"What are you thinking about so intensely?" Casey asked the reclining figure, while keeping an eagle eye on both of their fishing bobbers.
"Nothin' exciting. Just appreciating getting away for a day, the beautiful weather, the fact the fish aren't botherin' me." A well-worn cap covered his eyes preventing her from seeing if they were open or closed.
"Just that? That's all you were thinking about?" A touch of sadness tinged her voice and she stared out at the waves repeating their journey to shore.
Quickly JD reached out and grabbed her around the waist, pulling her down beside him on the soft grass. Just as quick he rolled on top pinning her to the ground. "I was thinking more but I didn't want to interrupt your fishing. After all you promised to cook whatever we caught." Grinning at her stunned expression he added, "But I'd rather cook you right now!"
With his body resting on top of hers and his kiss effectively shutting down her common sense she barely noticed the tug on her pole. The impatient catch yanked again in its attempt to swim away. "Ouch!"
Just as quick as he'd captured her, JD released his girlfriend when he heard her painful cry. "What's wrong?" he asked, afraid he'd hurt her in some way.
Casey sat up and began reeling in her line. "I had the line wrapped around my finger and something's caught on my hook."
Not regretting the fish's intrusion on his friendly tussle, he picked up his own pole to check for bait. Catching supper on a bare hook seldom worked, they'd discovered before.
Casey stood and added the bass to the half-full stringer suspended in the cool water. "Hate to interrupt your nap but we should think about heading back. Seems that line of dark clouds is headed this way."
"What I wouldn't give to spend a week out here, doing nothing. Course I'd want some good company so I wouldn't get bored or into trouble."
"JD, trouble finds you no matter where you set your hat. But you're right. Day like today, way the sun was shining but not too hot, was real rejuvenating." She put her arms around his neck and pulled him lower. "Suppose there's time for a swim before we head back to the car." Her suggestive voice implied more fun than splashing and scaring off of the fish.
Deepening the kiss, they forgot about the need to get chilled in the water. "Wish I'd remembered the blanket," he whispered, raising her tank top while she unbuttoned his shirt.
Breaking away from him, Casey looked out at the water again. "Did you hear that?" She cocked her ear toward the reeds.
"Hear what? I didn't hear anything."
"Shhh. I thought I heard someone crying but I don't hear it now."
JD listened to the natural sounds surrounding them, the lapping of the water, birds calling to one another, the gentle wind rustling the poplar leaves.
After standing silent for several moments, Casey reached down to grab her pole when JD caught her hand. "I heard it too. Come on. We can get this stuff later."
They walked along the shore, peering into the reeds and other vegetation. After following the bank for five minutes, they stopped hoping to hear the mysterious sounds again. Nothing unexplainable reached their ears but they both knew they heard something unnatural, something that definitely didn't belong in the great outdoors. "We'll go another five minutes. Looks clearer up ahead." JD held her hand as they pulled low hanging branches out of the way. The loud piercing cry of a baby sent them both into a mad dash down the small bank to the water's edge. Fifty feet from shore a small boat bobbed in the calm water. To their horror, two little blond heads peered over the gunwale screaming.
"Casey, stay here. I'll swim out and try to pull the boat to shore. I just hope they don't jump out at me. Try talking to them, see if'n they'll quiet down and quit screaming." The young man handed her his watch and pager before removing his shirt. He waded into cool water, the soft silt shifting below his feet. Ten feet out from shore the water reached his waist where he dove out and with powerful strokes soon reached the small craft.
He heard Casey's voice calling to the children as he surfaced for a breath. "Stay in the boat. We get you to shore real soon. Don't be afraid. You're safe. Stay in the boat." Her gentle litany calmed the little ones fears and JD could hear the soft hiccupping sobs. Looking for a tie-down, he discovered polypropylene secured to an anchor, an anchor large enough to prevent the small craft from drifting. A large red and white fishing bobber attached to the line marked the location of the anchor so he untied the knot at the stern and began pulling the boat and its miniature crew to shore.
When his feet could touch bottom again, he stood and pushed the moss colored craft to shore. As he came out of the water he got his first glimpse of the little passengers. Two fair skinned, blond headed toddlers sat at one end, both wearing a harness anchored to the oarlocks. A third passenger, a small infant, sat strapped in an infant carrier firmly grommeted to the seat. Three pairs of large dark eyes watched him as he pushed the boat up to the water's edge.
