Main Characters: Chris, JD
Ratings/Warnings: Some violence and bad language
Early morning at the Denver Courthouse, and Chris Larabee lay flat to the floor, his one hand pressed to the cold, glossy tiles, while the other kept tight hold of his youngest team member, JD Dunne. Catching a look from the younger man he conveyed his silent message with a fixed green stare. JD gave a slight nod - message received - 'stay down and don't move'.
With a few nods of his head, Skip Jervis's men, all wearing ski masks, maneuvered into position. Two were at the outer courthouse door, two in the corridor close to the entry point from the prison transport area, and two, along with Jervis, were holding a bead on the two agents, the cop who was stationed at the door to court number three, and Assistant District Attorney, Guy Williams.
Seeing Guy's body twitch, Chris looked his way. The man mouthed the words 'do something', but Chris remained unmoving…he was not about to jeopardize anyone's life by an ill-timed move and that reason was why he had a death grip on JD's arm. It wasn't that he didn't trust the young agent, he just wanted to ensure there were no misunderstandings. They had already been relieved of their cell phones and weapons, but Chris was in no doubt these men still considered them a threat.
The sound of guns arming had both agents look up in time to see the guards escorting the leader of one of Colorado's biggest firearms cartels, Carlos Mennir, gunned down in cold blood.
Chris knew JD's soft utterance was more about the carnage than fear, and he too swallowed hard as the sound of falling bodies and men dying filled the almost silent corridor. Too late, he saw JD's free hand move just enough to cause one of their captors to kick out, catching the kid a glancing blow to the head.
"Knock it off," Larabee growled out, only to be rewarded with a boot to his gut. The gunman crouched down.
"Shut it, Fed, or next time I'll make certain the next breath you suck in is your last."
As JD tried to refocus, and Chris nursed an aching belly, Mennir was reunited with his men. The two agents' hands were secured behind their backs and they were manhandled to their feet.
"Go where?" Chris asked Jervis, concern evident as he glanced anxiously around for any innocent passers-by.
"Just needing a little insurance - now, behave Larabee, or you and Mr. Dunne will be feeling the full wrath of my very short temper…comprende?"
Chris glared at the man, gaining some satisfaction from the slight recoil it elicited.
JD's mind was reeling. One minute he was waiting to be called as a rebuttal witness, the next - this. Surely these men couldn't seriously believe they could spring Mennir from a Federal courthouse?
Two more masked men appeared at the door that Mennir had just been escorted through. A thumbs-up from them, prompted Jervis and his men to head that way. One of the gunmen with Chris and JD bent down to say something to ADA Williams, and then he and his associate proceeded to haul JD and Chris along with them.
On exiting the door, four more gunmen opened fire in the cavernous covered area to put an end to any attempt from police officers to get closer. Jervis ushered Mennir into the back of the prison van he had just left, along with Chris and JD, and the two gunmen escorting them. Two of the four shooters also joined them in the back, while the other two tossed out the injured prison van driver. Seconds later they were in the front of the vehicle and racing away, leaving chaos and bodies in their wake.
Chris and JD lay flat to the floor as bullets ricocheted off the speeding van's armored exterior. The stench of gun smoke, copper, and burning rubber permeated the air, and the clamor of squealing tires and gunfire resonated around the area until the van was gone and the place descended into an eerie silence.
Inside the building, traumatized onlookers got up off the floor and emerged from their safe places. Officers started to rally and once Williams had recovered sufficiently to find his voice, he placed a call to AD Orin Travis.
"How could this happen?"
With the courthouse connected to the Federal building, the place was locked down as soon as the alarms sounded. Now, Buck Wilmington was pacing the Team Seven bullpen, his demeanor way beyond angry. None of the five men in there could comprehend how a Federal building could be compromised in this way. They all looked to the door when AD Travis walked in with a sit rep.
"There were numerous, heavily armed gunmen and we weren't nearly as prepared as we should have been," Travis admitted, halting for a few moments to compose himself. His next words stopped any tirade instantly.
"Two officers were gunned down in the courthouse, murdered in cold blood and another, the driver of the prison van, was fatally wounded, he died in the ER just a half hour ago. Several others were injured in the gun battle outside when the gang and Mennir made their escape." His face reflected the sadness and severity of the situation.
"No one expected this today…we believed we were unassailable, but we were not, and have paid a high price for our complacency." He turned to leave. "Gentlemen. I'll keep you updated as and when I can."
Orin turned at Vin's quiet address.
"Any news on Chris and JD?"
Travis shook his head. "Only that the group they are with changed vehicles just outside the city limits, one truck, and one car, both going off in different directions. No blood has been found in the van they abandoned." He watched their faces show a brief reflection of relief.
"I have every available man on this…I won't object if you want to assist." With that, he left.
Vin snatched up his ID wallet from where it lay on his desk and patted his holstered gun.
"Where are you going?" Buck asked.
"To talk to Williams."
With a nod of agreement, all five moved out.
By the time the gang was ready to switch vehicles, Chris and JD had been blindfolded. Before being pulled roughly from the van, the pair figured out that the gang was splitting up, with Mennir going off with one section of the group, and the remainder staying with JD and Chris. Larabee felt sure he and JD were about to be executed…the gang had no use for them now…so he was surprised to be pushed into another vehicle, a truck by the feel and height of it. He felt JD lean against him as the youth was shoved into the seat next to him.
"Stay quiet," Chris whispered against the head pressed into his shoulder, and was relieved when he felt JD nod his understanding.
They traveled for some time, and it was evident, due to the jarring ride, that they were going over rough terrain - and climbing. Eventually, the truck slowed, and then stopped. The two agents were hauled from the vehicle and into a building. Though both men noted the cooler air, neither could tell where they were, or what type of structure they were entering. JD stumbled as he mistimed the two steps up onto wooden boards. He was dragged upright before he and Chris were tossed into a room and across a hard, wooden floor. Their blindfolds were removed, and they blinked hard from their hunched positions on bare boards as several masked men were revealed.
