The Big Blow

by Beth Green

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Chris no longer felt as if he were in the city of New Orleans. The atmosphere was more that of a war-torn third world country. The damage to the buildings around them had been aided and abetted by looters. Men and women could be seen pushing shopping carts down the middle of the deserted streets. Some of the carts contained essential items like food, water, and clothing. Others contained obviously stolen items.

Ezra pointed to one of the carts and commented, "What good is a 42-inch plasma screen television and a state-of-the-art stereo sound system going to do when there's no electricity?"

Vin observed, "Maybe that fella over there has a better idea." Chris and Ezra looked in the indicated direction and observed a gentlemen pushing a cart filled with cases of liquor.

Chris wouldn't have minded a drink or two himself. He commented, "Maybe he does, at that."

Their pace was necessarily slow as they stepped around and through debris. Not an hour into their walk, they were approached by a man with a rifle. The man was carrying the gun with the barrel pointed toward the ground. Nevertheless, the team members were wary and ready to draw their own weapons if circumstances warranted.

The man looked hot and tired. Sweat stains were visible upon his clothing. He asked, "Are you the police?"

Chris replied, "No, we're not."

The man turned away from them and began to pace. "Damn, where are they?" The man hiked a thumb over his shoulder toward a boarded-up storefront. "That's my place, there. There's all kinds of trash runnin' the streets. They keep tryin' to steal what little I got left in this world. I chase one off, and another one shows up to take his place." The man walked over to a chair leaning against the front of the building, and wearily sat down. He rested the rifle across his lap. "Where's the goddamn police?"

Chris replied. "If I had to guess, I'd say that most of 'em are rescuing people from flooded buildings. Mister, you might not know this, but you're one of the lucky ones. When the levees broke, they buried the rest of the city under water."

The man frowned and spat at the ground near Chris' feet. "You sure sound like a cop. Makin' excuses." The man shook his head. "I seen the police, once, when some idiot shot off a gun. The police showed up for a minute, but then they were gone. I haven't seen 'em since." He commented darkly, "Maybe I just need to shoot somebody."

Ezra decided to interpret that comment as a potential personal attack. He stated, "I think we'd better be going."

Chris agreed with the suggestion. "I think you're right."

Vin understood the shop owner's anger. He didn't agree with the selfish aspect of it, but he understood it. The fingers of his right hand unconsciously tightened around the butt of his gun.

Chris echoed Vin's thoughts. "Disaster can bring out the worst in some people, along with the best. From what we've seen so far, the looting's too widespread for the three of us to do anything but piss off a lot of crooks if we try to stop them."

Ezra was more than a little uncomfortable with their present surroundings. He commented, "It would seem that we are outnumbered and quite possibly, out-gunned."

Vin looked around warily, his mind imaging snipers behind every window. He felt like the three of them were an invading army in a hostile foreign country. He waved a frustrated hand to indicate the chaos surrounding them and asked, "What are we doin' here?"

Chris was quiet a long moment before he answered, "Whatever we can." He pulled out the map that Buck had given them, with Lovely Linda's Emporium highlighted. "For now, that means checking on Buck's ladies."

As they neared the Uptown area, they left the high and dry area of the city behind. First the water was only one inch high, then two, and the levels continued to rise the further north they progressed. Eventually the water covered the streets to a depth of twelve inches.

Ezra balked at proceeding any further. "What is the point? The water is filthy, no doubt harboring a variety of diseases. A sensible man walks away from a flood, not toward it."

Chris didn't like the polluted water any more than Ezra did. "That may be, but there's one other thing for you to consider." Chris paused to see if Ezra would figure out what he was hinting at. When the man remained silent, Chris continued, "Buck's ladies are just over in the next block."

Vin chuckled and began to walk forward. Chris followed, and Ezra reluctantly took up the rear. The men walked around the corner, and didn't have to look far to find Buck's ladies. They were resting on the front porch of their building which was conveniently above sea level. They looked hot and tired, but compared to the scenery surrounding them, they were a vision of loveliness. The scenery was marred by the presence of a rifle barrel peeking out from one of the first floor windows. The ladies smiled less in provocation, more in wariness. "'Allo. Are you gentlemen in need of a li'l company?"

Chris wasn't sure if the rifle-bearer was friend or foe of the ladies. He proceeded cautiously, and informed the wary women, "Actually, Buck Wilmington asked us to make sure you ladies were all right."

The rifle disappeared from view. One of the dark-haired beauties looked closer at the men standing in the flooded street. Her eyes widened in recognition. "Ezra! You get yourself on up here! Bring your friends, too!" Evidently, the woman remembered Ezra from his visit Thursday.

Ezra smiled as he headed toward dry land. Although he did not need it, Ezra took the lady's hand when she offered to assist him up the steps. Ezra decided that a judicious lie was in order. "Miss Mary, you look lovely as ever."

The woman blushed from more than the heat, then coyly replied, "Why Ezra, I know you're lyin'." She touched a soft hand to his unshaven cheek and continued, "But thank you kindly."

The rifle-bearer came out of the house. She held the gun pointed harmlessly at the ground, but made it obvious that she could easily use it if needed. She was a tall, strikingly attractive brunette. "I'm Linda Lotta."

Names and greetings were exchanged as Linda asked, "Where is Buck?"

Chris explained, "Buck's on a helicopter right now pulling people out of the flood. He's sorry he couldn't come and see to your comfort personally."

Linda replied, "That sounds like Buck. You all thank him for me." She leaned forward seductively. "I thank you all, too. Shame to come all this way and not get anything in return. You boys think you might want to stay a while?"

Chris smiled in response to one of the few pleasant sights he'd seen all day. "Under any other set of circumstances, we would gladly accept your offer. Problem is, things are a little rough around town right now, and I haven't seen anything that looks like the law. Me and the boys have more than a little bit of experience in keeping the peace, and it looks like the locals could use some help."

Linda replied, "I can't begin to imagine how bad things are out there. Even before the flood, there's some areas of the city the police had trouble controlling, especially where the gangs have their territory. If any of those gangs made their way over here …" She did not need to complete the sentence. They all knew how it ended. She cautioned, "You all be careful out there. During the day, it's almost too hot for folks to move. During the night, it gets a little scary."

Vin had figured as much. He pointed to a spray-painted sign hanging from the porch's wooden railing. In blood-red lettering, it proclaimed, 'You loot - I shoot.' "Seems like you might've had it a bit rough yourselves."

Linda shrugged. "We can take care of our own selves." She smiled and looked away, her face looking a little less fierce and more tender. "You all tell Buck to take care of himself."

When the men did not seem in any hurry to leave, Linda stated, "We laid in a couple weeks' worth of food and water. We'd be more than happy to share."

Chris nodded. "That's the best offer I've had all day."

One of the ladies, an attractive red-head, linked her arm through Chris' and led him into the house, stating, "I can make you a better one, if you like."

Replete with food and water and maybe a little something more, Chris, Vin, and Ezra were prepared to continue their patrol of the damaged city. Linda offered them a place to sleep and additional food and water whenever they needed it. They gratefully accepted her offer.

The three men left the hopeful atmosphere of Lovely Linda's Emporium for the fear and despair of the streets. The men could not help but absorb some of the depressive atmosphere into themselves. There was no sign of any relief or recovery efforts. One of the city's more colorful residents stepped in front of the trio in order to share his opinion with the peacekeepers. "The city was smote by the hand of God and left to rot in its wickedness."

Chris ignored the man. He and his friends were forced to walk around the human obstruction as the man continued to shout imprecations regarding the Lord and vengeance.

Vin muttered, "That fella's crazier than a run over dog."

Ezra was about to utter a critique of Vin's bizarre metaphor when a beep from the satellite phone announced an incoming call. Ezra felt a moment of dismay when he realized that his thoughts had been so occupied with his immediate circumstances that he had not spared a thought for his absent team members until now. He answered the phone with an anxious "Hello!"

JD responded. "We got Nathan, Josiah, and Uncle Ray. We're going to drop Uncle Ray off at the Convention Center. Nathan and Josiah are staying."

Ezra's "What?" was interrupted when Chris grabbed the phone out of his hands.

The team leader demanded, "Talk to me!"

JD explained, "Nathan and Josiah went back for Uncle Ray's boat. There are hundreds of people trapped in their homes with no way out. Seems like the water's ten to twelve feet high everywhere we look. Nathan and Josiah are gonna get to as many people as they can from the water, while me and Buck pull them off of rooftops."

Chris gripped the phone tighter, wishing that he was with his absent friends. While the rest of the team was going to physically participate in the rescue effort, he, Vin, and Ezra had no choice but to remain where they were. The team would be split up for days. Chris allowed the hand not holding the phone to stray to the butt of his gun. He calmed his restless spirit with the thought that if he remained where he was, sooner or later he was going to be offered the opportunity to dispense a little old-fashioned frontier justice. He ended the call by saying, "You do what you have to do. Keep in touch. I know you're gonna be busy, but I want to hear from you at least once every twenty-four hours." The phone call was then terminated.

