DARK SKIES by Winter & 
Nancy W.

WWII - Black Sheep Squadron Universe

Author Notes: This takes place in the Black Sheep Squadron universe set up in the story Misfits. The Black Sheep make guest appearances, but, it's not really a crossover.

(Most of it was written by Winter, but Nancy just had to come along for the ride.)

Thanx: to Marnie and Gina for beta-reading.

Size: Approx 130K

Chapter 1
The night was heavy with the scent of exotic flowers. The bugs were noisy this time of year and everyone slept under mosquito nets just to keep them at bay. VMF 277 occupied one of the smaller islands in the Solomon Island chain. Major Chris Larabee was the leader of a rather eclectic group of men, not unlike Pappy Boyington's legendary Black Sheep. They were all sleeping this late at night but someone was always on watch. The Japanese liked to attack during the night just to shake things up. Tonight was no different.

The obnoxious alarm that signaled an attack went off. Chris jumped up and became entangled in his mosquito netting. He cursed the gauzy material as he pulled it away. As he stood he heard a loud thump followed by cursing that was varied indeed. Chris turned on the light to find his roommate, Vin Tanner, on the floor and tangled in netting. Chris grabbed the net and pulled it off Vin. Once he was free, they both raced to the nearest bunker. Vin grabbed the gun and pulled back on the lever to chamber the first round. Chris stood nearby holding a string of ammunition to load in the machine gun when needed. At night the Zero's were tough to see and both men waited. They could hear them getting closer.

"Damn sons of bitches always come when there's no moon," Vin commented as he watched the night sky. "There!"

Vin swiveled the gun and Chris didn't ask questions as Vin began to fire. The lieutenant’s eyesight was exceptional and Chris was not surprised when he heard an explosion. The fire coming from the lead Zero illuminated the ones behind and Chris could hear other guns placed around the camp come to life. The Zero Vin hit peeled off to try to make it back to its base. Chris watched as tracer bullets from a nearby gun blasted the aircraft. The plane exploded and Chris heard a cheer from JD.

"Get down!" Vin yelled and tackled Chris.

Just as they hit the bottom of the bunker a bomb exploded nearby spraying dirt and mud everywhere. Chris felt Vin's weight increase as a cascade of mud poured in on them. Chris smiled as the Texan began cursing in Spanish as well as Comanche. The attack was over quickly and lights started to go on around camp.

"Anytime you'd like to get up would be fine," Chris commented from under Vin.

"Hey this ain't my idea of a hot date," Vin shot back. "I'd get off ya iffen I could, but I can't."

"You hurt?" Chris asked quickly.

"Nah," Vin assured him. "Just covered in mud. Think the whole damned camp came raining in this here bunker. I just can't get out."

Lanterns appeared at the edge and Chris got a good look at the damage. Vin's legs were buried in mud. The dark red soil covered Vin's hair and he pushed it out of his eyes to look up at the others.

"Little help would be 'preciated," Vin growled.

"That you, Vin?" Buck asked innocently.

"No, it's the God damned Easter bunny!"

"Buck, quit teasing and dig him out," Chris said. "He's getting heavy."

"Now ain't that a cozy site," Buck teased. "What ya boys been doing while we've been fightin'?"

"Buck, you best be prepared to run when I get out," Vin warned.

"Brother Buck, you do like to live dangerously?" Josiah laughed as slid into the bunker.

Josiah made short work of digging Vin and Chris out. The lieutenant was covered from head to toe in mud. His boxer's clung to his wet skin. Buck laughed and said Vin looked like a drowned rat. It was all Vin needed to start chasing the mustached captain.

"Twenty says Lt. Tanner catches Buck before they reach the airfield," Ezra said.

"No bet," Chris said looking at the Lieutenant. He wasn't surprised when Ezra Standish suggested the bet. The southerner would bet on anything.

They were standing there when all of a sudden they heard Buck bellow. Vin came running from behind one of the building like he was being chased by the devil himself. In his hands were Buck's red boxers. Buck came around the building chasing Vin in all his glory.

"I'm gonna kill you, Tanner!" they watched as Vin disappeared into the jungle followed closely by Buck.

Chris only smiled. It was good to see that the young Texan had fully recovered from the wound he had suffered a few weeks before.

"It’s a good thing we don’t have any nurses on this island," Nathan said shaking his head.

"A fact that I’m sure Captain Wilmington laments every night," Ezra added.

"Does he ever!" JD added quickly.

"Even if there were nurses here Buck wouldn’t be shy about running around naked," Josiah laughed.

"No, he wouldn’t," Chris smiled. "Buck was the resident nudist on campus."

"Why am I not surprised?" Ezra commented.

