Characters: JD, Buck, Vin
Universe: Brothers Larabee
Author's Note: Originally posted as part of the Darlin's 11/06 ficfest. For Phyllis, who's the best beta a girl could ask for. The author would like to note... hence author's note... that this piece has not seen the benefit of Phyllis' talented red pen.
Disclaimer: The boys are not mine. I couldn't afford to house, feed, clothe and mend all seven of them. Though if given the opportunity, I'd do my darnedest. Mistakes are the sole property of the author.
JD lurched like a blind zombie on the rough end of a three-day bender. A massive yawn started somewhere around his toes and he scrubbed at his eyes with the back of his fist. When he staggered past the camp stove, Vin pressed a tin mug of hot liquid into his hand. JD grunted his thanks without bothering to open his eyes.
A tentative sip netted a dark, murky liquid that tasted more like wood smoke than coffee; but it was hot and caffeinated. JD mostly just cradled the cup between both hands, enjoying the warmth that bled through the chipped red enamel. He burrowed deeper within his heavy blue sweatshirt and watched Vin cheerfully prepping breakfast.
After several minutes and most of the coffee, JD remembered enough English to say, "It's four a.m. and about ten degrees out here. Why are you so cheerful?"
Vin shot him a grin that was entirely unrepentant. "It's five-thirty and closer to fifty." He gestured to the surrounding forest with the knife he had been using to rough chop potatoes. "Can you think of a better way to start the day?"
"Several," JD harrumphed, and poured himself a second cup of Vin's cowboy strength coffee. There was no bite in his tone; his mood much improved by caffeine and returning circulation.
"It lives," Buck laughed as he entered the campsite. In one hand, he balanced a cutting board with three of the trout they had caught the night before and one wickedly sharp knife; in the other a tin bucket of water sloshed wildly.
JD gave him a dirty look and hustled to take the bucket from him before their breakfast wound up in the dirt. He set the bucket next to the fire and dropped into one of the canvas folding chairs. Buck handed the fish off to Vin who added a few spices before plopping the lot into the frying pan.
Buck poured himself a cup of coffee and moved to stand by the fire. He tousled his younger brother's hair affectionately. "Nice mohawk." JD batted his hand away and then futilely tried to tame his hair.
"So, you boys still plan on tackling the mountain this morning?" Buck asked. He blew into the cup to cool his coffee before taking a sip and wincing at the flavor.
The question sparked some enthusiasm in JD for the first time. "Yeah. It's gonna be great. Sure you don't want to come with?"
Buck shook his head. "Nah, you boys have fun. I've got a date with a certain trout that got away."
"Give it up, Buck," Vin laughed. "That old cutthroat ain't likely to fall for your 'super-bait' twice."
"Yeah," JD agreed, wrinkling his nose. "Way that stuff stinks; I'm surprised the fish don't jump on shore just to get away from the smell. You should come on the hike. Zeke says hardly anyone uses the trail, so there's a really good chance we'll see some wildlife."
"You took backwoods directions from someone named Zeke?" Buck asked half teasing, half aghast. "That cinches it, I'll stay right here. Just do me a favor, kid; if you hear banjos -- run."
JD looked up at Buck, his expression just shy of eye rolling. "Zeke at REI, Buck," he explained in an overly patient tone reserved for particularly backward toddlers. "He sold me this." JD pulled his GPS handheld out of his sweatshirt pocket and held it up for Buck to inspect.
"Zeke," Buck groused, taking another drink of the bitter coffee.
"He's cool," JD said, putting the GPS back in his pocket. "He knows all the best trails in Nevada. And he just spent a year whitewater kayaking in Nepal." There was a tone of admiration in JD's voice that troubled Buck.
"Bully for Zeke," Buck said, a touch sourly. He didn't actually have anything against the guy, but anything that inspired JD to travel halfway around the world to do something that would still be stupid close to home, didn't sit well with Buck.
JD was so engrossed in recounting one of Zeke's misadventures in the Himalayas involving Mau guerillas and a crooked guide, that he missed Buck's sarcasm entirely. Vin's announcement that breakfast was ready, on the other hand, got his attention immediately.
The three brothers tucked in and made quick work of the meal. Afterwards Vin and JD hoisted the food box out of reach from a sturdy tree limb, while Buck washed the dishes. Camping in bear country it was particularly important to remove any tempting goodies from their campsite.