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Buck spent the rest of the day doing SAR (Search and Rescue). He lost count of the number of trips he made ferrying people from their homes to the makeshift landing area at Center City. No matter how many people he picked up, there were that many and more waiting for rescue. Buck chafed at the delay every time he had to refuel. It meant that he had to travel outside of his search area and back to the airport.

He commented, "I wish we could've found ourselves a bigger chopper. At this rate, it'll be days before everyone gets out. I only hope they can hang on that long."

JD had no suitable reply. He shared his friend's sentiments.

He and Buck had worked out a routine for their rescue operations. JD had rigged a harness to a rope and pulley system, which the young man used to pull people up into the chopper while he himself was anchored to the helicopter's interior.

One of their most frustrating rescue attempts that day involved a man and his dogs. The man insisted that his two large dogs had to be rescued along with him. JD yelled, not only to be heard above the noise of the helicopter's engine, but in anger at the obstinate man. "No way! Do you have any idea how many people are stuck out here? If we take the dogs, that's two less people we can


Buck chafed at the wasted time. He voice warned of his lack of patience. "JD …"

The younger man issued an ultimatum. "Mister, I'm only gonna say this once. It's either you alone, or we leave."

The man waved them off and headed back into the attic of his flooded home. "Then leave!"

JD repeated the words to Buck. They flew toward the next group needing rescue while JD cursed. "God DAMN it! That man's risking his life for a couple of dogs!"

Buck reminded JD, "It was his choice."

"That doesn't make it any easier."

Buck agreed. "No. It doesn't."

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It was on their fifth trip of the day, after Buck and JD had done enough rooftop rescues that their SAR efforts were beginning to have a feeling of routine regularity, that disaster struck.

They flew to the next house in their assigned grid, where three people were waiting for rescue. Buck held the helicopter in a steady hover while JD rappelled down to the survivors. One of the men, an older gentleman who outweighed JD by at least fifty pounds, clutched at the young man's leg with one hand while with the other he clung tenaciously to the roof. "I can't swim! Help me!"

JD knew right away that this man would be the last of the three survivors to be air lifted. He didn't want anyone other than himself getting in the way of any panicked actions the man might take. He patted the man's shoulder in reassurance. "That's okay. We're not going down into the water, we're going up into the helicopter." He pointed up at the hovering chopper to emphasize his words.

JD tapped at the man's hand where it was tightly wrapped around his rescuer's leg. "First, I need you to let go of me."

The man stared at JD, his eyes wide and reflecting every bit of his terror. A minute later, he complied with the young man's request. JD let out a breath of relief. "Okay. Now, I'm gonna get your friends up into the helicopter, so you can see how it's done. Then it'll be your turn."

JD attached each man in turn to the harness and using the rope and pulley system assisted them up and into the helicopter. The third man was shaking in fear, trembling to the point that JD knew he would have to return to the rooftop to assist the man. The man did not want to leave his recumbent position near the surface of the roof, making it damn near impossible for JD to help him. JD was beginning to think that he was going to have to tie the man to himself and haul them both up when the man decided to stand up. JD tried to help, but the man's sweat-slick skin slipped through his hands as he began to fall. The man had the time to give one terrified scream before he disappeared under the murky brown surface of the water.

JD screamed for, "Slack!" relieved when the line anchoring him to the helicopter went lax. He dove into the water where he'd seen the man go in. Had he cared to open his eyes, JD would not have been able to see through the filthy water. There was no way in hell he would open his eyes in the polluted, debris-filled water. He had to find the man by blind feel. His arms and legs swept through the water, hoping to come into contact with the missing man. His lungs were burning from lack of oxygen when his questing fingers reached their goal. The hand that gripped back was strong and powerful. JD struggled to the surface while the man seemed to be trying to climb up his body. The man managed to crawl onto JD's back by the time his head broke the surface of the water. At the moment that JD's head cleared the surface and he began to take a breath, the weight of the man's body forced them both back under the water.

Instead of breathing in air, JD breathed in the foul water and felt himself begin to lose consciousness.

Fortunately one of the man's friends had been anxiously watching from the open door of the helicopter, and giving Buck a blow-by-blow description of the events as they occurred. Buck yelled, "Pull them up!" even as he raised the helicopter to drag JD up and out of the water. At the moment, Buck's priority was his friend, and not the man who was attempting to drown him. If the man held on, great. If not … Buck knew that JD did not have the time to waste while he pondered the 'If not.'

The rescuees hauled on the rope together. The two men called out to their friend, "Hang on!" so Buck knew that the missing man had not dropped back into the water. Quickly, but not fast enough for Buck's peace of mind, JD and the man clinging to him were pulled up and into the helicopter's cabin. Buck let out a sigh of relief at JD's rough, wracking coughs, interspersed with curses. The sounds let Buck know that his young friend was alive and breathing, if not exactly well.

This trip out, when Buck and JD arrived at the I-10 landing zone, they lingered while JD was examined by one of the doctors on site.

The doctor cautioned JD, "You've got a little bit of a rattle there. It sounds like you might have inhaled some of that water. Considering the level of pollution, that is not good. I recommend that you head somewhere where you can get a prescription for a preventative course of antibiotic therapy."

After hearing that statement, Buck declared, "Okay, kid, we're done for the day."

JD was aching and exhausted, and in no mood to disagree with his friend. They flew back to the airport and checked with the staff at the airport's makeshift hospital, pleased when the physician on duty was able to provide JD with a seven-day supply of a broad spectrum antibiotic.

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Nathan and Josiah spent the rest of the daylight hours ferrying people to dry land. They were pleased by the number of private boats assisting the Coast Guard in the rescue effort. They were less pleased by the desperate people they could not help, those who were forced to grab anything that floated in order to reach dry land. There were mothers and fathers pulling children in plastic tubs, swimming pools, or inner tubes, or riding upon unrecognizable pieces of floating debris.

As the day gave way to night, the exhausted men made their final rescue of the day before they decided to moor their boat by tying it to a lamppost a block from the Convention Center. They made several circuits of the crowded Convention Center before they were able to locate Uncle Ray. The older man had claimed a bare spot of floor for himself, and he made room for Nathan and Josiah to lay down and attempt to sleep. Unfortunately, the Convention Center had not been one of the sites designated as a hurricane shelter prior to the arrival of Hurricane Katrina. Uncle Ray filled his friends in on the bad news. "No place to sleep is the last thing to worry about. It's just one more thing to make folks miserable. Ain't no food. Ain't no water. Ain't no power and it's dark as hell. No power means no plumbing. That's why this place smells like one big toilet. They better gets folks outta here quick, before they start dyin'."

Nathan didn't have the heart to tell his Uncle that there was already at least one fatality. He and Josiah had seen the blanket-covered body of an elderly woman sitting in a wheelchair outside of the Convention Center. Many of the refugees were old and infirm, with no access to health care or prescription medications. If help did not come soon, the old woman would not be the only fatality.

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Chris, Vin, and Ezra continued their tour of the decimated city. Despite the fact that they carried no badges and wore no uniforms, people kept coming up to them and asking for help, for handouts, or simply to share their stories. Chris suspected part of the reason was the air of responsibility that he made no attempt to hide. Another reason, although Chris hated to admit it, was because of the color of their skin.

A middle-aged dark-skinned woman approached them. Tears filled her eyes as she spoke. "Please, is there any way you can check on my mother? She's eighty-four years old, she wouldn't leave her home. I couldn't stay; I got kids. I sent 'em to Baton Rouge with my sister and stayed here with my man. I haven't heard from Mamaw since Sunday night."

Chris stood uncomfortably in front of the distraught woman. "I'm sorry. There's nothing we can do." Chris hated saying the words, but it was the truth.

Shortly afterward, a young couple approached. "Why isn't anybody doing anything?" They pointed to a nearby convenience store. "That place over there offered folks food and water if they needed it, but instead looters ran in and cleared out everything they could carry. Where's the police? Where's the emergency supplies? Where's the help for those of us who got left behind?"

It was a question that had no answer, but Ezra tried to provide one anyway. "I am certain that emergency supplies will be delivered as soon as possible. No doubt the damage done by the hurricane has delayed the arrival of representatives from the disaster relief agencies." Ezra hoped that he spoke the truth.

As the day passed into night, the earlier breeze died down, leaving the air hot and humid. People slowly cleared the streets and took shelter from the night in storm-damaged buildings. The cosmopolitan blend of people they'd encountered during the day made way for younger men with cold, hard eyes and swaggering gaits.

Vin immediately recognized the type. "Gang members."

Chris did not respond verbally. He simply removed his Glock from its holster and held it in his right hand, in plain sight. He teammates followed his lead.

The gang members were also armed, and made no effort to conceal their weapons. Rather than doing the sensible thing, the gang approached Chris, Vin, and Ezra, ignoring the guns pointed in their direction. The obvious leader of the group stated, "This is our turf. We don't appreciate no tourists tryin' to come in and take what don't belong to them."

Chris' voice was calm and level, his body language silently conveying the threat that he represented. "Last time I checked, this city was part of the United States of America." When the gang members seemed unimpressed, Chris added, "You know, the land of the free, the home of the brave."