"I wanted to off you both, but the boss said no. So, you get to live." Jervis laughed. "But we're not gonna make it easy for you. Even if you're lucky to get off this mountain alive, we'll be long gone. Have fun, boys, and good luck - you're gonna need it."
Jervis nodded to his men and, as he walked away, they proceeded to beat the two agents. Despite being shackled, both men fought back as best they could but were eventually left lying battered and unconscious on the floor of a small mountain cabin. Just before the men left, Jervis returned and ensured they were out cold with a final kick to each prone form. Their next task was to leave as many tracks over the mountain as possible…save for the ones that would finally lead them away to meet up with the other gang members.
Sitting quietly in one of the courthouse interview rooms, ADA Guy Williams was trying to steady his hands as he sipped a cup of coffee. He looked up, surprised initially to see five armed men walk into the side room at the courthouse, but quickly realized who they were. Buck spoke first.
He swallowed, and nodded. "I will be. Jesus, guys, it was horrifying…seeing those men gunned down like that."
"I'm sure it was," Josiah answered, softly. "We've viewed the footage, the gunmen were masked."
Guy agreed. "Yes…and they never called each other by name."
Vin squatted next to the seated man. "Looked like one of 'em said somethin' to you…do you recall what it was?"
Williams frowned. He'd forgotten that detail. Looking up at them all, he nodded. "Yes…he said…'Tell 'em the game is on'."
"Any idea what he was referring to?" Ezra asked, concerned at the inference.
Guy shook his head. "No…not at all. To be honest, I wasn't sure at that point, if they were going to let me live so…I wasn't really concentrating."
"The tape shows that Chris and JD each got kicked," Nathan pointed out. "Do you know how they were when they left?"
Williams watched the five men tense up. "They were moving fine. Kid was quiet…which in itself was strange…he's rarely quiet…but I saw Larabee shoot him a few signals, and they seemed in control. I feared the worst when I heard the gunfire outside, but I'm told those two weren't found on the scene."
Buck nodded, his face a mask of frustration. "Yeah, looks like they went along for the ride." He glanced at his teammates and knew they were done here. Buck extended his hand. "Thanks…good to know you're okay."
"Thanks to Chris. Cool as ice that one. Boys…I hope they're…you know…"
The five men acknowledged his concern and left the room.
Flashing their badges, the men of Team Seven ducked under the yellow tape in the courthouse corridor and surveyed the bloody scene. They balked at the sight of JD's laptop and small zipper case lying on the floor and sketched around by chalk lines.
"When can we have those items?" Buck asked, choking back the lump in his throat.
A man in plastic overalls looked at him. "You can have them later; they've been dusted and photographed. Only one clear set of prints were found, and we have to run a few more tests."
With a nod, Buck and Josiah glanced again at the items, and both subconsciously folded their arms across their chest as they surveyed the scene. All five men moved on to the grisly sight of the two murdered cops, still uncovered, and staring sightlessly into oblivion as they lay in pools of blood.
"Family men?" Josiah asked.
The investigator nodded.
Ezra looked away; his breakfast was no longer sitting well. Vin squatted, and observed the discarded prison shackles, and footprints in the blood. His eyes tracked them to the outer door. Standing, he moved cautiously outside, to be faced with yet another scene of death and mayhem. Blue eyes narrowed and traced the trail of tire marks while his creative mind allowed him to visualize the scene play out of the van screeching away through a hail of gunfire, to then disappear into the distance. He turned to the others.
"How about we go see where they found the prison van?"
With a collective nod, they moved back inside and proceeded to their vehicle.
Chris groaned…and was pretty sure it was aloud. He was cold, and parts of him ached and burned. Realizing his hands were tied behind his back, he shuffled awkwardly until he managed to sit up. Chris's pummeled body protested every move and he grunted and grimaced toward his goal. He glanced across at JD, his green eyes staring until he saw the rise and fall of JD's chest. Relieved, he shuffled his way toward a stone hearth and turned to place his wrists at the corner of the sandstone. It took him a long while of rubbing the plastic ties up and down the rough surface, and many scrapes to his wrists and hands, but he finally felt the bonds break apart. A little winded, Chris relaxed for a moment as the circulation painfully returned to his fingers.
As soon as he was able, he worked loose a piece of stone, and with stiff, awkward movements, Chris moved to check on JD. He was pleased to find the young man stirring.
"Easy, Kid…let me get to your hands." Keeping JD on his stomach, and cursing a blue streak at the tight slipknot and his less than dexterous fingers, Larabee finally cut through the sturdy plastic and saw JD's hands drop limply to his sides.
JD groaned. "Shit…that smarts." He struggled to sit up, and hissed at the sting as he rubbed at his raw wrists. Chris helped him settle, and the pair took a breather while they both battled the pain of numerous welts, bruises and several cuts and abrasions.
"Where are we?"
"Up in the mountains," Chris offered, as he watched JD stagger to his feet.
Chris shrugged and glanced around. "Log cabin, air's colder and a little thinner..."
JD nodded, and moaned at the movement. He took stock of the places he ached. "Could sure use an aspirin."
"You and me both, Kid." Larabee felt a surge of something just short of alarm as his youngest agent moved toward the door. "Where are you going?"
"Gonna check outside," JD replied, surprised Chris had to ask. Then the penny dropped in his still muzzy mind. "I'll be careful, Bossman. I was just wondering if we're alone here."
Chris watched JD's every move as he swallowed the nausea and pain threatening to overwhelm him. 'One problem at a time', he decided, trying to will away the hurt. Even if they were alone, he still had to figure out what to do next and Chris was in no doubt now, that his left leg was going to give him problems. If JD planned to get them down the mountain, he'd be struggling to keep up. He smiled, wearily as JD came back inside.