"JD, there's a baby in here. Who would strap their children into a boat without life jackets?"
"The boat wasn't adrift. It was anchored out there. I don't know how long they sat out here but it couldn't have been too long, seeing how they don't look sunburnt."
The baby squirmed in its seat and the other two began crying again. Casey helped JD pull the boat up the bank away from the water before unstrapping the infant. Shivering the young agent spoke, "Good thing we didn't take that swim. That lake's still dang cold."
"Put your shirt on. Can you hold the baby while I try to calm the other two?"
"Casey, I don't know nothin' about holding babies."
"Just pretend its one of Chris's excited mares or its colt. The baby will get the message. She handed him the baby and he was surprised at how much the little tyke actually weighed.
"Mama, Mama," squealed the larger of the two toddlers.
"Shhh, little one. Can you tell me your name? It's ok. Let me get your pal unhooked and then I'll hold you both." She looked over at JD surprised to see him cooing and gently rocking the baby, its eyes glued to his every expression. "You look natural doing that." Her smiled warmed his shivering body as he returned his attention to the tiny child in his arms.
They carried the three children away from the lake and sat down in the small meadow, a picturesque spot except for the horror of finding abandoned, helpless children in a boat on the lake. "I can't believe someone would intentionally do this." JD felt the anger at the crime rising as he softly stroked the baby's face. Rewarded with a smile, he couldn't help but return the gesture.
"Should we wait to see if someone comes for them or should we take them back to the car and call the authorities?"
Looking up at the darkening sky and then down at his arm, he opened his mouth to speak just as Casey dug his watch out of her short's pocket. "It's almost six."
"Let's head back to the car. With the rain coming we'll be lucky to keep them dry. We can let the local authorities handle this." The baby in JD's arm, its thumb firmly planted in its mouth, slept oblivious to the discussion. Contentment filled both the child and the young man holding her. The two toddlers clung to Casey's neck with a chokehold.
"Case, do you think you can find the way back to our stuff? Why don't you take the baby and lead the way. I'll follow carrying these two."
JD removed his shirt and wrapped it around the slumbering infant to protect her from the weeds and branches. He handed the precious package to his girlfriend before taking the two boys into his arms. Carrying them through the thick undergrowth would be a chore but at dusk insects would eat them alive. Wrapping their small arms around his neck, the boys, though no longer crying, held him tight. "Let's head out."
What began as a short hike around the lake became a major undertaking. Originally JD and Casey followed the lakeshore when they searched for the mysterious sound. Now they needed to progress with greater care to prevent injury to themselves and their cargo. Not wanting to get lost in the thick vegetation, Casey tried to keep site of the shimmering lake but as the spring sun set early she only could depend on her ears to keep track of the direction.
Stopping suddenly she motioned to JD to keep the children quiet. Stepping up to his ear she whispered, "I heard someone talking."
"Aren't we about back to our fishing hole?"
Nodding her head she replied. "That's where I think they are."
The children, lulled to sleep by the walking began to stir. JD gently laid the twins on the ground and Casey sat beside them, rocking the baby.
"I'll go check it out." He gave her a quick peck on the cheek before disappearing into the darkness. Crickets chirped their weather reports while in the distance she heard the splash of something hitting the water. The baby's thumb fell out of her mouth and squirming signaled her awakening.
Under any other circumstances Casey would have believed today to be perfect. She and JD finally spent the day together with none of his boisterous team members. She liked the rest of the men JD worked with but they never seemed to be able to spend quiet time together alone. Between her class schedule and his work something always seemed to interrupt.
Her thoughts returned to their wrestling just before she first heard the babies crying. Could she have stopped him from continuing? Would she have wanted to stop him and stop herself from the romantic romp in the grass? Her body still ached to be held in his arms, to have his lips nuzzle her ears and neck but was she ready to give herself to him? He'd made no promises of a future together, only admitting that he cared deeply for her. Maybe someday they would be taking their own babies to the lake but was she ready to chance that happening now?
The little girl's eyes opened and Casey could barely see them in the dusk. A tiny smile blossomed from her lips before she started smacking them together. Cooing silently, the two girls shared a peaceful moment. Casey felt her heart fill with maternal love for the abandoned infant. "I promise. We'll get you back to your mama, little one."
The report of gunfire startled the young woman and she jumped to her feet. She heard JD crash through the underbrush before she saw him.
