"Buck, quit arguing. They'll be here soon. Now get back in that chair. You need to ice that ankle." Nathan fussed with the bath towels he rolled to make a support for the large man's foot. "You need to stay put, keep that foot elevated."
The injured man ignored the EMT's ministrations and watched the digital clock on his VCR. Five minutes to get to Josiah's van, fifteen to get out of downtown and onto the cross town express and another ten to reach his place. "Where the hell are they?" he grumbled when his timeline deadline passed without the arrival of the other team members.
Chris sat on the arm of the couch, his arms crossed. "You sure you want this, to have JD stay here with you? I know you, Buck. Having him here is going to crowd your privacy and your personal space."
"You concerned about me or your team? He needs someplace to live. I'm offering him a place. End of story." The normally jovial man grouched. "JD is welcome to stay here as long as he wants. If he wants to find his own place, that's fine with me, but he's not moving back to a dump like he was living in." Buck looked up at his friend's face and continued, his voice filled with concern. "I can't stop thinking what might have happened, the night of the fire."
"Don't go there. He and the other folks in that building owe you their lives. If you hadn't seen the explosion and the fire, hadn't called to warn him, we wouldn't be having this discussion. And yes, I'm going to watch what this does to the team. You're mixing personal business with work and it's going to affect both of you. The team needs both of you sharp and on task. I'll back your play but I won't let guilt, yours or JD's, be a monkey on either of your backs." Chris stood and walked to the window. He watched a young man's careful exit from a familiar van and smiled. The kid might be slow right now but once he was healed, heaven help the rest of the residents of the apartment building.
Before Buck could rise to open the door, Nathan rested a firm hand on his shoulder. "Stay put," he ordered.
"I'm sorry!" Buck said in unison with JD as the younger man stepped into the living room. One laughed and the other looked down with embarrassment.
The older man spoke first. "Get over here and sit down. If I have to endure Nathan's hovering, you might as well, too. Good to see you awake, finally." The humor left his voice, switching to a serious mode. "Scared several years off my life, the doctor telling me you had been impaled with something long and thin. Soon as he said there was glass, all I could think of was hearing the glass break when you tossed me the sack. I'm so sorry I missed catching it."
"Weren't your fault, Buck. You didn't know what I stuffed in there." The sound of JD's voice lifted Buck's spirits. "I'm glad you called, got so many folks safe. Didn't know the smoke detectors weren't working."
"JD, where do you want your stuff?" Vin said, interrupting the conversation. He and Ezra entered the room carrying various boxes and bags, smiling as JD's eyes widened recognizing the containers.
"My clothes and laptop! My boxes! Where were they? I thought everything was burned or lost."
"Kid, your stuffs been in my truck since the night of the fire. I kept it with me, waiting for you to need it, and not wanting it to go missing by leaving it in your hospital room." Buck apologized.
"Hope you don't mind, we did a little cleaning to your lady. Figured the stuff was JD's belongings," Vin added, setting the boxes on the small dining table.
Dunne grabbed his duffle bag and headed for the bathroom as the first tendrils of sunlight appeared over the eastern horizon.
Standish leaned over and whispered into Buck's ear causing the injured man to gaze down the hallway, shaking his head. "No, Ez. I forgot about that stuff. Since the nurse knew I'm in law enforcement, she must have figured we needed it as evidence. Give the stuff to him."
"Fellows, I believe we all have some reports due. Nathan, I'm leaving you here in charge of these two. The rest of you I'll see shortly back in the office. Buck, follow your orders. I don't like being two men down and we need both of you back on duty. I'll stop by later with some papers for both of you to sign." Chris herded the other three men out the door.
JD returned to the living room, showered and dressed in his own clothes. He returned to the couch and smiled. "Thanks for letting me stay with you, again."
"You're welcome, JD. And I meant what I told Chris, just before you got here. I want to you to stay as long as you want. Being laid up, I think we'll both enjoy each other's company. And after that, who knows."