"Place is deserted. There's a rough track that leads off down the mountainside, though no telling if we'll hit a decent road at any time." He rubbed his arms. "Not too warm out there, either."
JD explored the cabin, and found a single blanket in one room. It quickly became evident there was no running water. The young agent found a fridge; it was turned off, but contained three cans of diet Seven Up. Checking the expiry dates, JD smiled and returned to Chris's side.
"No water, but we got these," he announced, proudly holding up his bounty. He checked his watch. "It's gonna be dark, soon. I guess we should rest up and head out in the morning, huh?"
It suddenly occurred to JD that the man who could both thrill and scare the hell out of him in the space of a second, hadn't said very much at all…not that unusual, but, in this instance, JD found it more unnerving than ever. He approached his hero and squatted down next to him. "Chris, you okay?"
The blond smiled. "I could lie and say 'sure', but, I think a few ribs took the brunt of the beating, and my left leg feels kinda numb. It's gonna be a tough walk home."
JD grinned, despite himself. "So, what's new? Just about the norm for Team Seven, huh?"
The pair exchanged thin smiles, but their eyes met and a lot more than routine information passed between them.
"Try and rest," Chris suggested. "You're gonna need it." He patted the floor next to him as he sat up against one of the cabin walls. Nodding, JD joined him and threw the blanket across both of them. It took a whole minute, but JD finally uttered the question Chris had been expecting.
"The guys'll come looking though, right?"
"You can bet your life on it, Kid." Chris spoke with conviction, and in no doubt that they already were.
Vin approached quietly so as not to startle Buck who was standing on the deck of the CDC, and staring out across the city. "How you doin', Bucklin?"
Resting his hands on the rail and leaning heavily, Buck heaved a deep sigh as he answered without turning around. "I can't bear to think of them out there, Vin…maybe hurt, maybe cold…" He turned, his eyes glistening. "Maybe…"
"NO!" Vin's hand went up in warning. "You don't get to say it…you should know that, Buck, we'll never say those words until…"
Buck nodded. "Sorry. It's not that I believe it, it's just the not knowing."
Josiah's large frame blocked the light from the living room as he stood in the opening to the patio doors."They're survivors, Buck, you know they'll do all they can to get through this."
"He knows," Vin assured. "We all do. But it's not bein' able to do anythin' while we wait 'til sunup that's the hard part."
Nudging Josiah forward, Ezra and Nathan joined them. "All airports, train stations and borders are being monitored," Ezra assured them, "but the authorities are working on the assumption that Mennir will lay low for as long as it takes."
"And on the probability Chris and JD are no longer with them." Nathan added.
Tanner shoved his thumbs into his jeans pockets and leaned a hip against the rail. "Word on the street is there's been no cop hits. Trust me, if they'd been wasted, we'd know about it."
"Big city," Buck said as his gaze returned to the twinkling streetlights of Denver, and the mountains beyond. "They could be anywhere."
"I think you're forgetting," Ezra chimed in, "this is Chris Larabee we're talking about. A tougher man I've yet to meet." His eyes crinkled in a smile. "And our youngest is taking after him in many more ways than our intrepid leader would care to admit. They make a formidable pair."
Josiah smiled. "Add to that the patience, knowledge, love and affection you have shown JD, Buck; the extensive survival skills he has learned from Vincent, cunning and fortitude from Ezra..." His gaze moved around his friends. "The numerous first aid procedures and proficiencies from Nathan, and, I hope, temperance and inner strength from me - all those newly acquired skills will help see him through this…and may even be the reason those two get back here in one piece."
"You didn't mention Chris," Buck said, softly.
"Aah…well, our illustrious leader has taught him some of the most valuable career lessons of all," Sanchez answered. "He's taught him to never concede to defeat, and that life's heroes can be ordinary folk, or larger than life icons, but what it all comes down to is honor..." he grinned at a memory. "...and to never shoot a man in the back to win a battle...metaphorically speaking."
Sipping on coffees brought out by Nathan, all five men stared out over the nocturnal vista, inwardly willing the sun to peek over the distant horizon so they could get on with finding their friends.
JD jerked up from his position of leaning heavily against his team leader's arm and grinned, shyly. "Morning." He yawned, sat up, and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. "How are you doing?"
"You had to ask…" Chris pulled back the blanket and raised his left pants leg, revealing a swollen and colorful foot and ankle.
Jumping up, JD carefully touched the inflamed appendage. "Oh God…is it broken?"
Chris nodded. "Feels that way. Funny, the pain was radiating through my leg last night, then this morning…" he pointed, "…this."
"Do you remember how it happened?"
"I think I can vaguely recall one of those jerkasses stomping on it at one point." He watched JD stand. "Going somewhere?"
JD stood. "Well, we gotta get off this mountain and, as much as I've toned up this last year, I'm never gonna be able carry you all the way down, so I guess we have to immobilize it as best we can before we move out."
Larabee waved him off as he started to move. "Just get me up, I'll be okay." He glared as a hand rested on his chest.
"No…you know as well as I do, if we don't do this properly, the damage may be irreparable."
Chris was mortified to be fussed over. "I'll still be alive."
"And your field career'll be over. Dunno about you, Bossman, but I kinda like you being around to kick our butts."
Chris had to smile as JD made his way out of the door, his scrutinizing eyes not missing the stiffness in the younger man's movements. "Yep, he's gonna make one hell of an agent…despite the rest of us," Chris laughed to himself.