Although he did not retreat, the gang leader was wise enough not to draw the weapon he carried in his belt. Chris figured the young man had more bravado than sense. The gang leader verified Chris' supposition when he stepped forward and waved a finger at Chris' face. "You can talk all you want. All you gotta know is, wherever the Kings be, be Kings' turf. You stay outta our way, and we'll stay outta yours."

Chris stepped forward, invading the man's personal place. He made no attempt to conceal his anger. "The only thing you need to know is that we're here to keep the peace. If you decide to break the law, we'll be here to break your face."

The gang leader took a step back. He leaned back away from Chris and raised his hands. In a mocking falsetto, he declared, "Oh Mister, you done scared me back to Jesus. I ain't never gonna sin again."

The gang leader and his cronies exchanged high fives as they laughed among themselves. Chris had to satisfy himself with his observation that not all of the gang members looked as supremely confident as their leader.

The leader turned away from Chris, Vin, and Ezra. He spoke to his fellow gang members. "C'mon, we said what we gotta say."

The young men made various rude and inflammatory comments and gestures as they slowly walked away from the peacekeepers.

Vin was tempted to fire a warning shot over the heads of the departing youths. He kept watching their backs until the young men disappeared around a corner. Vin put his gun away but kept his right hand poised by his side, close enough to grab his weapon if needed. He waved his unoccupied hand in the direction of the departed youths. "Damn! This is the last thing anyone needs here. It's bad enough the city's got one foot in the grave. The damn gangs 'll just dig the grave that much deeper." He added, "I don't know about you all, but I can't sleep easy with the likes a' them runnin' loose."

Sleep was the furthest thing from Chris' mind. "I agree. The best thing we can do to help the people stuck here with us is to make sure those blood-sucking bastards don't create more misery. We'll do night patrol, and sleep during the day."

Ezra was by habit and preference a night owl. He had no objection to the plan. The men were aided by the fact that they were carrying a generous supply of spare flashlight batteries, courtesy of the lovely Linda Lotta.

The streets were quiet until around three o'clock in the morning. They heard a man's voice cry out, "No, please! I didn't mean nothin'! Somebody help me! Help!" They followed the cries to a narrow alleyway between two buildings. Two men were viciously punching and kicking a third man who was down on the ground.

Chris shouted as he ran. "Knock it off!" One of the standing men saw the gun in Chris' hand. He tapped forcefully on his friend's shoulder and pointed out the three armed men running toward them.

The second man's eyes widened in fear. "Let's get the fuck out of here!" The two standing assailants jumped over the fallen man and ran down the alleyway away from Chris, Vin, and Ezra.

Vin dropped down into a squat to assist the fallen man. With Vin's help, the young man was able to sit up. The victim had numerous bruises, and was bleeding from an area of broken skin near his hairline. The young man leaned against the side of the nearest building. He dropped his head in his hands and wiped at the blood oozing from his head wound. "Lordy, Lordy, Lordy." He looked up his rescuers. "I thank you all."

Chris asked, "What was that all about?"

The man looked away and mumbled, "I got no idea." His body language suggested that he knew very well why he had been attacked.

Chris saw no point in pushing the issue. He simply asked, "You gonna be all right?"

The injured man shrugged, winced at the action, then responded, "Yeah, I guess so."

Chris continued, "You got some place to go?"

The young man answered, "Yeah. Only problem is gettin' past the likes 'a them-" he pointed in the direction his attackers had fled, " to get there."

Vin reassured the battered man. "No problem. We'll walk you where you need to go."

The man's formerly tense shoulders relaxed. "Thanks. Thanks, man."

Vin smiled and offered the man a hand up. "It's Vin. And, you're welcome."

They escorted the victim to his temporary home in an abandoned building. A number of young men close in age to their companion watched warily from the windows, but made no attempt to venture outside of their shelter.

As they walked away, Vin commented, "Gang's family; maybe all the family they got left. They'll take care of him."

Less than an hour later, a woman's screams pierced the night. The three men responded to what was obviously an attempted rape. Had the attacker not been in such close proximity to his victim, Chris would have cheerfully shot the bastard. He and his friends did not pull their punches when they pulled the man off of the screaming woman. A well-placed kick by Chris guaranteed that it would be quite some time before the man tried to rape anyone else. Ezra only wished he'd had the chance to do the same before the coward ran off.

The lady shared her story as she straightened her clothing and wiped away her tears. "I

thought I heard a baby crying and came outside to look. It was only a cat, but when I turned around the man was there, and I couldn't get him off me, and he tried, he tried …" The woman waved her hand. "Well, you know." She continued, "I thank you. Thank you so much."

Chris accepted her thanks, and explained, "We're trying to help to maintain the peace. We'll wait here until you're safely back in your house."

The woman thanked them again, then disappeared into a nearby row house.

The three men were able to stop one more crime in progress that night, an attempted mugging. They sent the mugger on his way after applying appropriate physical chastisement, and escorted the victim to his temporary home.

They leaned wearily against the side of a building as the city streets lightened with the first hints of dawn.

Around six o'clock in the morning, they heard the rapid rat-a-tat-tat of a gun being fired. They followed the sounds, but found no trace of the shooters. They did, however, finally encounter the local PD. A couple of officers drove up shortly after their arrival. The officers greeted them with weapons drawn.

They ordered, "Hands out and to your sides, where we can see them! Drop your weapons!"

Chris, Vin, and Ezra slowly and carefully complied with the orders. They wanted to make sure to do nothing to prompt the already nervous officers into firing.

The officers shouted over Vin's "We didn't do anything!" to negate a potential threat with the orders, "Get down on the ground! On the ground!"

Ezra balked at the order. He indignantly objected, "In case you haven't noticed, the street is incredibly filthy. It might interest you to know that we have had extensive experience in law enforcement, and all of us are carrying concealed weapons permits."

The officers were unimpressed. The older of the two ordered, "Get your ass on the ground or I'll do it for you!"

Ezra snapped his mouth shut to hold back the derogatory comment that wanted to escape, and slowly complied. He moved too slowly to appease the over-worked officer's anger. The officer decided to 'help' Ezra by sticking a foot on his back as he squatted, forcing him face-down upon the ground. It took all of Ezra's remaining self-restraint to suppress his instinct to respond in kind to the officer's hostile actions.

The policemen proceeded to search them, discovering their identification as well as their concealed weapons permits. They examined the confiscated guns, sniffing at the barrels. The older officer commented, "You're lucky. None of these have been fired recently."

As further verification of the fact that neither Chris, Vin, nor Ezra were responsible for the earlier gunfire that had brought the officers to the area, additional shots were suddenly heard in the distance. The younger officer cursed. "It's a goddamn war zone!" He tossed the gun he'd been inspecting onto the ground away from the downed men and headed toward the patrol car.

The older officer followed his partner, offering a last warning: "We don't need any vigilantes adding to the mess down here!" The patrol car sped off into the night.

Ezra slowly picked himself up from the rank pavement, verbalizing all the epithets he'd suppressed earlier. He futilely brushed at his soiled clothing while Chris and Vin stood and retrieved their weapons. Ezra's pants had previously been ruined by their stroll through the flooded streets. Ezra's shirt was now equally filthy.

Ezra accepted the gun held toward him by Vin. "Thank you." He stood a moment, contemplating his grime-encrusted attire, then turned to Chris with a hopeful expression. "I don't suppose you'd consider letting me pay a visit to one the wrecked clothing establishments in order to allow me to obtain something as simple as a clean shirt and a decent pair of pants?"

Chris stared at Ezra with a look of disbelief.

Ezra shrugged. "I thought not." Ezra gave one last swipe of his hand over an oily stain on the front of his shirt, and sighed as his action merely spread the grime over a larger area.

Chris wiped an arm across his face, trying to remove some of the sweat and dirt. He was tired, a bone-deep weariness that no amount of sleep would ease. He stated, "Boys, I think it's time to call it a night and leave the patrolling to the New Orleans' PD."

Neither Ezra nor Vin disagreed. They made their way wearily back to Lovely Linda's Emporium.

Vin tried to find some encouraging words for his quietly depressed teammates. "I know it don't seem like we done much, but at least it was better 'n nothin'. Them gang bangers 'll think twice before they mug some little old lady."

Ezra yawned as he replied, "Hooray for little old ladies."

The city was not quite done with Ezra for the night. When they were a short city block away from Lovely Linda and her ladies, a small mongrel pup decided to visit one last injustice upon the exhausted man.

Rather than do the sensible thing and ignore the dog, Vin bent down and whistled, "Here, boy!" The dog cautiously approached. Vin held his hand out palm up, below the level of the dog's head, trying to convince the dog that he meant no harm. His voice a soothing tenor, he persuaded the animal to come closer. "Nice doggy." The dog gave a hesitant wag of its tail as Vin rubbed the long, matted fur on its head.

Unfortunately for the dog, Vin, and Ezra, Ezra's subconscious mind seized upon the occasion as an excuse for the outer man to release some of the day's accumulation of inner tension. "'Nice doggy,' indeed. Do you have any idea of where that animal has been or what it's been doing? Of course not!" He continued, "I can see why you might be taken with the beast. You both share the same hair stylist. No doubt you share a similar level of intelligence as well."

Vin's resentful, "Hey!" was echoed by the dog's low growl.