"Head for the car," he yelled, as he bent down to grab the sleeping boys. Saving his breath for the race ahead he didn't elaborate but she could hear rustling coming from closer to the lake. She held her precious package and followed the dark head leading the way. Few paths crisscrossed the secluded lake and JD created his own trail, attempting to evade their pursuers. The added weight of the two toddlers didn't hinder his breathing but his tension telegraphed fear to them and they screamed in his ears.
Gunfire followed them through the trees before shouting stopped the barrage. At least someone was concerned about not harming the children. Casey and JD parked a half-mile from the lake but their circuitous route covered twice as much distance. Without warning JD stopped and tried to calm the terrified toddlers while Casey attempted to pull oxygen into her lungs.
Unable to speak her eyes asked the fearful questions. Breathing deeply but not abnormally he smiled at her. "They kidnapped them for ransom." He paused and cuddled each of the children closer. "I don't think we're going to be able to get to the car. I bet they found it first before findin' our fishing gear."
"What are we going to do, JD?" The baby in her arms took a deep breath and let loose with a piercing cry.
"We've gotta outrun them and get help before they catch us. Let's try to stay parallel to the blacktop, heading back towards town. Somebody's got to be looking for the kidnappers." JD readjusted his load when gunfire ripped through the trees. He stumbled slightly while getting a firm hold on the children and yelled at Casey, "Run like your life depends on it cause it does!" They headed back into the dark, deeply wooded area. Small branches whipped JD's naked back and shoulders while thorns and briars grabbed at their bare legs. Putting his academy training into practice he knew they only possessed a slim chance to avoid capture. Carrying three small children in need of food, water and probably a diaper change complicated their ability to melt into the landscape but he would find a way to protect their young lives and the life of the most precious person he knew, Casey.
Ten minutes later Casey tripped over a partially hidden stick and almost dropped the sobbing baby. Unable to breath she grabbed at her side, the stitch doubling her over. "Go on. I can't run anymore."
"Get up, Casey. We can't quit now. I think we're almost to the main highway. When we get there I'll find a place for you and the babies to hide while I try to flag down a car.
The trees nearer the road thinned and for the first time since the shooting started she saw his face. Small rivulets of blood ran down the left side of his face but a large gash marred his hairline near his right temple. Sweat slicked his skin as he fought the urge to set the boys on the ground. "We gotta keep movin' before they find us again."
"JD, you're hurt."
"Don't matter now, we gotta go!" With his arms full he was unable to assist Casey getting up. They walked slower, the children crying themselves to sleep. Following JD, Casey watched where she stepped hoping to avoid any hidden dangers when her shoestring came untied and snagged between two sticks, sending her to her knees. The man in front of her kept walking, oblivious to her fall. She almost cried out but held back her retort in fear that voices carried further in the forest. Was there someone watching them from behind every tree, waiting to shoot them? Swallowing her panic, she laid the baby on the ground and quickly tied the offending shoelace. Grabbing the baby back into her arms she raced after the three boys not wanting to loose them in the darkness. Unable to see them clearly she almost tripped again when she ran into JD's prone form on the ground.
"JD," she whispered. "JD," she repeated a little louder. No response came from the unconscious man. "Oh my!" Both boys awoke from falling into the bed of pine needles and she set the baby between the semi-awake children. Reaching out to shake her friend awake, she grabbed his thigh and felt the sticky, wet substance. Barely able to make out the growing dark stain on his denim cutoffs, she knew they were in deep trouble. He'd been shot in the leg, too, yet walked this far carrying both boys.
The forest seemed silent, almost too quiet. There was no way she could carry JD, the boys and the little baby girl but where could she leave them where they would be safe, where the little toddlers wouldn't run away, where the true inhabitants of the woods wouldn't decide to have a midnight snack on all of them? JD needed medical attention soon and the children needed nourishment. What should she do?
The flash of headlights and the hum of tires above her head revealed the solution. They'd made it to the highway. Now all she needed to do was to flag down someone to help her. Hopefully they would also have a cell phone or radio to call for help.
Casey looked around for a safe place to hide the children when a weak voice startled her. "Leave 'em go git help."
Smiling, with tears running down her face, she knelt beside the man and tenderly kissed his bloody face while helping him to lean on a tree trunk. "Got to tie the babies to you in case they decide to go exploring without us."