One crude splint of branches and strips of ripped blanket, later, the pair was ready to head out. The procedure hadn't been an easy undertaking, and JD wasn't even sure the splint was sturdy enough, but he felt sure it would be better than the alternative. With the sun up, they slipped the remaining sodas into their jacket pockets before tying them around their waists. Chris leaned heavily between JD and a robust tree limb that the youth had gleaned from the forest floor, and with the two cans of Seven Up as their sole means of fluids or sustenance, they began their long, painful trek back to civilization.
Early that morning, a hiking couple was retelling to a gathered search party of agents and police officers, of seeing a 4x4 the previous day with several men in it and tearing away from an area. While eating breakfast in a local diner, the couple caught an early morning news bulletin about the courthouse attack and the two missing agents, and quickly called the hotline number. Soon after their phone call, a small army of DPD, DEA, and ATF officers arrived in the vicinity, and were now studying maps that they'd spread-out over the hoods of several all-terrain vehicles.
Unfortunately, there were at least a half-dozen vehicle-friendly trails leading up into the mountains and, with no way of knowing for sure whether the men spotted were the guys they were after, chasing a false lead was probable. Tanner stared up at the mountainside, his arms folded across his chest as he waited for something…anything…maybe divine intervention, to give him some clue. He half turned at Josiah's hand on his shoulder.
"We're ready to head out, Vin. Do you have a preference as to which trail we follow?"
"I hear it's too dense for a chopper to see anythin' much, but they're gonna try, anyway." Vin sighed. "Whenever Chris an' me, or the kid an' me hiked and camped around here, we always stuck to a well used road on the way down…just in case of trouble. A Couple of those trails have gotten too narrow for a truck, so I reckon it's between two." He stared a little longer and finally pointed. "I vote that one."
"Good enough," Josiah nodded, and returned to inform the search party of their decision. Buck met Vin as he returned to their vehicle.
"What if we're wrong?"
"It's a risk, I know, but there are a lot of people on this, Buck…we're gonna find 'em, one way or another."
"Oh sure, I know," the brunet agreed. "I just pray it's sooner, rather than later."
Two hours of walking felt more like six for the two battered agents. The terrain was rutted and gravelly, from use by off-road enthusiasts, making the ground tricky to walk on. Chris halted them and uncurled himself from JD's supporting hold on him. "Time out, Kid."
Weary due to the extra burden of helping Chris, as well as from the pain of his own injuries, gratefully, JD bent over to rest his hands on his knees and take in great gulps of fresh mountain air. The effort caused him to cough.
"Yeah, sure, just breathed in a little too hard, is all." He straightened. "We need to keep going if we're gonna hit the highway before nightfall."
"I'm injured, not stupid, agent," Chris hissed out, instantly regretting his tone as JD's wounded gaze dropped to the ground. Chris reached out to squeeze JD's arm.
"Hey…ignore me, I'm just cranky. You're right, let's get to it." He waved off assistance. "Let me fly solo for a while, give you a break."
"Chris, I'm fine, I don't mind…"
"At ease, Kid…just for a little while, okay?" He smiled at JD's nod and the pair continued along the rock-strewn road. Chris leaned heavily on the tree limb to keep his foot off the ground, but was finding it tougher than he expected. Less than twenty minutes later, Chris's 'crutch' slipped and the blond went down, heavily.
JD moved to help him, but gave him a moment to recover when he saw Larabee's face creased with pain. Finally, Chris's features relaxed and he took in a deep breath.
"Fuck, that hurt."
The pair's gaze met and after a few seconds they chuckled, and then laughed, all the while in pain from the gasps of air and rib movement the hilarity incurred, but were helpless to stop. Finally, Chris took a deep breath. "Jeezus, Kid, get…me…up."
His hand reached out to his partner and JD obliged, steadying him until the blond was composed and ready to move on. The boy handed Chris his crutch and with a silent nod of understanding, they continued.
Another hour on and the Heavens opened. "Oh, wonderful," Chris huffed, feeling a nod from JD's head where his arm rested around the slight shoulders for support.
Suddenly, a tiring JD stumbled, and they both went sprawling clumsily along the gravel. Chris's injured foot impacted hard with the ground and he roared in pain. Still holding onto Chris as he went down JD failed to stop himself from kissing the dirt and felt the needle-like stones on the ground scrape one side of his face. Neither man moved for a few moments as they tried to come to terms with the new agony, while getting steadily wetter in the unrelenting rain pelting them. Chris rolled onto his back, and looked over at the prone form of his youngest agent…and friend.
"Kid, you okay?"
"Best frickin' day of my life," JD grunted back. He pushed himself up, and wondered if his face looked as bad as it felt. When Larabee winced on seeing the damage, he figured it did. JD tilted the injured side of his face into the rain and allowed it to rinse off the majority of the dirt and grit clinging to the bleeding scrapes. It was the best he could do for now, and as he hoped his idea was working, the twenty-year-old opened his mouth to allow some of the welcome moisture to slip down his throat.
Chris was doing the same, while trying to ignore his growling belly. Neither of them had eaten since breakfast the previous morning.
"Please tell me that was your stomach, 'cause I really couldn't deal with a bear right now," JD pleaded.
Larabee couldn't help smiling, despite his discomfort. "Yeah, that was me. No bears here…yet." While the rain puddled around their seated forms, he glanced at JD. "Ready to move on, Kid?"
JD shook his head. "Nope, but I guess that was more a rhetorical question, right?"
Helping each other up, they gathered themselves together and trudged on, both now bone weary and ravenous. Each yard they walked seemed like a mile, and at one point, JD swore they weren't actually getting anywhere at all.
The sound of a distant vehicle had them looking up in anticipation.
"Could be help," JD stated, hopefully.
"Or could be them coming back," Chris countered. For a moment their weakened bodies and tired minds swung between hope and dread, the latter finally winning out and they dived toward the undergrowth at the side of the road with the intention of checking out the approaching vehicle when it passed by.