Ezra ignored both responses as he continued his verbal tirade. "As if you haven't been exposed to enough potentially toxic waste today, for some reason you find it necessary to come into close and personal contact with an unkempt, flea-infested, plague-carrying mongrel."

Vin scolded, "He's not flea-infested, he's just lonesome." Vin's voice was disgustingly close to a coo as he gave the dog one last pat. "Ain't that right, boy?"

Chris had had enough of his teammates' bickering. "Okay, you two, knock it off!'

Ezra remained silent as Vin stood up and prepared to resume their journey.

The dog stood too, alert and wary as they passed. When the animal made what Ezra interpreted as a threatening lunge in his direction, Ezra responded by aiming a raised foot at the beast. The dog responded by running in to take a quick nip at Ezra's leg before running off.

Ezra yelled, cursed, and cursed again as he pulled up the leg of his pants to inspect the injury. "The little bastard bit me!"

Vin was unsympathetic. "He wouldn't a' hurt you if you hadn't a' tried to kick him."

Ezra sniped back, "Oh yes, and now you're a canine mind-reader. For your information, he lunged at me!"

Chris helpfully added, "If you hadn't flinched and pulled away when he bit you, his teeth wouldn't have scratched you."

Ezra was incensed at his teammates' lack of sympathy. "That's oh so comforting, to think that I could have remained still while a potentially rabid and hungry animal gnawed on my leg."

Vin stated, "He was too fat to be hungry, and he was wearing tags including the ones that his shots and license are up to date."

Ezra angrily pulled down the leg of his pants. He exaggerated the extent of his injury and added a bit of a limp to his walk. His friends were unimpressed.

Wading through the fetid water to the dark and stifling shelter of Lovely Linda's Emporium seemed to Ezra to be a fitting end to their night. He kept his complaints to himself.

After exposing himself and his injury to the polluted water, he was pleased to discover that Miss Linda had a well stocked first aid kit. He cleaned off his wounded leg using soap and bottled water, then applied antibiotic ointment liberally to the affected area before covering it with a gauze dressing. By the time he finished, his two companions were already asleep. Exhausted, Ezra soon joined them.

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Morning came all too soon. It was hot and stifling inside the Convention Center. Nathan and Josiah headed outside, hoping to catch a breeze. The high level of humidity in the air did not make the outside air any more pleasant than the inside.

Nathan and Josiah walked to where they'd stowed their boat. It was no longer there.

Nathan cursed long and heartily, while Josiah paced to relieve a little of his frustration. Nathan waved a hand as he looked around at the small patch of dry land in the midst of the flooded city. "Damn it! Where the hell do they think they're gonna go in a goddamn boat?"

Josiah shrugged. "Folks always have a tendency to think the grass is greener someplace other than where they are."

Nathan kicked at a bit of debris. "What do we do now?"

Josiah replied, "We wait."

The mood of the survivors trapped at the Convention Center was increasingly ugly. People were desperate for news, for answers to questions that were not forthcoming. "When are we getting out of here? Who's in charge? How are we supposed to feed our children? Ourselves?"

Nathan and Josiah could not help but wish they had the answers to those questions.

A number of refugees found a creative solution to the problem of supplies. They discovered a number of forklifts in a storage area. They hot-wired the forklifts, and used them to break into every sealed room in the building. Not every item that they removed was necessary for their survival, but the looting was mostly looked upon as a necessary evil.

+ + + + + + +

That morning, JD woke up before Buck. The night's rest had done little to repair the muscles he'd strained during yesterday's strenuous rescue activities. He knew that the only effective treatment was rest. He also knew that further rest was currently impossible. He clenched his teeth and began to work on trying to stretch out the worst of the muscular tightness.

After fifteen minutes of careful exercise, JD was able to walk without shuffling like a little old man. Buck was still asleep, so JD used the dwindling battery power of his laptop to check out the news. The more he read, the more appalled he became. He read reports of wide-spread looting, of rapes, of murders, of a chaotic city with no one in charge. He shut down his laptop before he drained the battery completely. If he continued to read, he would accomplish nothing other than to increase his anger from a simmer to a full boil.

Buck eventually joined JD. The man had a serious case of bed-head, and was badly in need of a shave and a shower. Fortunately there was an area set up for showering. Although the water provided was not suitable for drinking, it was clean enough to temporarily remove the stench of the city from their bodies. They found donated clothing in their respective sizes, and were ready to face another day of SAR.

JD updated Buck on what he'd read. Buck was as upset as JD at news. "You better tell me the lack of help in New Orleans is because the National Guard is off saving folks worse off somewhere else."

JD commented, "I don't know." He added hopefully, "But it's possible. I know they're over in Mississippi, where folks took a direct hit from the hurricane." The younger man offered a slim bit of hope. "Besides, you know how the news likes to sensationalize things. Maybe things aren't as bad as they're making them out to be."

Buck thought, 'Maybe they are,' but chose not to add to JD's distress by saying the words out loud. He tapped a finger along his lower lip while he reflected upon the new information. It occurred to Buck that his other friends might be experiencing the crime wave up close and personal. Worried, he stated, "I think it's time we checked in with Chris, maybe tell him what you read."

JD hesitated. "I think we should ask him first how things look from the Garden District, to get a nonbiased opinion."

Buck agreed. "Yeah. We'll play it by ear. Depending on what he says, it might be best not to let him know that things are so out of control."

+ + + + + + +

When he'd gone to bed, Ezra decided that it was only right that Chris be in charge of the satellite phone. Ezra had had to carry the thing all day. It was only fair that Chris lose sleep if someone should happen to call during their rest period.

Chris automatically reached for the phone with the first ring. Instantly awake, he snapped out, "Larabee."

After Chris reported that the criminal activity they'd seen was more petty than deadly, Buck decided to let the team leader know what the outside world was saying about the city. Chris was understandably angry. "Is it just me, or shouldn't there be National Guard troops crawling all over this city? From what little I've seen here, the local PD is under-staffed and overwhelmed. Hell, FEMA should be bringing in the damn Marines! Ah, fuck."

After a minute, he continued, "Anyone heard from Nathan or Josiah?" Chris answered his own question. "Of course not. We've got the only two working phones. After this, no matter how much Ezra whines about the expense, everyone on the team gets a sat. phone."

"Okay. Buck, JD, you do what you have to do. Me, Vin, and Ezra will help keep the peace here."

Chris tried to get back to sleep, but was unable to do so. Soon enough, the heat of the day roused his friends from their rest. They shared food and drink with the ladies, then set out to resume their patrol of the city.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra was limping noticeably. Chris decided to assess the level of his friend's disability without being obvious about it. "Hey, old man, you need me to find you a cane?"

Chris was relieved when Ezra snapped back, "Although I no doubt look and feel as if I'm on the wrong side of fifty, I am not old and I do not need a cane! You are of a certain age that you appear to be affected by senility, or you would remember that it was just yesterday when I was mauled by a wild animal!"

Chris knew that Ezra's injury was not serious. If it was, he would have downplayed the nature of the injury instead of dramatizing it. Relieved, Chris let the senility slur pass by without comment.

Vin paid little attention to his friends' exchange. He felt twitchy, restless, as if some hidden danger was lying in wait. His eyes were in constant motion checking out doors, windows, alleyways; any and every possible source of a sneak attack. Vin sensed a subtle change in the city's atmosphere. The paralyzing shock of yesterday was wearing off, replaced by a desire for action. It was not a change for the better. Desperate men were more likely to disengage their inner moral compass to participate in previously forbidden activities.

They, themselves, were a case in point. When they walked past a vandalized menswear establishment, Ezra declared, "There is no point in wearing clothing that is so filthy it can stand up by itself when there are perfectly good clothes lying a few feet away. It's obvious that the entire contents of the store will be declared a complete loss, and the owner will be reimbursed by his insurance company." Unlike yesterday, today no one tried to stop Ezra. Truthfully, Vin felt kind of sorry for the guy. Ezra was the most fastidious member of the team, and after their encounter with the police yesterday, Ezra's clothing was by far the dirtiest.

In return for his friends' unspoken acceptance of his actions, Ezra walked out of the store carrying a change of clothes for both Chris and Vin. Ezra had taken advantage of the store's darkened interior to change into his new clothing.

Chris thanked Ezra, but declined the clean outwear. "If I keep what I've got on, I fit in with the crowd a little better." Vin followed Chris' lead, although both men took Ezra up on the offer of clean underwear.

Ezra did not regret discarding his soiled clothing. "My current attire will no doubt become equally filthy before the day is over."

By two o'clock, it was too hot for the three men to continue walking without risking heatstroke. They joined a middle-aged man protecting what was left of his place of business. The old man offered both food and water once he realized that Chris, Vin, and Ezra were not there to rob him. They sat on chairs in front of the boarded up building. The man sighed. "I don't know what I think I'm protecting." More question than statement, the store owner continued, "I hear the levees are gone?"

Chris informed the man, "You hear right."

The man cursed. "Damn! No wonder no one's here protecting the city. There's nothing left to protect, except maybe this little corner of the world." The man leaned back in his chair, holding a shotgun loosely across his lap. "If and when somebody finally shows up and offers me a ride out of here, I'm gonna take it."