The younger two got a good laugh when Buck crashed into the lines of 'bear bells' JD had strung up around the perimeter. So far, the strings had only alerted them to Buck's movements. Repeatedly. Neither of his more experienced older brothers had the heart to tell camping novice JD that the bells were more or less a waste of time and money. He had been so excited to set up the warning system that they let it slide without comment. Though the pitch in Buck's exasperated 'damn it, JD' sounded less than amused.
Clean up completed, Vin and JD went over the details of their planned hike one last time. The summit was relatively low and this time of year shouldn't require any strenuous climbing. Zeke had told JD to plan eight hours for the round trip; but on an unfamiliar trail, Vin figured they would be out closer to nine. He had also allowed himself extra time to try out his new camera.
With a last check of their packs, they bid Buck good luck and headed up the south trail.
They spent most of the morning walking in good-natured silence. Vin set a pace that was brisk without being exhausting. Their trail loosely followed one of the runoff-swelled rivers that fed into the lake they camped alongside. At one point, the trail twisted more than a mile from the water's edge; when the two re-converged, the trail carved its way along the lip of a draw some thirty feet above the river.
At least once every half an hour, JD took out the GPS and checked their progress.
"You can't always count on one a' those," Vin said mildly, the fifth time he watched JD do so.
"I know," JD said, sheepishly putting the electronic back in his pack. "Just never had one before. It's kinda fun to see where we are."
Vin nodded, taking a long drink from his water bottle. "Nothing wrong with it. Just remember it's a tool that can fail. You rely on it without paying attention to anything else and you're up a creek."
He cast about for a moment, searching the sloop. "C'mere, I'll show you something." He left the trail and knelt near a small ant mound. "See the entrance here at the base? This part of the country, the entrance is always going to be at the bottom of the southwest side."
"Seriously?" JD asked a little awed.
Vin nodded. "Yeah. And moss on the south side of a tree is gonna be more brown than on the north side. Gets more sunlight, so it dries out faster."
For the rest of the hike up, Vin stopped frequently to point out things. He found an eager and attentive student in his younger brother. JD's enthusiasm in turn made Vin want to share everything he knew about wood lore.
Around eleven, they broke through the timberline onto the open expanse of the summit. Here and there, a small patch of dingy snow lingered in shaded recesses; but for the most part long grass and wildflowers ran riot over the high meadow.
JD grinned in delight, but wasted no time in flopping down in the sun to recover.
While JD rested, Vin broke out his camera and explored. The digital SLR was hardly extravagant, but it was by far the nicest camera he had ever owned. Chris had pushed him to buy it; subtly pointing out that Vin wasn't exactly living hand to mouth these days.
A half hour later when Vin returned to their packs, he found JD happily munching away on one of the sandwiches they had packed. Vin's half of the provisions carefully rewrapped and placed on his pack frame.
With lunch devoured and the meadow explored, the brothers started back down the mountain toward camp. The lessons along the trail and the leisurely rest at the meadow had put them nearly an hour behind schedule. Knowing Buck was likely to set the National Guard loose after them if they were so much as fifteen minutes late, they consulted the maps again and opted for the more direct route to the valley floor.
The logging road they camped by ran up the opposite slope of the draw they had climbed that morning. It was a straighter, though less scenic, path and they should easily make up time on the way down.
For the first hour and a half, they pushed hard. Vin set a brisk pace, pushing harder than on the way up. He was pleased that JD kept up without struggling or complaining. He regretted that there wasn't time for more lessons.
JD finally called a time out and leaned against a handy tree trunk to gulp some water from his canteen. "Hey, check it out," he said, delighted. Break forgotten, JD headed toward an old ramshackle barn that slumped into the hillside about fifty yards west of the road.
Vin had to admit it was a cool building. It had been abandoned for decades by the look of it. The forest was gradually reclaiming the homestead. Vin set his pack on the ground to retrieve his camera. As long as they were stopped anyway, he could get some good shots of the barn and the farmhouse. Just as he was straightening up, the wind shifted. A pungent ammonia scent burned his throat.
"JD," he hissed urgently, recognizing the danger. It was no use; JD was out of earshot unless he shouted. Oblivious, the younger man stepped around the corner of the building set on exploring the derelict. Vin sprinted forward, keeping low and moving as quietly as he could.