Unfortunately, they didn't know that the trail on that side fell away, and instead of finding a grassy verge, they tumbled helplessly down a long, steep incline. By the time they'd rolled to a halt at the bottom of the gradient, the pair were out cold.
Vin and Buck yelled together, both now silent as Sanchez pulled the vehicle to a stop several yards from where Chris and JD had plummeted. The pair jumped out and stared around them, the heavy rain quickly soaking their hair and clothes.
Tanner yelled, several times, but to no avail. Eventually, the pair got back into the truck. "I had the strongest feeling..." Vin said, still staring out at the surrounding greenery.
Buck nodded, a little shaken by the experience. "I know what you mean. Weird."
Ezra, Josiah and Nathan were unsure whether to feel compassion or envy.
"Shall we continue?" Sanchez asked, halting when Buck took a call to his cell. He watched his friend's face darken as he snapped his phone closed.
"They called off the chopper, said the weather was making visibility impossible," Buck told them. "They'll resume as soon as it clears."
"So, we're on our own," Ezra stated. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time," he said with the conviction of a man who had been there before.
"Not entirely, we've still got the other teams out here," Nathan reminded.
"Yes, of course," Ezra agreed, but his heart remained clenched from his original thoughts. Wordlessly, Josiah pushed the truck into drive and they continued on.
The day was crawling into late afternoon by the time the five men reached the cabin that JD and Chris were left in. Looking around the lodge's interior, expectations rose when they realized someone had been there recently. Vin pointed out footprints on the dusty boards, and droplets of blood. Wandering around, they found bloody, discarded bonds and bloodstains on the chimneybreast from where it appeared someone had sliced away at the discarded ties.
"There is an empty can of Seven Up in the kitchen. No running water, but definite proof someone has recently moved around inside this structure," Ezra stated.
"Pieces of torn blanket and twigs scattered around. Looks like someone made a splint or something similar," Nathan offered, pointing at the evidence.
"Lots of footprints, but one pair seems to stand out more…found this." Vin held out Chris's left shoe. "I guess maybe now we have a clue as to what was injured."
"So, we know they were here," Buck rounded, fresh hope lifting his spirits. "What do you reckon? They were dumped here?"
"Looks like they may have taken more of a beating, too." Josiah pointed out the scuffmarks and bloodstains in the dirt. They went quiet as they reflected on that statement.
Vin looked out of the open door and back toward the trail they had just traveled. "They're out there, damnit. We probably drove right past 'em."
"Well, let's go," Buck insisted.
Nathan halted them. "I'm not sure we would do any good out there now with this heavy rain and night drawing in. Maybe we could get the chopper guys to bring a thermal imager out here. Now we know they're in this area, we'll have a better chance of spotting them."
Ezra agreed and placed the call.
"I reckon we should stay here, tonight. We can get a start at first light."
Vin glanced at Standish as he spoke.
"They have called off the ground search for today; the rain has caused poor visibility, and as no one has found hard evidence they are actually out there, they feel a need to regroup." He halted the inevitable arguments to the contrary.
"Based on our new evidence, the plan is now to restart at dawn with dogs. The chopper, weather permitting, will head out with a thermal imager at first light, as will the other teams. I agree with Vin. If indeed we stay here, we will have an excellent opportunity of coordinating the search from this end. If our friends are injured, and there is evidence that whoever was in this cabin is; it's doubtful they got too far, and as we saw no trace of them on our way here, we should assume they decided to shelter from the rain."
Hating to work with no more to go on than educated guesses, but all in agreement, the group braved the persistently heavy rain to grab some supplies and blankets from the truck, to bring into the cabin. However, they ensured there were sufficient dry blankets and water left for when they found Chris and JD.
It would be a long night, but the men of Team Seven were confident that tomorrow, they would find their missing brothers.
JD's arms quivered as he attempted to push himself up off the sodden ground with his elbows. He failed, and collapsed hard onto the grass. His head ached - actually, everything ached and, for a moment, he wished he could return to the blissful, quiet, pain-free place he had been just a minute or so ago. However, something kept tugging him back from the brink…something…someone…
That thought was enough to prompt him to try again, and this time he successfully got into a sitting position. He took a moment to survey the area, and fought the dizziness and nausea threatening to overwhelm him. At last, he spotted the object of his concern.
Somehow, his body was moving and he crawled to where the prone form of his hero lay. Relieved to find him breathing, JD squeezed Larabee's shoulder and gently shook him.
"Chris…hey, Chris, wake up…please, Bossman. CHRIS!"
Who the hell was yelling at him?
Through the fog in which Chris seemed to be suspended, he tried to follow the voice calling to him so he could get up and punch whoever was shaking his aching body. Couldn't this idiot see he was in pain, here? All at once, the voice became familiar, and now he was actively fighting toward consciousness.
"Oh, thank God. Chris, can you move?" JD paled, should he even be suggesting that he try?
"Wait, let me…"
"Damnit, Kid, I know what's hurting and where; help me."
A few minutes later, both were resting their backs against a tree. JD turned to Chris.
"I'll live. You?"
JD swept his gaze over the man's battered and bleeding features. "Doing better than you, I reckon." He gestured in the direction of the long, grassy, tree-dotted incline they had rolled down. "We have to get back up there to the road, or we could be here for days."
Chris concentrated on focusing toward where JD was pointing. Whatever aches he had before, seemed insignificant to what he was feeling now, cracked ribs at least, he figured, and very little sensitivity in most of his left leg now other than persistent, burning pain. Add to that his throbbing head, Chris seriously doubted he had enough energy left to get back up to the highway.
"Sure, Kid…just let me catch my breath. What time is it?"
JD checked his watch, and was relieved to see it was still working. "5:20 am," he gave a slight shake of his head. "We must've been out overnight."
Larabee didn't seem concerned. "We were pretty beat."