The peacekeepers encouraged the man to do so, then resumed their patrol.

Their patrol route took them to a block of residential buildings that had sustained surprisingly little damage from the storm. The homes were much less well-kept today versus yesterday. The dwellings bore multiple signs of man-made destruction, with broken doors and windows providing silent evidence of recent home invasions. Ezra commented, "This does not look good."

A group of home owners were gathered together on the porch of one of the dwellings. As the trio approached, they noticed that more than one of the men had cuts and bruises that appeared to have been inflicted within the last several hours rather than days ago, when the hurricane had visited.

Chris' inquiry of, "What happened?" was unnecessary. The victims were eager to share their stories, all of them depressingly similar.

*It was a gang of kids," with 'kids' being the lone polite term used to refer to the criminals. "They broke in. They left the food and water. They took TVs, stereos, computers, jewelry; things they could sell, not anything they needed to survive." Descriptions of the perpetrators varied from person to person.

Vin was beginning to doubt they'd be able to identify the gang responsible until one of the victims shared something he remembered: "They called themselves the Kings."

Vin cursed. His lips tightened in anger. "Damn stupid punk kids. I knew yesterday they were gonna be trouble."

Chris stood tense and ready for action. He informed the home owners, "We might know who you're talking about. We're gonna take a look around, and if we see any of that street trash, we'll try to convince them to behave themselves." Chris' words were mild enough, but the hand resting on the butt of his gun conveyed the sincerity of his message to his listeners.

+ + + + + + +

Buck and JD were offered breakfast courtesy of the Red Cross disaster relief workers. Buck ate well, glad to have something other than an MRE to assuage his hunger. JD had no appetite, and spent his time rearranging his food on his plate.

Buck noticed. "Hey kid, quit playin' with your food. The sooner you finish, the sooner we can get back in the air."

JD pushed his plate away and stood up. "I'm ready to go now." Before Buck insisted that he finish his breakfast, JD explained, "One of the side effects of the antibiotic I'm on is nausea. I'm afraid if I eat any more, it won't stay down."

Buck's brow creased in a worried frown. "All the work you're doing, you're burning a lot of calories. You need to eat enough to replace what you're using." JD opened his mouth to verbalize an objection. Buck raised his hand to stop the kid's comment before it started. "I'm not saying you gotta eat right this minute. Just watch yourself today. We'll pack enough snacks to keep the both of us going today. You just gotta remember to eat 'em."

JD was glad that Buck did not insist he try to clean his plate. He quickly accepted his friend's terms. "Okay."

The two men proceeded to the control tower to get that day's SAR assignment. The coordinator felt it necessary to give them a bit of a lecture first.

He prefaced his remarks by saying, "Thanks for helping out, and for all of the hard work you've put in already." He continued, "That's what I wanted to talk to you about. You and I both know that there's no way you could have searched an area of the city as large as you did yesterday without exceeding the recommended flying times.

"That can't happen again. In case you're too tired to remember, the maximum flight time allowed is eight hours, followed by a minimum of ten hours' rest. The limits are set for a reason. Tired pilots are dangerous pilots. They make mistakes. Now, as long as you're willing to abide by the rules, I've got a new area for you to search."

Buck was initially angry when the man began to speak, but calmed down as the speech continued. He knew that the man was right. He responded, "I know how to follow the rules. I can, and I will."

JD contributed, "I'll see that he does."

Buck's voice grew passionate as he continued, "It's just that, there's so many people still out there who need help. How many more days are they going to be able to survive? Some of 'em are sick, old, probably dying as we speak. Others are little ones, just babies."

The coordinator nodded in understanding. "Please believe me, we know. Just remember, you're not the only ones out there. Between the birds already in the area and the boats in the water, help will reach them. Thank you for being part of it.

"Now, here's where you need to go today …"

After receiving their instructions, Buck refueled the helicopter while JD restocked their emergency supplies. Flight ready, the two men resumed their search and rescue work. There was little change in the devastated land around them, except for one important detail. JD pointed out what Buck had silently been observing: "It doesn't seem as if there are quite so many people sitting on rooftops today as there were yesterday."

"Yeah, yesterday it seemed like there were people on every other rooftop." Buck chose to believe that fewer folks stranded meant that more had been rescued, and not that more people had fallen victim to the flood. He shared his thoughts. "Today, thank God, it seems like there's more boats and choppers out here keeping us company. Of course, the down side is, I definitely can't exceed the recommended flying time if I want to stay sharp enough to avoid a mid-air collision."

JD silently vowed to alert Buck when his eight hours of flight time had been reached. He would do his part to keep his friend alert. He reminded Buck, "I've got a thermos full of coffee. I'll pass it over any time you need it."

Buck thanked JD for the offer. "I expect I'll need it before the morning is over. I'll let you know."

Buck drank more than half of the thermos' contents before the morning had passed. JD did not drink any himself. Even something as simple as the smell of the coffee added to his nausea.

The duo's new search area included a new landing zone. An area of the I-10 freeway had remained high and dry, and better still was connected to the road leading out of the city. State policemen maintained order, and medical care was available for those who needed it. There were two small trailers set up to provide for the needs of relief workers. That was all to the good. Less encouraging was the lack of buses to transport the rescuees out of the city, leaving thousands of people with nothing to do and nowhere to seek shelter from the relentless heat.

Buck had neither the time nor the energy to worry about the fate of the survivors he delivered from the flood waters. He and JD fell into the routine they had established yesterday. Buck would hover while JD would assist one, two, three, and at a maximum, four people into the helicopter's cabin. Once they were at or near the 635 kilogram weight limit that the chopper could safely carry, Buck would deliver the rescuees to the I-10 freeway. There was a landing zone marked off in the Westbound circle of I-10 and the Causeway. Buck would touch down and allow his passengers to disembark. There were state police officers present to assist and to maintain order as the rescuees were directed away from the landing area. There was an area across the median set off by barricades where the thousands of people waiting for evacuation were confined.

As the day wore on, JD's nausea did not improve. The smells surrounding the city contributed to his problem. The standing water had picked up all manner of petrochemicals and debris in the first wave of flooding. With the smell of decaying matter added into the mix, the odor was truly disgusting. There was no circulation of the fetid water, nowhere for it to go. The stagnant water became a giant petri dish, incubating countless colonies of bacteria. JD found himself coveting some of the simplest tools carried by some of the other rescue workers: face masks, or in their absence, Vicks Vaporub. Either would help him to deal with the overwhelming smell of the dying city.

JD tried not to indicate, by so much as a twitch, how much the odors bothered him. JD found it difficult enough being the youngest and smallest member of the team. He did not care to add anything to his resume implying that he was also the weakest.

Buck and JD had a busy morning, but the rescues became fewer and farther in between as the day wore on.

JD cursed the inactivity. He needed to keep busy to keep his mind off of his nausea. To make matters worse, his stomach discomfort was now accompanied by intermittent abdominal cramping.

After thirty minutes of flying in their assigned search area yielded no one in need of rescuing, Buck made a suggestion. "I'm thinking we ought to take a look at that place we were yesterday, where that fella with the two dogs lives. After spending another twenty-four hours living on the edge, he might've changed his mind about leaving."

JD eagerly agreed. He had marked the location on the map yesterday, hoping that a return visit would be possible.

When they approached the house, they could see the two dogs waiting patiently on the roof. There was no sign of the dogs' owner.

Buck speculated, "Maybe he got picked up by someone else?" The man had been so insistent that he was not going to leave his dogs, Buck doubted the truth of his words. He dropped the helicopter into a low hover, and JD leaned out the open door. The dogs barked fiercely. JD's eye was caught by something floating in the water. The wash from the helicopter's rotors caused whatever it was to bump gently against the house. JD directed Buck, "A little lower … What's that, there?" After gaining another foot or two in which to identify the object, JD's stomach gave a sickening lurch as he realized what he was looking at. It was a body, bloated and already beginning to decay from the effects of the hot sun and moisture. Part of a horror-movie version of what used to be a face stared back at him.

JD was suddenly violently ill. He emptied the meager contents of his stomach, and continued to experience dry heaves after the initial bout of vomiting.

Buck anxiously inquired, "JD, kid, what is it? Are you okay? What's happening?"

Too sick to speak, JD gave am emphatic wave of his hand to indicate that Buck should increase their altitude.

JD leaned back in his seat and closed the door of the helicopter, shutting out the worst of the smell of death and decay. "Oh, God."

Buck correctly deduced part of the reason behind JD's sudden illness. "So, I take it that was the guy, back there?"

JD was grateful that he wouldn't have to attempt to describe what he'd seen. He simply replied, "Yeah."

JD saw no point in trying to hide the fact that he was ill. He bent his knees up toward his chest to ease the painful cramping of his abdomen.

Buck noted the movement. Rather than comment directly, he stated, "I've only got an hour or so of flying time today before I max out. After all of the flying I did yesterday, we could use a break. Let's head back to the airport." He added, "While we're there, you'd better have the doctor take a look at you."