"Goo' thinkin'. Use m'belt." He struggled to stay awake. "Loop it through through spenders." Gently she pulled the leather accessory from around his waist and threaded it through both boys' overalls before slipping it between a couple of his belt loops. After closing the buckle, she picked up the baby and set her on JD's lap. Her hand lightly caressed the fine hair and she kissed the top of the infant's head. "Be good little ones." Giving JD one final kiss, she saw the faint smile grace his lips as his eyes shut.
Crickets once again chirped while birds and bats swooped through the night air hunting another meal. The roadway sat higher than where she left the others sleeping so she attempted to scramble up the steep slope. Her knee throbbed and she felt the trickle of blood but if JD could run several miles with a bullet in his leg she could certainly climb a short ways to the road with a skinned knee.
No headlights cut through the darkness and she realized the sun set hours ago. The sliver of moon hung on the horizon and offered little light for her journey. Behind her the approaching storm rumbled and faint flashes of lightning illuminated the churning clouds. Weren't the police and FBI out looking for the missing babies? Did they have a clue of where to find the children? Wasn't Buck worried about his partner? Though a million questions ran through her head she knew the answer to all of them. It was up to her to save JD and the children. Nights got cold in the mountains and the children wore short pants. Unable to silence her racing brain she tried to focus on the best plan and prayed she wouldn't meet the kidnappers hunting for their victims.
Coming around a curve the young college coed spied the approaching lights, lights aimed at the ditch, not the road. Deciding quickly she lay down in the tall grass and hoped the spotlight wouldn't catch her in its beam. Were the kidnappers hunting them along this road? She couldn't take the chance of discovery; they'd come too far to loose the children now. As the car approached she shut her eyes tight, held her breath and pushed herself down into the dirt.
The vehicle slowly drove by but she remained frozen, expecting them to return and search again. The vehicle stopped and someone opened a car door. "He really figure they made it this far toting them brats? I know I winged that fellow; he just wouldn't go down."
"Get back in the car. Dell wants us to search the highway, we search the highway. Kids ain't nothin' but a heap a trouble."
Hearing the door slam and the car motor rev she counted to one hundred before lifting her head. The coast was clear but she expected the kidnappers to return and search this stretch of roadway again.
JD felt the pain radiate from the bullet wound in his leg. Thousands of needles jabbed into the tender flesh sending pain signals to his brain. One of the boys moved beside him and JD covered his mouth to muffle the resulting pain. The rough tree bark scraped his scratched back. Could this night get any worse?
The first raindrop to hit him in the face answered his question. He shifted the sleeping children, trying to protect them from the cold moisture. As the storm grew with intensity the winds increased, pelting his aching body. The little girl whimpered beneath her brothers, her hitching cries penetrated JD's soul, before she lacked the energy to continue and she fell back to sleep.
Wrapping himself around the children he said a prayer for Casey. He trusted her to get assistance. Gradually the storm wore itself out; the thunder faded in the distance. Random drops of moisture fell from the tree in a kind of foreign torture, striking his face. Eventually even that stimulation couldn't keep him awake and he drifted into a restless sleep.
Walking several miles, Casey saw the sign and tears began to stream down her face. She wasn't walking toward the town; the turnoff to the lake was just ahead. A flash of lightning sobered her out of self-pity and she made the decision to try to get to her car. Both JD's and her cell phones sat in the trunk and that was a lot closer than meeting up with the 'searching kidnappers' again.
A half hour and several small hills later the small parking area appeared. Large raindrops left poke-a-dotted patterns on the roadway and the constant rumbling thunder covered the sound of any approaching cars. Wrapping her fingers around the keys she crawled through the tall grass, hoping to camouflage her approach to the car. A sharp streak of lightning followed almost immediately by booming thunder revealed no one near the car. She ran to the trunk, ignoring the pounding rain pelting her back. The rain ran in her eyes obscuring the lock but taking a deep breath she succeeding in open the small area. Grabbing her coat she found the small device. With the phone wrapped in the coat she slammed the trunk and crawled into her car. Waiting for her heartbeat to slow she watched the area for someone to challenge her but no one appeared.
"Please work," she prayed. She knew the phones worked from this location because JD called Buck before they left the car, but electrical storm raised havoc with the small communication devices. Another loud crack shook the ground but only static came from the phone. Not want to run the battery down, she shut it off. Storms usually passed quickly in the mountains, giving her another opportunity to call for help. She put the key in the ignition and turned it. Nothing! Trying again she looked at her dashboard; no lights, no gauges, nothing worked!