JD snorted a soft laugh. "In more ways than one." He looked at his battered leader and hoped he wouldn't piss him off with his next comment. "Chris, I can help you…" he gestured to the climb ahead, "...to get up to the road."
Larabee tried to smile, but he knew he failed, miserably, when he hissed in pain, instead. He nodded. "I might hold you to that, son." He watched JD shakily stand. The young agent held onto the tree while he regulated his breathing, before finally straightening.
"I'll see if I can find the branch you were using." JD sighed, and glanced around. "I think I lost one of the cans of soda, too."
Chris nodded. "Don't wear yourself out; we'll have to make a start soon if we're gonna clear that hill before dark." Between the steepness of the ascent, and their injuries, Larabee figured it was going to take them a long time to get back up there. 'Before dark' might actually be a little optimistic.
JD agreed, his eyes again scrutinizing his boss and noting the new cuts and scrapes and the way he was now holding his arm around his middle. "Sure."
Chris was doing the same, taking in the bright bruises, and a fresh, oozing cut somewhere under the boy's soaked bangs. He shivered. Considering they'd been down here overnight, he was amazed they weren't more chilled. Thank God it was summer, it could be pretty fresh in the mountains at night, even during the warmest weather, but the rain kept the climate mild. Coupled with the fact they had landed in dense shrubbery during their unplanned tumble, which must have protected them to a degree, Chris was in no doubt they'd had a lucky escape.
He smiled inwardly to see JD return with a new, but no less sturdy stick, and resisted the urge to scream like a girl when the boy helped him up ready to make the climb. Neither man was up to it, but both knew they had to try. The pair would soon appreciate the meaning behind the phrase 'inching along'.
JD was worried. He knew he was stronger and fitter physically than ever before in his life, but he seriously doubted he had enough strength to get them both back to the road. He was also still wondering if the car they had dived away from, really was Mennir's men come back to finish them off. He watched Chris grimace in pain and worried further if they weren't aggravating serious injuries by continuing on.
But he also knew Chris was no quitter and needed to do this. And so did he. With a nod to himself as if answering his own questions, JD got Chris balanced, slipped under the arm without the crutch, and, with a silent agreement passing between them, they began their arduous, slippery climb.
Five men brushed themselves off after an uncomfortable night on a dusty cabin floor, and drank the coffee from one of three thermos flasks they had with them. They passed on breakfast, and prepared to retrace their steps from the night before. It was barely dawn but, confident they would find their friends on the trail down, they were eager to move out. Vin had re-communicated their conclusions to the amassing ground teams, but was reminded, as no solid evidence had yet to be found of the two missing agents using that particular road, they would continue dividing up, with one proviso, that the chopper, complete with thermal imager, would head their way, first.
With the truck loaded and ready to go, the five men boarded the vehicle and headed out.
As the injured pair grunted, struggled, slipped and hobbled up and over loose shale, wet grass, and leaves, it truly felt like one step forward, two steps back. JD's iron grip on his boss ensured, albeit slowly, that they made each step forward, count. Both men were drenched in sweat, Chris's blond hair appearing darker, as it clung to his head, while JD's bangs fell forward, occasionally smacking him in the eyes as the moisture heavy fronds swung with each labored step. They dared not look up, for fear of realizing just how little progress they had made. So they kept going, heads down, and the makeshift crutch poking down into the dirt as Chris planted it hard to aid his ascent.
Chris hated to admit it, even to himself, but he was fading, fast. His lungs were burning, tightening his chest, which in turn made his ribs protest at the extra abuse. Add to that the pain in his head and re-ignited in his foot and leg from the exertion, and he was seriously concerned about going much further. He hated being such a burden on the kid, who was saying nothing, bar the odd grunt here and there, but Chris knew this had to be killing him, too.
JD was in hell. There wasn't a part of him that wasn't hurting in some way, and his head was aching mercilessly from the earlier whack it took during their tumble. Chris was doing great, considering his injuries, but the load of his injured friend, together with his own injuries, plus the steepness of the climb, were taking their toll on the young agent. A break was out of the question, he feared they'd never get going again.
Suddenly, the tree limb Chris was relying on, snapped, causing the older man to howl out as he went to the ground and started slipping, taking JD with him. For a moment or two, the pair slid, until JD managed to grab a sapling, clutched Chris's outstretched hand, and held on for all he was worth. His and Chris's bodies quaked from the effort as they hung there and waited for the mini landslide beneath them, to end. Once the shale under their feet stopped rolling, JD was able to release his death-like grip on the young tree and check on Chris.
"You okay?" JD knew it was a stupid question, but he had no idea what else to say.
"Top of the world," Chris panted back, but there was no malice in it. Seconds later, he became concerned with how quiet JD had gone; then he noticed the youth untie his jacket from his waist, and do the same for Chris.
"Put your jacket on."
Deciding that arguing would just waste energy, with JD's help, Chris did just that. He frowned when JD handed him his own jacket.
"Put mine on, but upside-down."
"JD, is your head hurting?"
The kid allowed himself a small grin. "Just do it…trust me." He held the jacket by the hem to allow Chris to slip his arms down inside and toward the collar.
"Lie down, Chris."
JD took both of their ties, and while tethering them together, silently thanked Vin for teaching him some neat knots. He then tied them around Chris in order to keep his arms tight to his sides. JD took hold of what was once the bottom hemline of his jacket and which now lay under Chris and above his head.
"Just relax and let me take the strain."
To the blond's surprise, he began to slide upwards.
With Chris's arms neatly tucked down into the reverted jacket, and secured, JD grabbed the hemline and started pulling Chris up. Not quite the travois Vin would have made, but it was doing the job as the pair painstakingly edged back up the hill. Chris's own jacket protected his back, with gravity and motion keeping it in place as he slid jerkily upwards. The blond instinctively clutched at the belt on his pants, to ensure his hands would remain rigid to his body.