When Vin rounded the building, he found JD in a strange face-off with two strangers wearing automatic rifles slung casually across their backs. The three were staring at each other as though none of them quite believed the others were real. Vin caught JD's jacket and yanked his brother backward.
He ran hard, dragging JD behind him until JD too found his feet and began racing through the underbrush. Gunfire kicked up earth behind them, peeled bark from trees in small explosions, and ricocheted off rocks with metallic whistles.
JD slowed to grab Vin's pack when they sped passed it, but Vin hollered at him to leave it. Vin lost track of the minutes, lost track of the trail. Their breaths came in harsh gasps. JD, still wearing his full pack, was slowing up.
They burst out of the trees, winded and running blind. A last second instinct made Vin skid to a stop. The ground dropped away dramatically just a few feet further, a sheer rim rock overlooked the river below.
Their pursuers broke the tree line hot on their heels. Caught in the open, Vin stepped in front of JD. "We didn't see anything," he told them, hands raised in front of him. "Just hikers is all."
The rail-thin, scraggly man on the right scoffed. He gestured to the camera hanging forgotten around Vin's neck. "Yeah. Right."
"Think for a minute, boys," he said, keeping himself between the gunmen and JD. "You shoot us, gonna be lots of questions. Let us go and we just walk away. Won't say nothin' to no one."
"No, you won't," the second man agreed. He was stockier, with an ugly scar that twisted his face into a permanent sneer.
"Doesn't have to go this--"
The sharp bark of the gun cut Vin off. He staggered back into JD who tried to catch him. The few steps back that JD took brought him to the cliff's edge. With a deep crack, the rock face gave way.
JD scrambled for purchase on the disintegrating earth, dropped to his knees on sharp stone. For a moment, he found his balance clinging to the precipice. Then the rock he knelt on shifted and dropped away. JD followed, dragging Vin with him.
They twisted in free fall, veiled in dust and smaller debris. JD bounced hard, the pack on his back absorbing most of the blow. Instinctively, he threw his arms up to protect his head. Helpless, he tumbled, battered by the rocks that fell with him. Once or twice, he collided with something soft, something that groaned on impact, something that felt a lot like Vin.
Dry clumps of sage whipped at him as he crashed passed them; the gnarled branches stung the bare skin of his neck and face. He tried to catch one to slow his descent, but the rough bark shredded his palm.
At the bottom of the slope, JD pitched into the air again and plunged into the river. Icy water closed over his head, swallowing him whole. The swift current pushed him under. It felt as though the riverbed itself had reached up to pull him down. His lungs burned and dark oil oozed at the edges of his vision. JD stretched one hand frantically toward the light; the other curled around the strap of his backpack.
The pack! JD fumbled, numb fingers stuttering on the cheap plastic clip at his waist. The current buffeted him against boulders. After what felt like years of struggling, the two halves of the clip parted. JD wiggled free of the heavy canvas. Suddenly buoyant, he shot to the surface and sucked in a great lungful of oxygen before being pulled back under.
The second time JD broke the surface he managed to get his feet downstream. Floating this way let him push off boulders rather than smash into them, and mostly keep his head above water. It also gave him the chance to look around for Vin.
He found Vin only a few yards downstream. Although he too was floating face up, Vin didn't seem to be fighting the current at all. Instead, he tossed limply against every obstacle like a discarded rag doll.
Ignoring the welling panic in his gut, JD used a brief reprieve between rapids to angle toward Vin with a few determined crawl strokes. He was just close enough to twist his fingers in Vin's jacket when the roar of whitewater picked up again. JD pulled Vin tight against his side and braced for the worst the river could throw at them.
The churning water tossed them from side to side for a few mercifully short seconds before dropping them into a deep, calm pool. Exhausted and battered, JD kicked toward shore. Towing Vin's inert form made progress frustratingly slow, it felt like an eternity passed before JD finally pushed them both onto the rocky shore.
JD's whole body quaked with cold and exertion. Vin had yet to show any signs of life -- a fact that terrified JD. Putting off his own collapse, JD braced himself to check his brother's vitals.