JD's weak "Okay" in response told Buck everything he needed to know. The pilot's speed increased in response to his worry, and their return trip was completed before the motion of the helicopter and the smell of the city brought on another episode of dry heaves.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan and Josiah joined with the fellow refugees in lamenting their current circumstances. Food and water were in increasingly short supply. The nonfunctioning bathroom facilities were now open sewers overflowing with human waste. More and more people refused to used the bathrooms, instead designating various sheltered areas outside of the Convention Center as impromptu toilets. The smell of human waste and sweat hung heavy in the air, and was now as much outside of the building as inside.

They found one enterprising and well-armed group of young men making a tidy income for themselves by selling food and bottled water to those who had managed to escape with cash in addition to the clothes on their backs. Nathan and Josiah could have tried to force the youths to share, but the mood of their fellow survivors was volatile enough that any violence had the potential to erupt into a full-blown riot. The two men instead reluctantly parted with their limited supply of cash and bought out most of the young men's inventory. They proceeded to share the wealth with their fellow refugees, and especially with Uncle Ray. When the older man's eyes lit up at the sight of both food and water, Nathan cautioned his Uncle.

"Take it easy. We don't know how long it's gonna be before we get any more."

Once Uncle Ray had quenched his thirst, he looked up at Nathan, bewildered. "What the hell is goin' on? Is this somebody's twisted idea of racism? Put all the poor black folks in one place and leave 'em to die?"

Josiah stated, "God, no, it's not. I'm sure that's how it looks to you right now, but we have no idea what's going on anywhere else. For all we know, the hurricane could have destroyed a lot more than just New Orleans. Resources are probably stretched to the breaking point. They'll get to us eventually. You've just got to have a little patience, and a lot of faith."

He offered a silent prayer. 'You hear me, God? Don't make a liar out of me. Get these people some help.'

Nathan was disturbed by both Uncle Ray's and Josiah's words. While he refused to believe Uncle Ray's theory, he did not want to believe Josiah. Perhaps the truth lay somewhere in between. There was obviously something terribly wrong. No one would just leave them here to die.

At least, that's what Nathan wanted to believe.

Nathan and Josiah had talked to the staff of the Convention Center. Unfortunately, the few remaining staff members were as cut off from the outside world as the rest of the people. They did not know anything more than Nathan or Josiah.

While the answer to the question, "Who's in charge?" was "Nobody," it was not for lack of trying. More than once someone had tried to nominate themselves as the official head of the refugees, but disinterest, apathy, and outright hostility managed to dissuade the speaker.

At one point during the heat of the day, Nathan and Josiah heard gunshots ring out. It was impossible to tell where exactly in the crowded Convention Center the shots originated. There were no follow-up screams of pain, no one seeking treatment for a gunshot wound, and no additional bodies. Other people admitted to having heard the shots, but Nathan and Josiah received no information other than confirmation that they were not experiencing auditory hallucinations. Josiah commented, "It's like the three monkeys; no one's going to see, hear, or speak any evil. They're probably afraid they'll get shot if they say anything."

"Could be right." Nathan was being realistic in view of their current circumstances. He knew that he and Josiah were far from the only armed men in the building.

Ultimately, they decided there was nothing to do during their exile other than to play peacekeeper if needed and wait and pray for deliverance.

Uncle Ray commented, "I know when I die I'm goin' straight to heaven, 'cuz I done my time in Purgatory here on Earth. This is Hell."

Neither Nathan nor Josiah disagreed.

They wandered around the Convention Center, trying to keep the peace. There were as many people staying outside of the Convention Center as there were inside. The only difference between the outside and the inside was that the stench was a little less noticeable outside, although still nauseatingly prevalent.

Tempers were short, and easily frayed. Josiah stepped between two men who were about to come to blows over some trivial matter. Before the combatants could calm down, a flying fist impacted Josiah's back, unfortunately at the site of his previous injury. He fell to his knees and his head bowed down as if in prayer as he tried to catch his breath. Nathan's hands had balled into fists and only the knowledge that Josiah needed his help stopped him from beating the shit out of the man who'd injured his friend. Nathan's moment of hesitation was long enough for the potential combatants to decide against fighting. They separated and disappeared into the crowd.

Nathan dropped to his knees beside his friend to place supportive hands on his shoulders. "Josiah! Talk to me!"

Josiah responded to the tone of command. He lifted his head, his neck muscles straining with the effort to breathe. He gasped out what Nathan already suspected: "You know … those ribs … you thought … I broke?"

Nathan tried to let his friend know that he understood, that the injured man could save his breath. "Yeah, okay, I know."

Josiah continued, "I think … they're broken now."

Nathan agreed. He helped his friend to change from a kneeling to a sitting position. He leaned down and placed his ear against Josiah's chest. What he heard wasn't good, but it wasn't as bad as it could've been. He let Josiah know what he suspected. "I think getting hit again caused part of your right lung to collapse. It sounds like you're still getting some air in, so it's not as bad as it could've been." This was one of the few times that Nathan regretted being a medic. He knew the potential consequences of Josiah's rib injury, the possibility that the damaged lung would completely collapse, and if that happened it was possible his condition might deteriorate until the remaining lung failed as well.

If necessary, Nathan could try to remove some of the air from Josiah's chest cavity by creating a makeshift chest tube. That would require cutting into the chest wall and inserting a tube of some sort. However, the conditions at the Convention Center were so unsanitary that doing so could easily cause a fatal infection. For the time being, the sensible thing to do was to sit calmly and wait for rescue. That action would've been more tolerable if Nathan believed that rescue workers would be arriving any time soon.

He informed Josiah, "Best thing for you is to sit still and wait for help. It'll be easier to breathe if you keep sitting up and don't lie down. Let's move you over, so you can have a wall to lean against."

A couple of bystanders assisted Nathan in dragging the injured man over to the wall. The movement was obviously painful, but Josiah did not voice any complaint.

After an hour or two with no change in Josiah's condition, Nathan decided that his friend was stable. He stood up. "I don't think you'll be goin' anywhere for a while, so I'm gonna go get Uncle Ray, have him come join us."

Josiah nodded, obviously in pain. His breathing was rapid and shallow, but he didn't appear to be suffering from a lack of oxygen. Nathan felt comfortable in temporarily leaving his friend. Josiah waved him on his way, and Nathan soon returned with Uncle Ray in tow.

Several hours later, the murmurs of discontent surrounding them began to fade. The negativism was overlaid by the sound of voices raised in song. The song was positive and hopeful, an old familiar hymn, and more voices joined in as they recognized the tune. Nathan and Uncle Ray added their own voices to the mix. A long line of people began making their way among the survivors as they joined in a group hymn sing. Their numbers swelled, and the formerly tense atmosphere eased as those present were reminded of the need to do unto others as they would have done unto themselves. Josiah watched and listened, spellbound. He was not the only one. The roiling tension eased as the hymns continued. Eventually, the voices tired and one by one, they dropped out. In the ensuing silence, Josiah commented, "Brothers, we have just witnessed a miracle."

+ + + + + + +

Chris, Vin, and Ezra followed the trail of newly looted homes directly to the Kings. Although they did not catch the gang members in the actual act of breaking and entering, the youths were loaded down with obviously stolen merchandise.

The peacekeepers approached the youths with weapons drawn. The gang members stopped in their tracks. Only one or two of them had a hand free to draw their own weapons. The gang's leader was carrying a large plasma screen television. He threw it at the nearest peacekeeper, who just happened to be Vin.

Vin barely managed to duck out of the way. He spun and cursed, then aimed his weapon at the gang leader's head. "Mister, you keep doin' shit like that, sooner or later someone's gonna put a bullet in you."

The leader yelled back, "What the fuck do you care? Ain't none of this shit yours. If we don't take it, someone else will. What the fuck is your problem?"

Vin replied, "The problem is the folks up the street who got the shit kicked out of 'em because they tried to stop you."

Chris added, "When you pick on somebody smaller and weaker than you, you make it our business." He continued, "Now, put down everything you stole, and get the hell out of here."

The gang's leader was smart enough to realize that he had no choice. He stated, "You want this shit so bad, you can have it." He turned to address his fellow gang members. "No need for nobody to get shot over this. Put it down."

While the youths reluctantly followed orders, the gang leader raised his hand toward Vin as if his pointing finger were the barrel of a gun. "This ain't over, homme. You gonna be sorry you messed with the Kings."

Vin was unimpressed. "Keep doing what you're doing, and you'll find out what a mercenary can do when you piss him off."

The gang leader raised his middle finger and began to walk away backwards down the street, his eyes never leaving Vin's face. In a parting gesture of defiance, the gang leader fired an imaginary gun at Vin's head as his lips formed the word, "Bang!"

Vin remained standing with his gun aimed in the direction of the departing gang members long after they were out of range.

Chris tried to calm his obviously agitated friend. "Vin …"

Vin angrily holstered his weapon. "Damn! That's a rabid dog, gonna need puttin' down sooner or later."

Chris did not disagree. "Now is not the time or place."

Ezra was relieved that the stifling heat of the day and the desperation of the men did not result in explosive tempers and gunfire. He feared that they had only gained a reprieve from the violence. Unless outside intervention in the form of the National Guard arrived soon, things could get very ugly indeed as the strong among the survivors began to prey more and more upon the weak.