The rain pummeled her car as she stared at the water cascading down the windshield. She was so close but with her gamble she lost everything. Her phone didn't work, her car wouldn't start, JD injured and stranded with three babies in a pouring thunderstorm. Kidnappers searched for them. As the storm weakened she tried 911 again and almost jumped out of car when someone answered.
"Please listen. My battery is about to go dead. My car is stalled on the lookout near Possum Lake. We-found-three-babies-but-men-started-shooting-at-us-My-boyfriend's-hurt-. I-came-to-get-help-but-they're-still-out-in-the-forest." Pausing and taking a deep breath she looked at the phone. Dead. With any luck the dispatcher heard enough of her call to send help, help that the children and JD desperately needed.
Casey heard the splash of the tires before she saw the black truck pull into the small lookout. Hiding under the dash was nearly torturous for someone her size and would be downright impossible for anyone larger.
As the bright beam of light searched the car's interior, Casey held her breath. How did they know to search the car again? A fist began pounding on the window and she heard the muffled yell, "Casey!"
Though the voice sounded familiar the intense light prevented her from seeing who was calling. The wet windows acted like a room of mirrors. She was doomed. When the light went out and the pounding resumed, the young woman crawled out from under her jacket and stared into the face of Chris Larabee!
In seconds she unlocked the door and hugged the stoic figure. "JD's in trouble."
"Figured as much. Where is he?" Together they walked towards the black pickup where Buck sat, his arm in a sling.
"Casey, darlin'. Where's the kid?"
Climbing into the truck and scooting toward the middle, Casey waited until Chris closed his door before regaling their adventure. She pointed the direction she'd come while explaining the situation. The truck retraced her route while she looked for landmarks to identify where to stop.
"Buck stay in the truck. We'll get him back to you but I don't want to carry both of you up this ditch."
The flashlight lit the ground and Casey saw a brief light, similar to sun reflecting off something shiny. "That must be them," she yelled, not so carefully descending the slope.
JD lay on his side, in a feeble but not successful attempt to shield the babies from the cold precipitation. None of the four moved or made a sound at Chris and Casey's approach.
Taking command, Chris ordered, "Start carrying the children up to Buck. I'll need your help to move JD." They each carried a cold still form to the waiting truck. The two boys were placed on the jump seat and wrapped in a plaid blanket. Casey returned shortly with the smallest child, placing her into the older man's lap. She added her coat to swaddle the tiny tot.
Chris attached a towrope to his truck without speaking to his friend but the steely gaze spoke volumes. The kid was in trouble, serious trouble. Returning to the bottom Chris returned to JD's side. The slope was steep, nearly impossible carrying a 30-pound child. How could he carry his injured friend to safety? Noise and commotion from above caught his attention as he waited for Casey to join him and he looked up in time to see floodlights and the recognizable strobe from the cherry lights.
"Let me help you, sir." The short man in a brown uniform spread the dark green blanket over JD's body. " I'm Sheriff Douglas, Blade County. An ambulance is in route." Chris shook the officer's hand and responded, "Chris Larabee, ATF." Pointing at the inert man on the ground he added, "He's one of my men, JD Dunne."
"Your partner in the truck explained. We got the 911 call from the girl. I've sent her with the children on to the hospital. Any sign of the perpetrators of this crime?"
"None that I've seen. Casey tell you she heard them searching this stretch of highway?"
"I didn't get all the details. My deputy will take her statement after she's treated. What's the extent of this fellow's injuries?"
The two law officers assessed the young man's condition while they heard the ambulance crew prepare to evacuate him. With the proper tools JD was strapped onto the board and carried up to the waiting vehicle. Though ordered by Chris to remain in the truck, Buck shuffled over to the patient's side. Though unconscious, bruised and battered, it did the older man's heart and soul good to see his little brother.
"Come on Buck, back in the truck. We'll follow the ambulance to the hospital." Adding their official lights to the procession the three vehicles drove the twenty miles to the nearest medical facility.
Casey greeted them in the emergency room, a white blanket wrapped around her shoulders and sporting large gauze pads on her knees. She melted into Chris's embrace where the tears she refused to spill earlier flooded her face. "How is he?" she choked between sobs.
"They've taken him into surgery, to get the bullet out of his leg. If'n he don't develop any complications or infections the doctor figured he'd be fine. How are the children?"
"I didn't see them after we got here though a nurse said that once they got warm and some food they should be alright."
"The parents here?" Buck asked sitting in a borrowed wheel chair.