"Nathan, go home. JD can get what I need. I'm doing fine with the crutches. We got enough groceries to see us for a few days. Go home!"
The medic smiled conspiringly and continued reading the Sunday Denver Post. He already planned to leave later in the day but secretly he enjoyed spending time with Buck and JD. "Can't go yet. Need to change your bandage around five."
"That's a pretty flimsy excuse, Nate. JD'll do it. If I had to empty that squishy grenade thing in his backside, he can smell my stinky feet." Buck Wilmington was bored. He missed his women. The constant motion of the others irritated him.
"It's called a Jackson-Pratt drain," said the voice from behind the newspaper. "And no, we're not related." He wished the others would hurry because he was running out of excuses to stay. Hoping the element of surprise would lift the two injured men's spirits. Josiah suggested it when he called earlier and offered to coordinate the four men's arrivals.
JD sat at his laptop typing and waiting. He knew the building had high-speed wireless but Buck seldom used his computer at home so didn't see the need to subscribe when the service was offered. The dial-up connection worked but took forever to download files. Most weekends, he'd visit area coffee shops and other sites that allowed patrons free Internet use. With Nathan on guard, he hadn't been able to sneak out in search of 'borrowing' a neighbor's connection. Certainly, someone in this building hadn't firewalled their Internet connection.
A loud rap on the door startled the computer geek and he jumped up to answer the door. Checking first he said, "It's Josiah and Chris. What are they doing here?"
"Well, open the door and find out!"
"About time," came a mumbled voice from behind the paper.
The taller of the two, his arms full, headed straight to the kitchen. Larabee followed with a case of JD's favorite soda and a twelve pack of Colorado's finest brew, stashing both in the refrigerator. While Josiah puttered in the kitchen rattling pans and crinkling paper, Chris ushered JD back to the living area. "We need to talk, son."
JD told the story of the fall a year earlier that necessitated his recent surgery, willing to share, but secretly fearful of the men's reaction.
"JD, let's get something straight. I need to know everything about my team, no secrets. We've got to be available 24-7. You'll get your down time, guaranteed. No one can do what we do 365 without a break, so if you need some time off, it's yours. Ask for it. Otherwise I need to know I can depend on you. Any questions?"
JD faced his boss and said, "I still got my job?"
"You're not perfect. If you were, you wouldn't be one of us, but you are part of this team with all our faults," Larabee replied. "Just don't let what happened before Labor Day, happen again."
More knocking interrupted the discussion. Nathan opened the door admitting the other two team members, each carrying more boxes and bags. Ezra set two white bakery boxes on the table next to JD's laptop. Vin dropped one plastic bag behind the couch and carried the others into the kitchen.
A fragrant yet spicy smell followed Josiah and Vin into the living area. They grabbed a couple of chairs and completed the semi-circle around the television set. "If I knew I'd be entertaining, I'd gotten a larger set. What are you cooking in there?" Buck sniffed the air.
Grinning widely, Josiah wiggled his eyebrows. "Something good! Has to simmer a while."
"Before we do anything else, I got something to return to JD." Vin grabbed the bag from behind the couch and handed it to his young friend. "I hope you don't mind, I didn't give you this yesterday."
JD reached into the bag and the smile on his face reached from ear to ear. "Mama's quilt. I thought I'd never see it again. Why did you keep it?"
"It needed cleanin' and had a huge tear. I know a lady that does fancy work. She cleaned and repaired it. I figured it was important to you." Vin explained.
The young man examined the patched patch work and reached out his hand. "Thanks, Vin. Mama made this for me when she was too weak to work. You're right, it is real special to me. Your friend did a fantastic job fixing it. Tell her thanks for me, will you?"
Vin nodded. "I'll let Miz Nettie know."
"Since Mr. Tanner shared such a fine keepsake, I too want to return something we discovered in Mr. Wilmington's beauty." He handed JD a small cloth bag.