+ + + + + + +

Aside from preventing a few petty crimes, the rest of the day spent in the Garden District was relatively uneventful. The peacekeepers retraced their steps from earlier in the day and headed back to Lovely Linda's. They were maybe a quarter of a mile short of their destination when they came under attack from sniper fire.

The team members made themselves more difficult to hit by spreading out and heading for the nearest shelter. The gunfire stopped as quickly as it had begun.

Chris frantically shouted from the limited shelter of a doorway, "Is everyone okay?"

Ezra responded, "I believe so."

Ominously, there was no answer from Vin. Chris called out, "Vin?"

A weak voice responded, "Over here."

Chris moved to look in the direction of the voice and saw an obviously injured Vin lying on his back beside a parked car. Chris ran to his friend's side, all the while alert for any sign of the sniper.

Ezra limped up to join them. Chris nodded as Ezra stood sentry while he assisted their fallen friend. Vin's pallor was noticeable beneath the tan of his skin. His left hand was clutched tightly against his right side. Blood oozed from beneath the fingers of his hand.

Chris dropped to a crouch beside his friend, already aware of the answer to the question he asked. "Vin? You all right?"

Vin's eyes closed, his face looking pinched as his lips curled in pain. "Ah …" Vin cautiously removed the hand gripping his right side, grimacing when he saw the blood. "Ow! Ouch, damn it!" Chris was pulling up Vin's shirt to better assess the wound when Vin admitted what they both knew. "I've been shot."

The words were barely out of Vin's mouth before Ezra was reaching for the satellite phone.

+ + + + + + +

After they returned to the airport base, Buck insisted that JD head straight to the infirmary. However, his body had other ideas. Before JD took more than a dozen steps toward the temporary hospital, another need made itself known. JD retreated to one of the porta-potties, totally miserable. His bowels proceeded to evacuate everything below while his stomach cramped painfully. As if that weren't enough, the odors in the confined space set off a series of dry heaves.

Buck waited outside the door for a good thirty minutes, verbally receiving updates from his friend. "Kid, you okay? You need help?"

"God, Buck, for the hundredth time, no!"

Buck cringed as the sound of dry heaves punctuated JD's statement. Eventually, JD decided that there was nothing left for his body to expel. He exited the porta-potty. Buck's nose twitched at the rank odor that drifted toward him as the door opened and closed. He assisted an obviously weak JD to the infirmary.

The doctor remembered JD from his previous visit. "I was afraid of this. There's no telling what kind of bug you might've picked up after your near-drowning. I can set you up with an IV to rehydrate you, but I'm afraid you're going to have to visit the hospital for a complete workup and some IV antibiotic therapy. I'll get you on the next flight out."

Buck waved his hand. "That's okay, doc, I brought my own helicopter. Just tell me where we need to go." The doctor informed Buck that the nearest hospital was located in Baton Rouge.

Buck borrowed JD's laptop to check the route. While he was doing so, the satellite phone rang. Buck quickly picked up. "Hello."

Ezra's voice came over the line. "Buck. Vin's been shot."

Buck's hand clamped tightly around the phone in appalled astonishment. "What?!"

Ezra ignored Buck's exclamation of surprise. "We're near your friend Linda's. How soon can you get here?"

Buck started to walk toward the door. "I'm on my way." He stopped when he heard Chris' voice in the background. "Wait!" Buck did so.

Chris explained their exact location in precise detail. He warned, "Vin got hit by sniper fire. The sniper may still be in the area. Be careful."

Buck's "Shit" summed up the situation. He would need a lookout to watch for sniper activity. He walked back to JD's bedside. "Kid, I'm afraid your IV is gonna have to wait. Vin's been shot."

JD was too ill to realize that Buck had almost left him behind. He waved off the nurse approaching with an IV bag while Buck assisted him to sit, and then to stand. Buck explained, "Vin got taken out by a goddamn sniper. Sniper's still loose. I need you to keep an eye on the ground while I pick him up."

JD's reply of, "No problem," was spoken over the doctor's objections. "I strongly advise against this. You're a very sick young man."

JD and Buck exited together while JD tossed a parting remark over his shoulder. "Sign me out as leaving against medical advice. You've done your job, now I've got to do mine."

+ + + + + + +

Chris wrapped Vin's wound with a field bandage from the small first aid kit he carried. He was reassured by the relatively small amount of blood leaking from the wound. Chris knew that gut shots tended to kill slowly as a result of infection, rather than quickly by blood loss; that is, if no major organs were damaged by the bullet's trajectory. The sooner Vin got to a hospital, the better. Chris and Ezra sat beside their injured friend, taking advantage of the limited shelter offered by the parked car.

Before Buck arrived, the local police showed up in response to the gunfire. Chris had no patience to go another round with the cops, even though these were not the same two who had responded so negatively the previous day. To Chris' relief, Ezra calmly and competently dealt with the officers. Thankfully, the officers took them at their word. As one explained, "It's like my old army days around here. Everybody's just doin' what they have to do to survive."

The presence of the patrol car seemed to have discouraged the sniper from a repeat performance. Buck was able to land safely and pick up his friends while the officers directed pedestrian traffic away from the helicopter. Buck assisted Ezra into the backseat of the helicopter, then he and Chris helped Vin to sit next to him. At last, Chris positioned himself in the back, next to Vin. The injured man slumped in his seat as the helicopter took off. Chris offered his body for use as an additional seat cushion. Vin did not refuse the offer.

Buck glanced toward the backseat passengers, his worry evident. "Wish Nathan was here." He continued, "There's a temporary hospital just up the road from where we're at, but if Vin needs a trauma center, we're better off flying straight on into Baton Rouge. That'll add another half hour or so onto our flight time."

Vin made the decision for him. "Go on to Baton Rouge." Chris nodded in agreement. Although intellectually they knew that for the most part the mobile field hospital offered the same emergency care as the regular standing hospital, their experience with makeshift hospitals in foreign countries resulted in their preference for treatment at an actual hospital building. Buck changed course, glad to have the decision taken out of his hands.

Buck radioed ahead so that an emergency medical team was waiting with a gurney when he arrived. Vin was bundled off to the Emergency Room before the helicopter's blades had stopped spinning. JD slid wearily out of his seat, then paused to lean against the side of the helicopter.

Chris' sharp gaze assessed the pale, shaky young man. The team leader cursed as he belatedly realized that there was something wrong with JD. Buck confirmed the fact when he instructed JD, "Wait here while I get you a ride."

Chris allowed some of his frustration to show in his voice as he demanded, "Will one of you please tell me what the hell is wrong with JD?"

Buck answered for his friend. "Seems like the kid might've picked up the New Orleans equivalent of the traveler's trots."

JD bent over slightly at the waist and wrapped his arms around his midsection. It was not difficult to discern the nature of his illness.

While his teammates had their attention focused on JD, Ezra attempted to get himself out of the helicopter. Inactivity had caused the muscles in Ezra's injured leg to stiffen painfully. He tried to work out the worst of the tightness, but was unable to do so due to a sudden increase in pain with the activity. The result was that he started to fall while getting out of the helicopter. Fortunately, Chris' quick reflexes stopped Ezra from becoming intimately acquainted with the rooftop heliport's surface. Before Buck could ask, Chris explained, "Ezra's got a leg needs looking at. Better get a wheelchair for him, too."

Not only did Buck return with two wheelchairs, but one of them was being pushed by an attractive nurse's aide. Buck was already on a first name basis with the lady. "Nancy, this here's JD." Buck's pointing finger indicated that JD was to catch a ride with the lady. Buck steered his wheelchair over toward Ezra.

Ezra waved off Buck's offer of assistance and seated himself in the wheelchair while keeping the weight off of his injured leg. He mentally prepared himself for the inquistion he knew was about to occur. Buck wasted no time. The wheelchair parade hadn't taken two steps before he asked, "So, Ezra, what happened to your leg?"

Jaw tightened in pain, Ezra hissed out, "I was bitten by a rabid dog."

Chris interjected, "The dog was not rabid."

Ezra defended his statement, and continued on to offer his version of the story. The team members occupied their time waiting in the Emergency Room holding area by sharing tales of their separate adventures. The wait was a long one thanks to the large number of patients being treated for hurricane-related problems.

The only good thing about the long wait is that the team members were still together when a doctor arrived to update them regarding Vin's condition. "Mr. Tanner is stable at the moment. He's heading to the operating room so we can get a better idea of the extent of his internal injuries. The surgical waiting area is on the second floor. Sign in when you get there, and the staff will keep you updated as the surgery progresses."

Shortly after the doctor's appearance, JD was taken back into the examination area. A half hour later, Ezra was also taken from the waiting room. Buck waited in the ER for news regarding JD and Ezra, while Chris took the elevator to the second floor surgical lounge.

Several hours later, Buck joined Chris. "Well, both JD and Ezra are going to be admitted for IV antibiotics. Ezra's kind of upset. Seems like they're talking about surgery tomorrow to drain an abcess in his leg. I guess an open wound and floodwater is not a good combination."

Chris winced in sympathy for his teammate, feeling a little guilty that he'd dismissed Ezra's complaints regarding his dog bite injury as much ado about nothing.

Buck continued, "JD's got an infectious disease specialist looking in on him, but the doc thinks they have a pretty good idea of how to treat whatever it is he's got."