She shrugged her shoulders and saw another officer approaching their group. "Agents Larabee, Wilmington. Miss Wells. Felt you deserved enlightenment to the situation. The children, Alyssa, Jared and Tyler, were taken this morning from their caregiver's home. Someone kidnapped them while they were napping. The caregiver received a severe head wound attempting to stop the perpetrators. The father, Henry Conklin, is wealthy. He didn't receive the ransom note demanding one hundred grand until returning home this evening. Course them notes always say 'do not call the police'. The FBI joined the state patrol searching for these fellows, thanks to your description." He nodded at the pale young woman sitting next to the somber agent.
Moments later a nurse quietly interrupted and said, "Mr. Dunne is in his room. I'm sure he'd like to see a familiar face about now."
Chris and Casey jumped out of their chairs to follow the nurse through the hallways. The senior agent grabbed Buck's wheelchair knowing steering the contraption with only one arm was downright near impossible. The modern hospital, constructed on one level, housed each department in a separate pod or wing. Visitors often got lost attempting to navigate the hallways connecting the complex. Turning the final corner to the general medical wing, the woman stopped and stared at the commotion by one door. Doctors and security converged in the room while the signal light above the door continued to flash and chime.
Buck sighed, "Don't tell me, it's the kid's room."
Chris ran forward toward the commotion while Casey stood back with JD's stranded friend. "What's going on? What's the matter?" He pushed himself into the throng of people in time to see two security guards manhandle a well-dressed gray haired man away from the boy's bed. JD's head rested on the formerly white pillow. Blood trickled down his face from the reopened cut, his nose and his battered lips. Though an IV was inserted in his right hand, he still used it to hold his side as he gasped for a breath. A nurse up righted the IV pole and began reprogramming the infusion pump.
"I'm sorry sir, you'll have to leave." One of the security men grabbed the ATF agent's arm, herding him toward the door.
"Get your hand off me and tell me what just happened to my agent!" Chris was livid. Bad enough the boy stumbled into a mess on his day off without be accosted in the small hospital. From the corner of his eye Chris noticed the other security officers pull the acquiescent, older gentleman out the door, whatever anger possessing him previous vanished.
"Step out of the doctor's way, outside and I'll explain. Please sir, we're only impeding their treatment of your friend."
Casey pushed Buck to Chris's side as the uniformed guard stepped out of the room. "Are these more friends of his?" he asked nodding toward the patient room behind him.
"What's the matter with JD? Is he alright?" Casey's voice edged toward panic.
"Start explaining. I don't think you realize who you are dealing with." Though low in volume the security officer understood every word and cringed.
Licking his lips and taking a deep breath he started. "The patient, well, we think that Mr. Conklin misunderstood the deputy and, well, the old man musta thought that that boy was one of the kidnappers. I'm sorry; we got here as soon as the nurses paged us. Give them a chance to get things cleaned up in there before you go see your friend."
"What will happen to the old man?" Buck demanded. He hated not being able to look folks in the eye. Yelling into someone's shirt buttons didn't carry the same impact as breathing right in their face.
Casey ignored the actions of the three men as she slipped closer to the open door. Three people hovered around the hospital bed blocking her view but she could see JD's dark hair contrasting with the white pillow. Unable to hear all of the conversation she heard enough to send her heart racing again. X-rays, stitches, transfusions never signaled good news.
A nurse pushed past her while offering a kind smile. "Go ahead," she whispered. "Let him know you're here."
Timidly the exhausted girl stepped into room. Sunlight beckoned out the window signaling the beginning of a new day. Had it only been twenty-four hours since she and JD started their glorious day off together? She reached out to gently caress his uninjured arm when she saw his eyes were open. Smiling she whispered, "Hi."
His eyes brightened upon seeing her. He took shallow breaths through his mouth, waiting for the painkillers to relieve the throbbing in his leg, chest and head. New bruises darkened his pain-etched face but he never took his eyes off her face. She sent him a silent kiss through the air but stepped back as a huge machine rumbled into the room.
"You'll have to step out for a few minute, miss." The same lady who spoke to her minutes earlier touched her arm. Looking down at the pale, young man on the bed she added, "Soon as we're done taking the pictures, she can come sit with you."
Casey walked out the hospital room and looked for Buck and Chris; surprised they hadn't joined her in JD's room.
"Casey, over here." Buck's normal jovial grin didn't grace his handsome face. Had she ever seen him look so defeated?