"Well, I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m heading back to bed," Chris said. He looked down at the mud covering his lower body and sighed. "That is after I take a quick shower. We have a long day ahead of us tomorrow and I want us to be fresh."

"We’re only going over to Vella La Cava," Nathan said.

"Yeah, but you have to be on your toes around Major Boyington," Josiah said.

"Only Major Larabee has to deal with Boyington and the General," Ezra said. "The rest of us basically have a free day to do as we want."

"Why does that scare me?" Chris said as he walked away.

Josiah laughed at Chris’s comment and headed for his tent. The others followed and JD ventured to ask a question that was on his mind.

"Are we going to meet the rest of the Black Sheep?" The young officer had met the legendary Major Boyington, briefly, after Vin had been wounded and was in the hospital on Vella La Cava. He remembered clearly the man's commanding presence despite the fact that like JD, he wasn't very big.

"Yes, JD," Nathan said.

"Are they really has wild as they say?"

"Let’s just say their reputation is well founded," Ezra smiled. "But we seem to give them a run for their money."

"Ezra, you better not get into any trouble while we’re there," Nathan warned.

"Me?" Ezra asked innocently as he disappeared into his tent.

Chris returned from the shower and started to untangle his mosquito netting. Once he got his straightened out he fixed Vin’s. He knew if he didn’t the Texan would just sleep without it. He didn’t need any of his men coming down with malaria because they were too lazy to sleep with the netting. Chris finished fussing and lay down on his cot. He wasn’t really looking forward to this meeting tomorrow. Not that he didn’t like Boyington - he did - it was just such a pain when they made both teams fly missions together. He had no problem letting Pappy be in charge but his men seemed to resent it. The last mission they flew together had them staying on La Cava for two days, which ended up in disaster. Ezra fleeced just about every man on the island while Buck flirted with every nurse and got into a fight with Captain Casey over his girl. Chris was going to insist that they stay on their separate islands if this was going to be an extended mission. The rivalry between VMF 214 and VMF 277 was just too volatile.

As Chris lay thinking about the meeting, he heard Vin enter the tent. The lieutenant fumbled with the netting then climbed into his cot.

"I take it Buck never caught you?"

"Did ya think he would?"

"Not really," Chris laughed. "Did you bring back the towel I left by the shower for you?"

"I took a dip in the lagoon."

"Damn it, Vin, how many times do I have to tell you not to swim there during the night?" Chris growled. "You know we’ve seen sharks."

"Don’t worry, Chris," Vin sighed. "I could see just fine. Didn’t even lose a toe, see?" He raised his bare foot near Chris's face and wiggled his toes.

"Go to sleep, Vin. We got a big day tomorrow."

"'Kay, Chris," Vin sighed contentedly. He never addressed the superior officer by his rank when they were alone, and for some reason, that never bothered Chris.

"Promise me something, Vin?"

"Iffen I can."

"Try to keep the others out of trouble tomorrow."

"Shouldn’t you be telling Buck that?"

"Hell! He’ll probably be in the middle of it."

"True," Vin laughed. "I remember last time."

"Don’t remind me," Chris sighed. "Will you do it?"

"If it will make you sleep better, I’ll do my best," Vin agreed.

"That’s all I ask."

Vin smiled as he watched Chris roll over and get comfortable. Even though he wasn’t second in command the others seemed to follow his lead, including Buck. Sometimes it worried him that Chris put so much faith in him but he sure liked the feeling.

Chapter 2

The sky was a cloudless blue over the Pacific islands and Vin Tanner was a happy man. Granted they were at war but here he got to fly almost every day. Vin loved the freedom and solitude of being in the air. Back home crop dusting, he hardly ever got to go higher than the treetops - not that he'd ever wanted to go higher in those rickety old planes. But here, he was flying a powerful Corsair, which was possibly the most maneuverable warplane ever built. The little plane might not be as fast as a Japanese Zero but she could literally fly circles around one, and he loved her.

Chris glanced around at his crew. They were flying in twos and threes. Lieutenant Standish was odd man out not having a wingman of his own. Ezra didn't mind and usually paired of with Josiah and Nathan. Ever since JD had joined the team he and Buck were inseparable. Buck said it was because JD needed his guidance but Chris knew Buck. Buck had always brought home strays or helped the younger kids growing up in Indiana, and he'd taken an instant liking to the boy. JD was an exceptional - and experienced - pilot, even though he was at least two years too young to be wearing the 2nd Lieutenant bars on his collar.

He knew JD and Buck were on a different radio frequency just so the kid's endless questions wouldn't annoy the others. Chris knew that was against regulations when flying as a group but he didn't stop them because, like Vin, he enjoyed the peace and solitude of the air, for as long as it lasted.