This might just work.
Larabee had to admit as he kept moving that JD's idea was not only effective, but a welcome respite for him; though he hated what the effort must be doing to JD. That thought, however, began to fade as Chris finally lost his battle with the unrelenting pain and slipped into a restless sleep.
Feeling a slight tug at the material, JD turned to see that Chris was out. He took a moment and looked down at his fingers. They were bleeding from the strain of clinging to the material, and his features creased in thought as he figured how to proceed. Slipping off his belt, he ripped out the pocket linings, looped the strap through the material, and secured the buckle. Taking the belt in his hand, he dug in his heels and used his free hand to cling to anything in order to gain purchase. JD dropped his body to a low, almost all fours position, and tugged his precious cargo slowly up the incline. He tried hard not to choke up on the fact that Chris was no longer awake, and focused instead on the task at hand. JD really wasn't sure if he had the energy to get to the top, but he'd give it his all, and keep hoping that help would arrive, soon. A thought crossed his mind, bringing a frown to his clammy features at the idea of being found unconscious, and with his beltless pants around his ankles.
With the flat of his hand, Vin slammed the vehicle's dash in frustration. The truck halted at the bottom of the road they were following. "How could we have missed them?"
"Maybe they didn't take this road after all," Ezra offered, recognizing instantly that Vin was not listening.
"Head back to the cabin, Josiah. We'll start again, only this time, I'm gonna jog on in front of the truck." Vin turned around in the front passenger seat to look at the others. "They're out there…I know it, we just have to figure out why they left the main path."
"Okay then, let's go."
Buck's own misery over these events was compounded by not finding them, but their spirits lifted on the way back up the mountain when told that the chopper was close.
Once back outside the cabin, Josiah drove the truck slowly down along the route while Ezra, Buck, and Vin walked together in a line, in front. They were looking for tracks, marks, a personal item, anything, to prove they were not on a wild goose chase. Nathan was sitting next to Josiah in the truck; a decision made by the others in order to keep him fresh for when he was needed. The team's EMT was mentally calculating all that Chris and JD might have suffered. The blood on the cabin floor and chimneybreast suggested lacerations; the branches and torn blanket, that a limb might be broken. Having spent a second night outside…and in the rain, they could also be suffering from exposure, while there might be internal injuries, also. It became too much for the tender-hearted medic to stomach, but his despair was cut short when Vin became animated.
Tanner's heart clenched at the first sign he spotted, and almost thumped out of his ribcage at the second and third. The rain had interfered with the tracks, but they were still there; shoe prints and a small hollow that looked to be caused by something narrow and load-bearing.
Buck was glancing around, his own excitement building while he fought against the rising terror of how they could have missed the pair. His gut told him the reason was not good. He cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted.
Buck's voice echoed around the dense forestry, but his only answer was startled birds taking flight from the treetops around them. The three stood in silence in the hope of hearing a reply, but there was nothing. The distant thrum of rotor wash caused them to look up and they watched the chopper hover and pass over several times, before they returned to the truck to wait on Josiah as he radioed their base of operations. Their eyes went wide as Josiah opened the door, pointed ahead and jagged his indication wildly to the left.
"Ahead and left! Two readings down an embankment, one hot, one cool!"
As the three took off running down the road, Josiah got back in his seat and pulled off to follow. Nathan's butt was almost touching the roof as he leaned over his seat back to gather his supplies and equipment.
JD was glad Chris was out of it, because his grunts and heavy panting were becoming kind of embarrassing. The muscles in his arms burned from pulling Chris along and he really wanted to just lie down and sleep. But he wouldn't, as he couldn't bear that his teammates and friends would be disappointed in him if he gave up. JD dug in and forged on.
He looked up when he thought he heard something…or someone…but the only movement was some birds taking flight somewhere further up the mountainside. With a heavy sigh of disappointment, JD continued, but halted again at the unmistakable sound of a helicopter above him. He again looked up, and this time caught glimpses of the aircraft through the dense woodland canopy. He whooped on realizing that it was hovering - they'd been found - someone up there knew they were here. He and Chris were still a good way from the top of the incline, but it didn't matter now, someone was looking for them - everything was gonna be okay.
"Hang on, Chris…they've found us…just hold on, Bossman, we're going home!"
JD's stomach churned and he froze as a chilling thought suddenly crossed his mind. Who exactly were they? Were there good or bad guys in that helicopter?
The three agents continued to scan the ground as they ran. All three halted when Vin raised a hand. He studied the immediate ground, and then pointed toward the bushes. "The trail leads to here."
Josiah stopped the truck and the five men peered over the ridge of a long gradient that fell away sharply. Their eyes tracked a zigzagging trail of flattened grass and, just beyond a sparse line of trees they spotted a figure a third of the way up the incline. All five howled out in excitement and Buck hollered.
His heart was pounding. JD was sure now that he could hear something from the road above. The sound of a familiar voice calling out had the young man grinning; well, he hoped he was, he ached so much he wasn't sure what his face was doing right then. He looked up and spotted five familiar figures. He waved a weary hand.
His voice was weak, and hoarse from dehydration, but his cry got a reaction. Unfortunately, so did his next actions. The effort of looking up and waving caused a rush of giddiness and JD lost his balance.
"Oh, shoot! Aaaaaaaaaaahhhh!"
He just managed to release his hold on the belt before his feet lost purchase on the loose shale. The youth yelled out as he toppled backwards and bounced down the hillside, coming to a crunching stop on the floor of the gradient. He lay there winded, and in way too much pain to move.
Buck chuckled as he saw JD react and wave, only to cry out in despair as the youth went tumbling back down the slope. Three of the men reacted instantly, Tanner half-ran, half-bounced down the gradient at breakneck speed. Buck followed right behind, sliding most of the way down on his ass. With the momentum they had built up, neither man was able to stop where Chris lay.