"Don't be dead, don't be dead," he whispered, pressing shaking fingers to Vin's throat. JD forced himself to take a calming breath. He lowered his cheek to hover just above Vin's lips, just as Nathan had taught him in CPR class. He held his own breath as he watched Vin's chest for any sign of movement. The slightest rise stirred there, followed by a whisper of wind across his cheek. JD nearly whooped in celebration.
"Scared me," he scolded his unconscious brother. He carefully checked Vin for any obvious injuries. There was an ugly gash on the back of his skull; blood ran freely from it to mat in Vin's long hair.
He couldn't be sure about neck injury, though with the wringer they had just been through any damage was already done. JD figured it was more important to get Vin into some sort of shelter.
Like a flash of lightening, JD remembered the gunshot and Vin stumbling backwards. Anxiously, he searched for the bullet hole. There wasn't one. Disbelieving, JD checked again. He had seen the gun pointed at them, seen Vin recoil. It didn't seem possible that the gunman had missed at that range.
His knee knocked into the camera that had somehow survived the trip on the strap around Vin's neck. The camera body was badly dented; a perfectly round divot that twisted the metal case and burned away the black enamel. For the second time in as many minutes, JD silently thanked God for the favor.
He added a third prayer of thanks a moment later when a green and black canvas backpack crashed into the strainer they'd so narrowly avoided, bounced along the submerged log that created the deadly trap, and plunged into a slow eddy near shore.
A handy branch steered the backpack close enough for JD to retrieve without braving the water again. He hauled the bag ashore, nearly weeping at the wealth of treasures the river had unexpectedly provided.
"Got a fighting chance now," he told the oblivious Vin, ignoring his own violent shivering.
Buck stoked the campfire, whistling a tuneless song to himself. He didn't have to check his watch to know JD and Vin would be back soon. Vin had guessed nine hours, and Buck didn't question the estimate.
The day had been relaxing and quiet, exactly what he had asked for. The fish were biting early and fighting hard. No sign of the old cutthroat he had tangled with, but he hadn't really expected to find him again. He even had time to finish the new Elmore Leonard novel he had picked up on the trip up. All in all, it had been a most relaxing day.
Buck was going out of his mind with boredom. For the past three hours he'd found himself checking his watch and mentally calculating how long until his brothers returned. He had to admit, it was a little pathetic. But he missed the raucous chatter and laughing banter. Damned camp was too quiet with just him rattling around.
A battered old F150 rumbled up the road, disrupting his musings. It was predominately red, though Buck wasn't sure if the color was intentional or rust. At least three of the major body panels had begun life on other trucks. The driver pulled in behind Buck's SUV and parked.
A gangly man with lank hair and bad skin climbed out. He fixed Buck with an over-bright smile and a 'howdy' that set off every warning bell in Buck's head.
Buck replied with a less enthusiastic hello. The man had a vacancy in his eyes, a deadness that Buck recognized. For the most part, Rosie's was a working class joint; with a cliental, that restricted their recreational drugs to the legal sort. But every so often, someone wandered in with the dead eyes and open sores of prolonged meth use. Such interlopers were always encouraged to take their business elsewhere.
"You out here alone?" the stranger asked, fidgeting. There was an unhealthy sheen on his skin, and a slightly manic clip to his words when he spoke. He was twitchy, nervous. His hand kept caressing his coat pocket.
"Nah," Buck answered cautiously. "I expect the others'll be back d'rectly."
He nodded a shade too agreeably. "Think we passed 'em a couple miles up the road. Blond guy and a dark-haired kid?"
Buck keyed in on the word 'we.' His new friend had brought a friend of his own to play. A robbery then? The inquiry after Vin and JD troubled Buck. The question was forcefully casual, as though confirming something. He nodded. "Should 've been a couple other guys with 'em," he said.
"Nope, just saw the two," the stranger said, getting antsy. He kept watching the woods over Buck's shoulder.
The bear bells clanged discordantly. The cacophony made the tweaker start; his hand flew to the pocket he'd been fondling. Buck didn't wait for him to draw the gun stashed there.
Buck barreled into the underbrush, crashing through slapping branches and hurdling deadfalls. A spot between his shoulder blades itched, waiting for a bullet to outrun him. He slipped once, caught his toe jumping an obstacle, and skinned his knee on landing. He was back on his feet and running before the burn registered.