JD frowned, not recognizing the bag. He opened the drawstring and looked at Ezra. "I don't understand."
"I believe that was among the items retrieved from your garments at the hospital."
JD pulled the wad of bills from the bag. "Why did you keep this until now?"
Four of the men glared at the gift bearer, ready to believe he'd only returned the money due to a bout of guilty consciousness. "Ya got the blood out it, Ez!" Vin slapped Ezra's shoulder. "Laundering money legally?"
The comment broke the tension and returned the smile to JD's face. "I don't even remember grabbing this from my room."
"Please take my advice. Find a safe place to stash your monetary assets. A Levi pocket is not secure."
"I too need to apologize for not being truthful with another of your belongings, son. When Vin and Ezra shared the poor state of your mother's photograph, I challenged myself to restore it." Josiah handed the flat envelope to JD. "You'll need a new frame but I figured you'd like to select that yourself." He looked at Chris and continued. "I finally found a justifiable reason for that Photoshop course you approved last year."
Pulling the photo from the protective cover, tears formed and hung on the long dark eyelashes. Silence enveloped the room until JD was able to choke out a quiet "Thank you, Josiah. It's almost perfect." He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand and took a deep breath. "I want to thank all of you, what you've done for me. I've never had such wonderful friends."
"You're welcome, JD. I need to check on supper. Nathan, we brought the vegetables you requested. Want to make your salad?" Josiah stood and returned to the kitchen with the medic.
JD stood, hugging his quilt and carrying the photograph. "I'll be back," he said, heading towards his new bedroom.
Ezra stood and followed the youngest. Rather than stopping at the bathroom, he followed JD into the bedroom. "Mr. Dunne. I haven't been completely forthright with all of your belongings. Please believe me; I wasn't prying into your personal finances. When we recovered your possessions from Mr. Wilmington's vehicle, these envelopes were also among the items untidily stashed." He held out the obviously water damaged paper and continued. "I tried to remove the blood contaminating them without destroying their details."
JD chewed on the inside of his lip, upset that this last secret was exposed. "You had no right to see these. It's my business and nobody else's." He grabbed the stack of paper and stuffed them into the nearest drawer.
"JD, you are being robbed. Those interest rates are extortion. Please let me help you resolve your debt."
Obviously embarrassed by the conversation, JD repeated himself. "It's my business. I'll take care of my own bills."
Before he could leave the room, Ezra stepped between him and the door. "The rates you are paying will only result with you owing more a year from now than what you owe today. You can get a legal loan and absolve yourself of the debt."
"I don't need charity. 'Sides no one will loan me a red cent. I've got nothing for collateral. End of story."
"I'm not offering charity but I am offering you a business proposition. This will be strictly between you and me, unless you decide to share. This is an offer of a loan with an interest rate more inline with the going bank rate. You will continue to make payments only they will result in reducing your outstanding debt, not see it grow exponentially." He laid a printout on the bed. "My offer will not expire." He turned and left the room.
JD grabbed the paper and wadded it up into a ball before tossing it at the mirror. He picked up the quilt and hugged it tightly. "Mama, what should I do?" Falling back on the pillow, he stared at the restored photo set on the dresser. The ball of paper landed next to his mother's image.
Seeing Standish return alone, Buck grabbed his crutches. He had a gut feeling that the kid needed some encouragement. He easily maneuvered down the hallway, stopping at his guestroom's closed door. Quietly knocking to announce his presence, he pushed the door open with one crutch and pushed it shut again once he'd entered.
"Everything ok in here, JD?" he asked the still form. "You've got a lot of friends out there."
"Think so?" JD rolled over and sat up, wincing as he accidentally pulled on the tube still stitched into his backside. "Is this all for real?"
Buck sat down on the edge of the bed and frowned. "What's troubling you, son?"