"They need to take some more x-rays. He's awake."
Chris offered the girl his chair and began pacing the small waiting area. "He hurtin' bad?" Buck asked.
Nodding she asked, "What happened? His face is all banged up and he could hardly breath. Who'd want to hurt him here?" she sobbed, her tired body overruling her usual defenses.
"The babies' father, case of mistaken identity. Casey, darlin', you need some rest. Have you had anything to eat since yesterday?"
"I can't eat, my stomach's tied up in knots. It's all so, I don't know." She shook her head as the kid's roommate took her scraped hand, gently massaging the scabbed skin.
"I understand, sweetheart." His litany of soothing words calmed her jagged nerves like a warm bath and neck rub. "You two are a couple of heros, caring for them babies the way you did. How'd you ever get JD to hold them?"
"He didn't want to at first but he was real good." Her mind wandered back to the small meadow where they first discussed what to do with the children. She began to see her boyfriend in a new light. Sure they had fun doing things together like riding and fishing or maybe catching a movie and a meal together but yesterday she felt something more. Responsibility? No, not really, JD was always responsible for his actions, almost to a fault. Not able to put her finger on the exact word she knew she liked what she'd seen. He was a man able to take charge, willing to defend what was right and proper but he also possessed a tender side that was caring and nurturing.
Casey felt someone nudge her arm and she lifted her head from Buck's shoulder. Had she fallen asleep? Almost in a panic she jumped up from the chair.
Chris caught her arms. "Whoa there. The nurse said we could go sit with JD though I think we should find you someplace more comfortable to sleep."
She smiled at the tough, federal agent, swallowing the cutting remark about his tenderness. She'd seen Chris Larabee turn mean in a heartbeat and she never wanted to be on the receiving end of his ire. Together they pushed Buck's chair into the darkened room, shades pulled to block the noon sun.
Buck rolled to his friend's side and stroked his exposed arm. New butterfly strips closed the gash on JD's forehead. A nasal canula rested gently on his cheeks. Dressed in a faded blue and white gown, his injured leg lay exposed, resting on a pillow while a blanket hid the rest of his body.
"Glad you're here," mumbled the weak voice from the bed. "Heck of a way to spend a day off."
"It's good to see you, too, JD." Buck's voice cracked as he spoke to his best friend. "Now you know why I don't have children. They take too much out of a man."
JD laughed but immediately regretted the action. He grabbed his chest and tried to prevent the cough waiting to erupt. "Damn that old feller packs a punch. Who was he?"
"That was the babies' father. Thought you were one of the kidnappers. Seems he didn't listen to the deputy explaining the situation very well." Chris stood on the other side of the bed leaving Casey stranded at the foot.
"The kids, they alright?" His eyes expressed his worry. "Any of them get hurt?"
"Last we heard they should be fine. I'll check with the nurse later. Right now I think you and this little lady need some sleep." Chris looked around the room for a place Casey could sleep, refusing to suggest she share the bed with JD. He guided her towards the recliner in the corner and sat her down. Pulling a blanket off the nightstand and handing to the stunned girl, he ordered, using his intense Larabee tone, "Get some sleep both of you."
Not about to refuse, both JD and Casey shut their eyes and fell into a healing slumber. Buck rested his head on the edge of his friend's borrowed bed and soon joined them. Chris looked at the three people and laughed to himself. "Should never give some people a day off. Seems they'll do anything to get two days. Then it takes them a week to recover."
As the afternoon passed Chris found his own eyes grow weary. He jumped out of the comfortable chair and paced the room. He'd sleep after Buck awoke. He tensed ready for action when a slight knock tapped on the door. "Yes?"
An attractive woman in her late thirties stuck her head in the door and asked, "Do you mind if I come in?"
Chris nodded and she entered the room. "I'm Gwenyth Conklin, Henry Conklin's wife. I'm so sorry about what he did to." She looked around the room until her eyes came to rest on JD. "It's just that we were so afraid we'd lost the children. He struck out at the first person he could."
"Ma'am, I understand the feelings about protecting your children but..."
"No, he was wrong and he knows that all too well now. Sitting in custody a few hours taught him that. I..., well, we want to make it up to him. Of course we'll take care of the hospital bill but is there anything he needs or something special he wants that we could give him? He gave us our children back. We know we can never repay him but we'd like to do something special for him."
"Mrs. Conklin," a whispered voice came from the bed. "I don't want anything. Just doing what was needed. How are the babies?"