Ezra was being no less reckless, but on hearing Buck and Vin's calls back, succeeded in easing up just before he reached the prone form of Chris Larabee. He instantly checked for a pulse, and was openly relieved to find a steady one. Nathan and Josiah were directly with him, and Nathan started his examination immediately, while urging Josiah to go on down to JD, Vin, and Buck.
Tanner reached JD seconds before Wilmington, both men momentarily hesitant to check him over. Buck uttered a heartfelt cry when Vin confirmed a strong pulse. On hearing JD moan, the taller man lay face down alongside the kid to try to keep him grounded. Noting Vin look wistfully back up the hill, Buck patted his arm.
"Go see how the old war dog's doing."
With a grateful nod to Buck, and the softest of touches to JD's head, Vin hiked back up toward Chris, hi-fiving Josiah as their paths crossed. Above them, rescue teams were arriving. The chopper had nowhere to land, or enough clearance to airlift, so the two casualties would have to carried back up to the road before being transported by chopper to the hospital.
A groan caused Nathan to halt his examination. "Chris? Hey…Chris? Can you hear me?"
"Not…deaf, Nathan…just fucking… uncomfortable."
The medic and undercover agent laughed. Both looked up as Vin arrived.
"Hey Cowboy, you and JD been campin' out without me?"
Chris gratefully swallowed the water Nathan offered, before finally opening pain-filled eyes. He smiled crookedly at the three men. "Something…like that…yeah. What about Mennir?"
"Long gone, pard…but don't you fret none, he's top of our Christmas list."
Chris slowly nodded. "Damn straight, he is…" He frowned, and then his eyes opened wide. "Vin…JD, where's JD?"
Tanner glanced at Nathan and Ezra, and then squeezed Chris's hand. "With Buck and Josiah." It wasn't a lie, but Vin felt it better to not go into detail at this point. "Rest easy, Larabee, you're goin' for a little ride to that stinky place with nice beds and pretty nurses."
Chris raised an eyebrow, and even that hurt. "Buck's room?"
The twinkle in the injured man's eyes made the three men grin.
"My…foot?" Chris asked.
"Broke your ankle I reckon," Nathan offered.
Chris sighed and relaxed back. "Figured…" Unable to stay awake, he drifted off. Minutes later, he was being prepped and stretchered up to a waiting air-ambulance.
JD groaned again and Buck moved nearer, not that he had much ground to make up. "Hey…Kid…you hear me?"
"Buck? That really you?"
"Sure is, Josiah too." The brunet grinned on seeing one hazel eye peeking at him, his hand moving to rest supportively against JD's head.
"Good to see you, John Dunne."
"Wanna go home, guys…I've had enough…now."
"You will," Buck promised. "As soon as you've been checked by…"
"Chris!" JD interrupted, urgency in his voice, despite being unable, or unwilling to move much. "Buck…Chris is hurt…"
"We know," Josiah assured. "Ezra, Nathan, and Vin are with him, so just concentrate on staying still, help is on the way."
"Got any pizza...? I'm starved."
Buck smiled, but it was more to hide the painful thought of when Chris and JD had last eaten. "Damn, I knew I'd forgotten something."
A newly arrived Nathan offered JD a few sips of water. After drinking, the boy's eyes closed and he slipped into slumber to the sound of Buck's voice telling him rest was good.
Forty-eight hours later, and both agents were awake in their hospital room and enjoying the company of friends. Still connected to fluid, antibiotic, and pain relief IVs, neither man spoke much. Both just sat up in bed while listening to the banter of men they trusted with their lives.
It was confirmed; Chris had broken his ankle and had severe bruising to his shin and foot. Both casualties had amassed multiple cuts and contusions, and were suffering mild concussions. Chris was also diagnosed with mild hypothermia, but their progress over the last two days had been steady and the hospital was satisfied enough to release them the next day.
When they dropped by to check on him and JD, Larabee conveyed his thanks to the men and women of the various law enforcement departments, some of whom had given up their personal time to help look for them. It made him proud to be a part of a unit that took care of its own so doggedly.
There was a lull in the conversation before all eyes turned to JD when he spoke, softly.
"I keep seeing and hearing those cops being gunned down in the courthouse. I can't get it of my head." His statement was filled with raw emotion, and all six men nodded their understanding.
Chris spoke. "Nothing wrong with feeling that way, Kid. What happened back there will never be forgotten, and Mennir and his psychos are going down hard when we get hold of them." His gaze softened. "Just remember that a lot more people survived, Kid, including us, and hold onto that." He looked at the others, shifting his elevated leg a little to get comfortable.
"Listen up, Kid, 'cause I'm not making a habit of this. You got us through it, JD, you got us to here, so you hold on to that fact, too. I couldn't be more proud of you. You got true grit, son."
There was a long pause while JD choked back admiration for a man that had kept him going no less than he did for Chris. "You're no slouch yourself, Bossman," he said, quietly, a hint of a smile on his face.
Buck grinned, and winked wickedly as he sipped from the glass of milk on JD's nightstand. "True Grit…wasn't that a John Wayne film?"
All seven men laughed, softly; for no real reason, but it sure felt good. The team couldn't really count this particular event as a success, apart from finding their two friends alive and well after suffering at the hands of the infamous gunrunner's murdering goons.
Mennir was still out there, with the blood of honorable men on his hands and conscience. And Larabee vowed that long before his cast was off, the hunt was on.
But that was for later, for now it was enough to sit it out with people who demonstrated daily that they were everything Mennir and others like him were not…brave, honorable, caring, and the very best at what they did.
Seven exceptional men standing together as one, and endowed with many outstanding qualities, including a generous helping of true grit.
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