He paused, back pressed against an ancient pine, ears straining to pick out any movement. The silent afternoon mocked him. Long minutes oozed by, random noises taking on a sinister air. A bird a fair distance off to his left started up with a ferocious scolding.
From the direction he'd come, Buck could just pick out faint yelling. Two voices.
He stood in the woods, chest heaving as tried to catch his breath and plan his next move. Running from a fight chaffed him; though not as much as being shot would.
The off-kilter growl of an engine in need of a tune up sent Buck scrambling for cover. A moment later the red pickup chugged past him, headed back up the logging road. To Buck's great dismay, a second man followed in Buck's SUV.
"Damn it," Buck swore. No wonder they hadn't bothered to chase him. They didn't need to. Even if his cell phone wasn't sitting in the cup holder between the front seats -- it was worthless out here. There wasn't a cell tower for miles.
Walking for help wasn't a viable option either. The last bit of civilization they'd seen was a Ranger Station, some fifty miles back down the road. Buck did the math in his head. Even without accounting for the dark, it would take him better than twenty hours to walk out.
Those boys would be long gone by the time Buck returned with help. He couldn't shake the thought that Vin and JD didn't have that much time. He resolutely ignored the possibility that it was already too late.
The way he figured it, he had two options. He could take the same trail his brothers had, and hope they hadn't deviated. Or he could follow the yahoos in the truck.
Neither choice was particularly appealing. If Vin and JD had strayed from their planned route, Buck faced with four hundred square miles of wilderness to search. An impossible task for a lone man on foot.
On the other hand, he didn't exactly relish the idea of chasing a couple of meth-heads through the forest either. He didn't know what he'd do if he actually caught them. Still, the truck had gone back in the direction it had come from. They would have encountered Vin and JD within a few miles of camp. The one who'd confronted him hadn't looked like the nature-walk sort, so it was a safe bet that their trails had crossed somewhere near the road.
Buck crossed the logging road to the uphill side and began picking out a path that paralleled the rough tract. The afternoon sun started sliding toward the horizon.
Exhausted, but strangely contented, JD sat back and surveyed his handiwork. The shelter was rudimentary by any standard; only a couple of boughs lashed together with electrical tape. He doubted it actually retained any heat, but it camouflaged the silver emergency blanket he'd wrapped around Vin.
Even though his pack had gotten thoroughly soaked, it had still provided a treasure trove of goodies. The watertight First Aid kit Nathan had pressed on each of them before they left home had held up the best. JD was grateful for the dry bandages and medical tape. He'd patched the gash on Vin's head and dabbed antiseptic on dozens of smaller scratches.
Vin had started coming around when JD had spread the ointment on a particularly deep cut. Aside from a few incoherent mumbles, Vin had yet to fully wake. JD was really starting to worry. They couldn't stay put too long, there was no telling if the men who'd chased them would, come looking to finish what the cliff had started.
"Wish we could risk a fire," JD said aloud, feeling very alone. He held up his prized GPS in disgust. The screen was permanently dark; water still dripping from the cracked case.
Vin groaned something that approached English.
"Hey. Hey. Talk to me, Vin," JD said, pushing aside the branches he'd carefully arranged to shake his brother's shoulder gently.
In response, Vin batted at his hand. His eyes fluttered open, only to slam shut against the piercing sunlight. "Mrrmph," he grumbled.
"C'mon," JD persisted, "Wake up."
Vin's brow creased in misery. He clenched his eyes tighter. "G'way. Quiet."
"Can't," JD badgered. "C'mon, talk to me."
"What --?" Vin swallowed hard against rising nausea. "What happened?"
JD filled him in, slowly and quietly, prompting Vin for a response whenever he got too still. By the end of the story, Vin was more or less coherent. A blinding headache and swarming nausea made even the slightest of movements miserable. JD tore open a packet of aspirin and passed the pills along with the remainder of his water bottle to Vin.
"Don't think I've ever been so scared in my life," JD said, watching Vin choke down the pills. He paused expectantly. When Vin didn't offer any thoughts, he asked, "How'd you know we were in trouble back there?"
"Cat piss," Vin answered through gritted teeth, he really wanted to slide back into the cool darkness of before.
"Cat piss?" JD echoed quizzically.
"Ammonia. Meth labs smell like cat piss."
JD absorbed this new information without comment. He sat back on his haunches, mind churning. After several minutes he asked, "Can you walk?"