"I don't know what to say to everyone. You, giving me a place to stay, Vin getting the quilt mended, Josiah restoring Mama's picture, even Chris not firing me for not telling him about my surgery. Nathan's been taking care of us real good." He hung his head, embarrassed again.
"That's what friends do for one another. Sure we work together and sometimes we fight. We might play some pranks on each other but when it comes down to what's important, I couldn't think of any six men I'd rather have watching my back." Buck paused, waiting to see if JD wanted to speak but the silence gave him the strength to continue. "Did Ezra say something to upset you?"
"I saw the look everyone gave him, when he handed me the money. Do you really think he planned to keep it, say it was lost?"
"Money is a pretty strong temptation. Ezra's been raised to always watch for the next profitable venture. He's an enigma. To most folks, he's always scheming to get the next dollar; that's part of his con. It's hard to separate what he does and what he truly is inside. I've seen him share his winnings with those around him when he thinks no one is watching. It's a game he plays, walking that fine line between what you and me and Chris think is right and the thrill of getting away with a challenge. I never should have thought that about him keeping your money. Why? Something bothering you about trusting him?"
JD stood and retrieved the paper, smoothing out the wrinkles. "I owe a few dollars back east and got a loan, but seems like I can't get the thing paid off. That's why I was living at the Watson building, trying to save enough money to get out of debt." He handed the proposal to the older man. "Anyway, Ezra found the statements in my stuff, said he was trying to get the blood off of them. So he saw what I owe and he offered to help me, give me a new loan. I "
Buck read the paper, shock evident. "You went to a loan shark? You might as well have your paycheck directly deposited in their account, just to pay the interest. What were you thinking?"
"To do anything to get Mama better. The doctors wouldn't treat her without insurance and no insurance company would accept her. Had to have the cash first. I regret having to do it, but I had no choice. When Ezra offered the money, it seemed too good to be true and I know if it seems too good to be true, then it usually isn't. I didn't know where to go for help and now, out of the blue, he's offering to pay it all for me."
"Do you trust Ezra?" Buck said, trying to stay unemotional, though seeing the size of debt answered a lot of questions. "If the situation were reversed, would you help him?"
"In a heartbeat."
"Then I think you know the answer. I wish I could help you but I don't have this kind of money."
"But you are helping me out, letting me stay here."
Buck raised his one eyebrow and smirked. "And? Don't let pride keep you from accepting. We need you, kid. I need you! Don't want you left behind because of an old debt. You've been through a lot. Just take your time before you decide what to do. Right now, let's go join the others. I hear Josiah's chili is to die for and I can't wait to see what Ez had hidden in those fancy bakery boxes."
Seven men crowded around the small dining room table which usually held precarious piles of junk mail. The spicy aroma of Josiah's signature dish caused more than one belly rumble as he ladled the thick soup into a variety of bowls, some which hadn't see the light of day since when they were stashed in the cupboard. "Dig in!"
The youngest filled his spoon and eagerly ate the beefy concoction. His eyes grew wide as he grabbed his can of soda trying to extinguish the fire in his mouth. Unable to quench his thirst, he jumped up and headed into the kitchen, hoping water would offer some relief.
"Too hot, kid?" Vin laughed, enjoying the fiery food.
"Easy for you to say, Tanner. You were raised on this stuff," mumbled the young man as he returned to his chair.
"Try adding some cheese and sour cream; it'll help cool the peppers," Nathan offered, having already adjusted the heat of his meal.
Ezra deftly separated the beans from the meat not wanting to be embarrassed later.
"Real good, Josiah." Chris cooled his mouth with the chilled beer.
Buck grinned at the men gathered around his table, enjoying the camaraderie; the men acting like they were family. He raised his glass and proclaimed, "Here's to sweethearts and friendship. The first beautiful, the last ever faithful."
"Hear, hear" answered the rest, raising their assorted bottles, cans and glasses.
JD smiled, thankful he'd found this group of men. "Ok, what's for dessert?"