The woman smiled, not worrying about the mascara running down her face with the tears. "They're fine, thanks to you. As they grow older we'll tell them about the brave, young man who rescued them."
"Casey, she did as much if not more than me. She went for help."
"Casey is JD's girlfriend. They were fishing when they heard the babies crying." Chris pointed to the young woman sleeping in the chair.
"Someone said a girl rode to the hospital with the trooper but I didn't know she was part of all this." She could tell the young man needed more rest so she walked to the door. "Thank you again, Mr. Dunne. I'll never forget what you and your girlfriend did for my family. I hope you get well real fast. And I'm so sorry about my husband. Please see in your heart to forgive him."
JD felt the nurse call button clipped to his pillow and by experience turned the small overhead light on. Feeling rested he looked around the hospital room and was surprised to find no one sitting with him.
"Excuse me, Mr. Dunne." The nurse stuck her head in the doorway. "I saw your light was on. We saved your supper. Do you feel like eating something?"
"Sure. Do you know where my friends are?" He knew he must in better shape than he felt if Buck would leave him alone in a hospital room.
She returned his warm smile. "They stepped out for supper and didn't want to disturb you. I'll go get your tray."
JD knew the routine. This first meal would be rubbery jello, soggy toast and cold soup. Well, after the first meal the rest during his stay were bound to improve in selection. The nurse returned with a tray and placed it on the bedside table. She helped him sit up before lifting the plate's cover. The bowl of red jello sat to the left side. Next to it was a bowl with steam rising. Hot broth? As she lifted the cover he saw real food, chicken and mashed potatoes.
"You sure this is for me?" He looked up at the woman dressed in white.
"You don't like chicken?"
"No, every other time I was shot all I got was chewy jello and cold soup."
"How many times have you been wounded?" The boy didn't look old enough to be experienced in hospital procedures like post-operative surgery diets.
"I haven't kept track. This is great. Thank you." Picking up the fork he took a bite of the mashed potatoes. They melted on his tongue.
"Do you need anything else? OK, I'll leave you to your meal."
She left the room and the young man dug into his delicious food. After a few minutes he felt satisfied and he pushed the table away from the bed.
"How are ya doin' pard?" Buck wheeled himself into the room and rolled up to JD's bed. "What is that good smell?" Looking at the tray his eyes grew wide. "That was your supper? We went to the place across the street and none of us had anything this appetizing."
"That's what she brought me and it tasted as good as it looks. Buck, what happened to you; the sling and the wheelchair? You and me get into this much trouble on a day off and Chris'll never give us another."
"You're right there, son. Well it seems I should'a waited seein' EmyLou Thatcher. She said it was over with her ex-boyfriend but somebody forgot to tell him. He rammed the truck just as I was getting out. Claims his brakes failed. I think he 'forgot' which pedal stopped the car."
"Well, Chris ain't none to happy having both us out at the same time, though he's a little more understandin' about your mishap than mine. My hip's bruised. Doc said to keep weight off it for a week. Hospital loaned me the chair while you're in here. Can't operate crutches with a busted wing which will take a little longer to heal."
"How come Chris and you came looking for us? It's not like we were late or nothing."
Buck didn't answer right away but rolled away from the bed to look out the window. "Buck what are your hiding from me? What's wrong?"
The older man turned his wheelchair to look at JD's face. "We came to find Casey."
"JD, Casey is fine, well, she ain't fine but when we couldn't page you Chris decided to drive up to the lake and find you."
"Quit beating around Buck. Why? What!"
"Her aunt Nettie needed her. She suffered a heart attack. The doctor called Casey's apartment. Her roommate, Becky called you just as Chris was bringing me home. Vin went to stay with Nettie and we came to tell Casey."
JD sat in shock. He didn't know Casey's aunt very well but he knew the older woman held a special place in his girlfriend's soul. "Is she?" His eyes filled.
Buck reached out and held JD's hand. "Nettie is fine. She'll need angioplasty but she's one tough old biddy. Chris took Casey home to be with her aunt. The kidnappers disabled Casey's car so the state patrol towed it to town to be repaired. They even recovered your fishing gear and that string of bass. You two wasted a great day off fishin, boy."
"Kinda got interrupted," JD added sheepishly.
"You done good, kid. Ain't nothing to be ashamed of, JD. Now you just have to watch out for our fearless leader if you ever want to get another day off."
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