Vin opened one eye to regard his youngest brother. "If I have to. Why?"
"Don't think we should stay here," he said. "Even if they don't come looking for us, Buck will. He could run into those jerks."
"Got a plan?" Vin asked. He pushed himself up onto his elbows.
"I think so. We need to get back up to the road."
Vin shook his head and regretted the motion immediately. "Road's dangerous."
JD nodded. "I know. But it's the fastest way to camp." He chewed his lip. "I could go. Bring Buck back."
"No." Vin rolled over, demolishing the rough lean-to. He got his knees under him and had to pause while the world around him swarmed in stereovision. "Together," he panted.
"You can't even stand," JD pointed out, placing a steadying hand on Vin's back.
"Together," Vin repeated stubbornly. He stooped, hunched over with his hands gripping wobbly knees as he tried to convince his body to straighten. "Or we both stay." The more he moved, the worse his vertigo got.
"Okay, okay. Just... sit down before you fall down."
Vin did so, gracelessly. He cradled his head in both hands and silently willed the earth to stop lurching.
JD hustled around the small copse, shoving various bits and pieces back into his pack. He was happy to see the warm afternoon sun had at managed to dry their socks out. The hike home was going to be unpleasant enough without wet feet adding to the misery.
By the time they were ready to go, Vin's color was better and he seemed steadier. Progress was frustratingly slow at first. JD lent Vin what support he could. The hillside wasn't as steep as where they'd gone into the river, but it was enough to wind them both.
JD lingered for a moment on the verge, reluctant to abandon the sheltering trees for the infinitely more passable roadway. The trade was a zero sum gain; except JD didn't think Vin could take much more cross-country. As it was, he wasn't entirely certain the easier path would make much difference.
The scramble up the hill had taken a lot out of his older brother. He leaned heavily on JD as they started down the road. His eyes barely lifting from his feet and each step seemed to carry a little more weight than the one before.
They hadn't been walking long when Vin abruptly wobbled and dropped to his knees. Hunched over, he retched violently. JD stood guard over him, keenly aware of how vulnerable they were.
When the heaving passed, JD helped Vin stand. He led Vin away from the road, and seated him at the base of a stout pine. Vin sat silently, his eyes unfocused and dull. JD pressed his nearly empty water bottle into Vin's hand.
Worry knotted JD's stomach. Vin needed help. Help JD could get faster on his own, but that meant leaving Vin alone. He was plagued with images of Vin wandering off in confusion, or helpless against wild animals. That wasn't even considering the men with assault rifles that roamed the area.
A shrill whistle snapped JD's attention uphill. Someone was crashing through the underbrush, moving fast in a roiling cloud of dust. JD balled his hands into fists and stepped in front of Vin; ready to take on all comers.
The interloper broke cover, still sliding downhill. It was Buck. He plunged down the hillside, reckless in his haste to reach them.
"Buck. It's Buck," JD told Vin, who nodded miserably. "I'll..." JD paused, torn.
"Go," Vin rasped, waving in Buck's direction. "'m not goin' anywhere."
It was all the permission JD needed. He bounded down the road to meet Buck, aches forgotten in a moment of pure relief.
Buck spilled onto the road in a small avalanche of dust and pebbles. He was on JD in two steps, catching the younger man by the shoulders and scanning him for damage. The scrapes and bruises mostly looked superficial, though it was hard to tell under the grime. There was nothing wrong with the grin on JD's face though; the satisfied look that said he'd known Buck would show up all along.
"What the hell, Buck?" JD asked, smacking his shoulder lightly. "Did you take the scenic route?"
Buck snorted. "Thought I told you I wanted to relax on this trip."
JD grinned brilliantly and then sobered. "Vin's hurt pretty bad. He hit his head when we went off the cliff."
Buck started to tell JD that wasn't funny. A second look at the kid, and Buck found he fully believed any story JD had to tell. "We'll get him home."
The grin was back. "Can't believe you hiked all the way out here."
It was Buck's turn to break bad news. "Not much choice. Couple of geniuses stole the suburban."
"Skinny guy, kinda twitchy?"
Buck nodded. "And a face that would sour milk?"
"We met," JD said dryly.
They compared encounters with the criminals while they walked back to Vin.
