His tail began to wiggle, turning finally into a full-blown, ground-thumping wag.
Chris tried to stretch, groaning at the pain that radiated from several places on his body. He let his head loll against his shoulder, peering through the slats at the wolf. "Feeling more like yourself yet?" he asked softly. Buck's ears swiveled for a moment before his eyebrows seemed to waggle at Chris. He rose slowly, walking toward the rails. He made a soft 'woof' of greeting. The others began to sit up, turning to study the stall. Chris shifted on the hay bales until he could lower his feet, rising slowly and shakily. He approached the stall, still staring at the wolf.
"Don't," Vin warned, as Chris started to offer his hand to the wolf.
"But he's-" Chris protested.
"Not until he changes back," Nathan also warned.
"Buck? Change back, please?" Chris said, cocking his head. There was the familiar feel of pressure in the air before Buck slowly came to his feet, hands held before his groin.
JD offered his sleeping bag to Buck against the morning chill as they all made their way up to the house. After pulling on clean clothes, Buck came out and sat on the couch, rubbing at his forehead.
"I just have one question ... what in the Sam Hell happened?"
"What do you remember?" Chris asked.
"Riding in the bed of the truck after making you tear down camp," Buck replied with a half grin.
"Nothing since?" Nathan asked.
"Not a thing. Nate, you got anything for a hangover?" Buck asked.
Hearing and reading about the accident, the days at the vet's office, the trip to Montana and back, Buck felt sick. He couldn't remember anything about the last three days. The very thought that he had been so ... wild ... scared him. Josiah went over the report from the rangers, pointing out a single line in the middle of the page.
"It says here that the wolf appeared to be almost protecting the injured man. I don't think you were trying to threaten those men as much as you were defending your own," he said.
The guys stayed until after lunch before heading for home. Nathan called Orin and told him that both Chris and Buck were injured in the accident and would be out for a few more days. That evening, Chris dropped into the recliner across from Buck, who was stretched out on the couch and sighed.
"Penny for your thoughts," Buck mumbled.
"I'm thinking of having you micro-chipped."