News delivered, Buck sat down to wait with his friend. They were both relieved when the surgeon came out to greet them with a smile. The doctor reported, "I did a thorough internal examination of Mr. Tanner's abdominal cavity. The bullet managed to nick the liver, but I was able to patch your friend up laparoscopically without performing major surgery. We'll treat him with a broad spectrum antibiotic to prevent infection, and he should recover quite nicely. The staff will let you know once he's been transferred to a regular room. That won't be for a couple of hours, so I recommend that you head down to the cafeteria while you're waiting."

Buck and Chris were pleased at the news. The doctor's last words reminded them of how long it had been since they'd last had anything resembling a meal. They looked at each other, nodded, and smiled when they both said the word, "Cafeteria" at the same time.

Thursday, September 1, 2005

Ezra spent the night happily loopy from pain medication before being wheeled into surgery early Thursday morning. His procedure was a simple one, done in the operating room for sterility's sake.

Ezra was disappointed when he woke up after surgery. He thought the surgery was done to improve the condition of his leg, but the leg felt worse than it had the previous day. Ezra released a pain-filled grunt as he tried to move into a more comfortable position. The sound was repeated when his eyes opened to reveal Buck's smiling face. The dark-haired man cheerfully informed him, "Good news! They didn't cut off your leg."

Ezra knew that his leg was still intact; otherwise, he would not be in so much pain. The blankets were held away from the injured extremity courtesy of something called a bed cradle. Ezra removed the concealing bed linens in order to inspect his leg. He frowned when all he saw was a pristine white bandage wrapped around his lower leg.

Buck observed, "Didn't believe me, huh? Had to see for yourself. You slept through the doc's visit, but basically he said your leg was swollen up like a watermelon." Buck waved his hands in illustration as he continued, "And just like slicing a melon, he made a couple of cuts the long way to relieve the pus and pressure." Buck pointed to a small plastic ball connected to a tube that was tucked beneath the gauze. "That there's the drain he put in to collect whatever's leaking so it doesn't get stuck again. And that there -" Buck pointed to a button attached to a cord leading to Ezra's IV, "is the button you push when you need something for pain."

Ezra tried to erase the visual picture Buck had so thoughtfully provided of his wound, and reached for the pain medication device. Once the prescribed dose had been delivered through the IV, he allowed Buck's rambling discourse to wash over him as he drifted back to sleep.

Buck and Chris took turns visiting with their hospitalized teammates. Due to the hospital's crowded conditions, the staff could not honor their request that the stricken team members share a room. As the patient representative explained, "We're at capacity and doing our best to find rooms for those that need them. Sometime within the next day or two we'll no longer be accepting new patients. They'll be treated at temporary hospitals that are being set up even as we speak."

Chris and Buck did not argue with the hospital's decision. The staff were obviously doing their best under very stressful conditions.

The two intact team members spent their downtime worrying about their missing team members.

Unfortunately, there was a lot of down time, and too much time to think.

Vin spent most of the day sleeping, waking up only for meals. Unlike most people, Vin actually liked the food provided by the hospital.

JD was too miserable to even think about eating, as his digestive system continued to rebel. He was on medication to control his vomiting, but still experienced frequent episodes of cramping and diarrhea.

+ + + + + + +

As for Nathan and Josiah, the miracle begun by the a capella singers the previous day continued into Thursday with the arrival of approximately one thousand National Guard troops. A cheer went up from the refugees at the Convention Center. Within twenty minutes the troops had established order and provided the desperate survivors with food, water, and information. The sick and injured would be the first to be evacuated. Nathan and Uncle Ray assisted Josiah as they slowly made their way toward the head of the line. The Guardsmen agreed that Josiah would be among the first to leave. Nathan and Uncle Ray would be waiting with the remaining refugees, possibly for days, before being herded aboard buses bound for destinations unknown.

+ + + + + + +

Josiah was transported to a surge hospital facility housed in one of the buildings at Louisiana State University. As Nathan had suspected, Josiah was diagnosed with a collapsed lung, or pneumothorax. The injury was relatively minor, requiring nothing more than the insertion of a chest tube, which permitted the trapped air to escape while Josiah's body sealed the puncture wound in his lung. Twenty-four hours later the tube was removed, and Josiah was given access to a phone. His first call was to Chris' satellite phone.

Chris' anxious "Hello" was echoed by Josiah, whose first concern was to find out the condition of his absent teammates. The two men shared updates, then Chris stated, "Whenever you're ready to travel, let us know. Buck will come and get you."

Josiah consulted with his doctor, who stated that, barring complications, Josiah would be discharged following day. Transportation arrangements were set up accordingly.

Saturday, September 3, 2005

By the time Josiah rejoined his teammates, both Ezra and JD had been discharged from the hospital. JD was a little pale and Ezra could not walk without the aid of a cane, but both men were mobile. There were no hotel rooms available in the crowded city due to the large number of people who'd fled into the city to escape the hurricane. After a little wheeling and dealing, Buck managed to secure space in an office building at the airport. He brought in a couple of cots and sleeping bags and converted the office into living space. Despite the cramped quarters, the team's temporary accommodations were much more comfortable than the various locations where they had spent the days immediately following the hurricane.

The living area was about to become more crowded. They finally received the call they'd all been waiting for.

Chris picked up the satellite phone after the first ring. "Nathan?" His smile and relaxed posture told his friends all they needed to know as he listened to the speaker. His startled, "Houston?" caught their attention. A minute later, Chris hung up the phone. He waved a hand at the team's pilot. "Well, Buck, you've got to make a passenger run up to Houston."

Buck's eyebrows rose in surprise. "Texas? That's a helluva long way from New Orleans. Why didn't he go someplace closer?"

Chris shrugged. "He wasn't given a choice. Nathan wouldn't leave until most of the other refugees were already gone. All the National Guard was concerned with was moving people out of the Convention Center. Where they ended up was somebody else's problem. We're talking thousands of people. That's a lot for any one city to take on, so the refugees got spread out across the map."

Buck received precise directions regarding Nathan's location from Chris. As he walked toward the door, JD stood up to follow. Buck asked, "Where you going?"

JD's reply of "With you" was not a question. The two men had been through a lot together these past few days. Buck could understand JD's desire to fly copilot on this last rescue mission. He twirled a hand as if he were a cowboy rounding up cattle and said, "All right then, let's move out!"

JD quickly stepped to follow in his friend's footsteps.

+ + + + + + +

Nathan's reunion with the team was more somber than cheerful. He had seen and heard too much to feel joyful.

Uncle Ray had refused to leave their temporary refuge in Houston. The old man explained, "I done all the moving I can take right now. All I want is to go home, and I got no more home to go to. If I gotta start over, might as well be here as anyplace else. I'll write you when I get settled." Nathan had to be satisfied with that statement. He and Uncle Ray exchanged hugs, and Nathan set off to rejoin his team.

The team members quietly exchanged stories of their experiences post-hurricane Katrina. They began to share in Nathan's mood as the team medic shared his story. Nathan paced angrily. "So let me get this straight. You all heard on the news about all the raping and murdering and all kinds of goings-on at the Convention Center, when all it was, was a bunch of poor people doing the best they could after they got thrown into a big trash can. Well, guess what? Me and Josiah were both there. We didn't see no raping, no murdering. It was just people, some good, some bad. Poor people who couldn't understand why it seemed like they'd been forgotten by the world. Tell you the truth, I still don't understand it."

The team members bid each other a somber "Good night" shortly thereafter, still reflecting upon Nathan's words.

+ + + + + + +

A day later, Vin was released from the hospital. The grim mood of the day before brightened considerably as the team was finally reunited.

Buck sighed as he shuffled through the helicopter rental agreement paperwork. "I wish we didn't have to bring this bird back to Mississippi. I don't know about you all, but I'm ready to go home." Everyone agreed with Buck's sentiment.

Chris couldn't help but add a comment of his own. "Buck, the next time we decide to go on vacation, I'm gonna go with my gut and not listen to a word you say."

Buck shrugged, unoffended. "That's fine. You never listen to me anyway."

Chris responded in kind. "What? Huh? Did you say something?"

Vin smiled, comforted by the familiar banter. He had finally gotten to see the city of New Orleans, and had memories that he would never forget. Too bad they weren't the sort of memories you'd want to pull out and enjoy like a picture postcard.

Ezra, too, had a few new souvenirs he could do without. The surgical scars on his leg would be a visual reminder of the death of a city. No doubt the leg would ache every time it rained. Rain and New Orleans were not two items he wished associated in his mind.

JD had seen a lot of things he wished he'd never seen since joining up with Buck and his friends. However, he wouldn't change his current lifestyle for anything. He smiled, determined to shove the memory of recent events into the back of his mind along with all of the other shit he wanted to forget.

Josiah chose to focus on the positive. He would forever remember the proof of God's influence when a potentially volatile situation was defused by the power of prayer in song.

Nathan had no desire to release his bitterness. He savored it, knowing it was there and ready to pull out the next time his work required him to kill rather than cure. He would do so without hesitation.

The team, like the city of New Orleans, had survived recent events. The team, like the city, would be forever changed by them.