The anger that had been simmering in Buck's chest all afternoon hit a boiling point when he saw Vin's gray pallor. He knelt next to the injured man. "Hey there, Junior," he said quietly. "Guess yer head really isn't harder 'n a rock."
"Buck," Vin sighed without opening his eyes. "Ready to go home now."
"I know. Soon." Turning to JD, Buck said, "We're not gonna walk out of here. We've gotta get the car back."
"I don't think we're far from the barn. Bet they went back there. Vin says they're cooking meth."
"Figured. Guy was plenty jumpy."
JD cut his eyes over to Vin. Buck caught the unasked question. "He'll stay here. It'll be safer and faster if we go alone." Neither one of them was happy about it, but options were in short supply. They left Vin as comfortable as they could make him and struck out.
It wasn't a far hike at all. JD was surprised at how close they were to the derelict homestead. It had felt like they'd been in the river for hours, but here the farm was a mere half hour up the road. The suburban was there, parked behind the red truck.
They crept in low, hugging the dry earth and moving from clump to clump of tall grasses. It was agonizing work. They sidled along in the open, expecting to be discovered at any moment.
No one stirred from either the house or the barn. Buck reached the driver's door of the suburban and slowly eased it open. He pulled himself up onto the floorboard and reached for the ignition. Nothing. "Damn," he swore under his breath. He hadn't actually expected the keys to be there, but it would have been nice.
He turned back to JD and shook his head. "Plan B," he said quietly. "You gonna be okay?"
JD nodded. "Just don't leave without me." He flashed his big brother a grin and faded, only the sway of grass marked his passage.
There wasn't time for Buck to worry about JD, but that didn't mean part of his brain didn't try. He worked the cover off the steering wheel column and set to work on the wires.
By the time he reached the red truck, JD's heart was pounding so loud in his ears that it was a wonder the bad guys didn't come running. The five feet between vehicles had stretched like miles and JD was reconsidering telling Buck he could handle the truck. Now, hiding in the shadow of the truck JD could breathe again.
In his hand, he clutched his Swiss Army Knife so hard it left grooves in his palm. He drew his fist back and slammed the blade into the tire. Sawing against the tough sidewall, JD ripped a wide gash in the rubber. He repeated the operation on the front tire.
With the tires flat, he set to work underneath the engine. Anything his knife could cut was fair game. He hacked, slashed, and sawed. The damage was probably over the top, but JD wasn't taking any chances. The truck wasn't going anywhere if he could help it, getting away would be easier without any pursuit.
The suburban coughed once, then rumbled to life. With the sound of the engine came angry shouts from the barn. JD slid out from beneath the truck and sprinted, sacrificing stealth for speed. He piled into the passengers side, the suburban already rolling backwards before he pulled the door shut behind him.
A sharp rat-tat filled the small clearing. The rear window shattered. Buck cranked the wheel hard, slowing just enough to throw the car into gear and roar off. They bounced hard over ruts and potholes, spitting gravel in every direction. JD flashed Buck a brilliant smile, dizzy with adrenaline.
He was still grinning when they stopped to collect Vin. They found him just where they'd left him. He was still woozy, though the rest had done him good. Buck dug into the glove box and found a bottle of headache tablets. Vin managed to choke them down dry, and then stretched out on the backseat to sleep through the trip down.
The trip off the mountain was unremarkable. Buck pushed the suburban as fast as he dared; only slowing for turns he couldn't muscle through. They blazed passed their campsite, unwilling to stop even to gather their belongings.
As they approached the ranger station, Buck's cell phone chirped the return of a signal. JD called for the directions to the nearest hospital and arranged to a sheriff's deputy to meet them there.
While JD and Vin were checked out and stitched up, Buck gave his statement to the deputies. They arranged for Buck to lead them to the site the next morning. Once JD finished in sutures, they interviewed him as well. The adrenaline he'd been running on for most of the day abandoned him. In the middle of describing the two men he'd seen, JD simply nodded off.
They left him sleeping in the quiet family room, slumped on the sofa. That was how Buck found him half an hour later. Head tilted back, snoring softly. The day's exertions clearly stamped in lines of exhaustion on his features. Gently Buck laid his jacket over JD.
The kid was pale, the only color in his face from vivid bruises. A steri-strip above his eyebrow peeked out from beneath a fringe of dark bangs, concealing a tidy row of stitches. JD looked terribly, terribly young in his borrowed blue scrubs.
In the moment of quiet, the anger and fear returned to Buck. He'd come so close to loosing both JD and Vin today, loosing the family he'd only just found. Just so some scumbag could make a quick dollar.
Buck reached out the brush an errant strand of hair from JD's eyes. He let his hand drop to his young brother's shoulder. JD smiled contentedly in his sleep and burrowed deeper into the couch.
Buck let him sleep while he went to check on Vin. The doctors wanted to admit Vin for observation overnight as a precaution. Vin wasn't impressed with the idea. Buck ran interference for the doctors, finally resorting to a phone call to first Nathan and then Chris.
The second conversation had involved a lot of loud talking from Chris' end of the line and an equal amount of wincing from Vin's. Recognizing a lost battle when he saw it, Vin surrendered. In a final act of stubbornness, Vin told Buck in no uncertain terms to get a hotel room for the night.
Buck would have been tempted to argue; except Vin had played the one card he knew would win. JD needed sleep just as much as Vin did, and he wouldn't get it on the family room sofa.
JD and a newly sprung Vin were waiting for Buck in front of the Sheriffs Department the next afternoon when he pulled up in the rented Escalade. The suburban had been handed over to a garage for repairs to the punched ignition and stripped wiring. The bullet holes that raked the back panel were cosmetic only and could wait until home.
"So?" JD asked expectantly.
Buck grinned. "Right where we left 'em. And let me tell ya, they were none too happy about their truck." He clapped JD lightly on the shoulder. "Did a good job, kid."
JD practically purred at the praise.
"Get everything from camp?" Vin asked.
"Yeah. Most of it's ruined," Buck said. "They trashed everything. Cut up the tents, smashed up the cookbox. Figure we'll salvage what we can. I don't know about you guys, but I'm starving," he changed topic abruptly. "Some of us skipped breakfast to go fight crime."
"Sounds like a personal problem," JD sassed climbing into the back seat. He crinkled his nose up at the smell emanating from their camping gear. "Ugh. What is that?"
"Like I said, we'll salvage what we can."
Over Buck's protests that clean up could wait until after lunch, Vin and JD insisted their first stop was a Laundromat. Between the three of them, they lay siege to eight of the washing machines. Once everything was swapped to the dryers, they went searching for food.
Next door to the Laundromat, the Rudolph Hotel loomed like a shining beacon of civilization. One of two buildings in the entire town to have a third story, The Rudolph was the only one that featured an elevator. On the first floor, past the gaudy lobby, was Rudy's Bar and Grill. They grabbed a booth in back.
The food was unexceptional, but it was hot. And the waitress was friendly -- very friendly by the time Buck got through exaggerating how poor, heroic Vin and JD had come to be so banged up. Both of them blushed hotly and tried to downplay the entire incident. Slices of pie showed up on their table accompanied by a sly wink.
"Don't know why she gave her number to you," JD said as they walked back to the Laundromat to retrieve their belongings. "You weren't even there for the hard part."
Buck ruffled his hair, earning an annoyed swat from JD. "It's all a matter of timing," he said in a worldly tone. "That," he added conspiratorially, "and animal magnetism."
"You wouldn't have that problem if you took a bath once in a while," JD snapped back, falling into the familiar teasing.
Vin sniffed noisily. "I think we found the mystery ingredient of Buck's 'super bait,' JD"
Buck looked at him askance. "Et tu, Brute?" He laughed, turning to jog backward just ahead of them. "I think what you're both forgetting here, is that I'm your ride home." He dangled the keys just out of reach.
The dryers were just finishing their cycle when the three of them spilled through the doorway laughing. They quickly emptied the appliances, carting each load out to the car.
"Is that it?" JD asked, looking around.
"Um, check the dryer on the end. I think there's a sleeping bag in there."
JD yanked the dryer door open. A blizzard of white down spilled out to engulf him, still swirling on a hot wind. JD blinked.
Buck reached out and plucked an errant feather from JD's dark hair. Gently, ever so gently, he pried JD's fingers from the door handle. He closed the dryer door.
"Rudy's?" he asked.
"Rudy's," JD and Vin agreed in unison. They shuffled away through forming drifts of downy feathers without looking back.