He glanced over at his own wingman. Vin was smiling; looking completely content. Chris smiled thinking of a conversation they'd had the previous week. JD had asked what flying was like for each of them. Vin had said it was better than sex. Buck quickly jumped in saying Vin had never been with the right girl. The teasing was good-natured but Chris could tell Vin was embarrassed by Buck's observation. JD, too. He suspected that the shy young Texan and the even younger JD probably didn't have much experience with the opposite sex.

Vin was only twenty and JD had just turned seventeen. The pilots they were sending were getting younger and younger. Pappy had a crack shot pilot that looked sixteen. Chris suspected Jeb Pruitt had lied about his age to get in, just as JD had done, only Jeb wasn't caught and hadn't spent six months in the brig like JD. Pappy backed the kid’s story that he was nineteen, although no one believed it.

Chris looked out his window and could see La Cava just ahead.

"La Cava this is VMF 277 leader," Chris said as he pushed the throat mike tighter around his neck.

"Go ahead. VMF 277."

"Requesting permission to land."

"You're clear. Just watch out for the pothole to the far left of the runway."

"Get hit last night?"

"Negative. It's left over from the last time."

"Roger, VMF 277 out."

Chris smiled knowing how hard it was for the SeaBees to keep up with all the holes left in the runways by Japanese bombs.

Chris brought them in over the island from the far side so they could get a look at where the hole was. All they needed for one of his guys to go into it. Pappy would rib him for weeks.

As they flew over a whistle could be heard over the radio. "Jeez, you could park a truck in that," JD said.

"They're lucky it's off to the far side," Josiah added.

"Just do me a favor," Chris asked. "and don't fall in it."

"What you don't wanna be teased by Major Boyington?" Vin asked innocently.

"I bet Lieutenant Boyle is taking bets that one of us falls in," Nathan said.

"Let's make them squirm then," Vin suggested.

"Tanner stay away from that hole!" Chris yelled as Vin made his decent.

Chris’s knew he was talking to the wind when he heard laughter over the radio. He stayed in the air as each of his pilots landed perilously close to the gaping hole without actually falling into it.

Vin parked his plane and climbed out of the cockpit. He threw his headgear and radio on the seat then jumped down off the wing. JD had come down after him and Vin jogged over to the dark haired pilot.

"I don’t think Chris was too happy with us," JD admitted a little worried.

"Don’t worry about," Vin assured him. "Just watch."

JD watched as Chris was the last to land. They had all come close to the hole but JD watched in awe as Chris's plane rolled down the runway right towards it, then seemed to hop six inches into the air, clear the hole and come down again on the other side.

Vin grinned and clapped JD on the shoulder. JD was at a loss for words. He was an experienced stunt pilot and probably could have done the trick himself, but, he wouldn't have dared.

"You old war dog!" Buck yelled as Chris climbed out of the plane.

"Damn it, Chris, you cut that too close," Nathan said angrily.

"That was the point to the little challenge, Lieutenant Jackson," Ezra pointed out.

"I know but..."

"Nathan, you worry too much," Josiah said. "Sometimes you just have to sit back and let things happen."

"Things like maybe his plane going ass over nose and landing him on his fool head," Nathan muttered.

"Let's go," Chris said, ignoring what any other officer might deem gross insubordination.

The six pilots fell in behind Chris and walked towards the tents that made up most of the base at La Cava. La Cava was one of the bigger islands and boasted a hospital complete with nurses. Buck loved coming here as much as going to their main base on Espiritos Marcos.

+ + + + + + +

Boyington was standing with his men in front of a Quonset hut. JD was still somewhat awed by the legendary Pappy Boyington, even though now that he had met him, he could see that far from being larger than life, the Major was not much bigger than he was. Not in size, anyway... there was still something about him that told you right away that you didn't mess with him and live to tell about it.

"Nice show, Larabee," Pappy said as he shook Chris's hand.

"Figured Boyle had a bet going and the boys didn't want to disappoint him."

"Yeah, well, you did," Boyle said. "I lost big."

"You always lose," a heavyset pilot said.

"Still see you have that new pilot," Pappy commented. "Thought for sure you’d scare him off by now."

"Never," Buck said throwing his arm around JD's shoulder.

Buck started to introduce the legendary Black Sheep. First was Captain Lawrence Casey. He was a tall blonde with a friendly smile. Lieutenant Don French was a small man with dark hair. Buck warned JD not to drink with him since he had a hollow leg. Next came Lieutenant Bobby Boyle who would bet on anything. Not unlike Ezra except Bobby usually seemed to lose. Lieutenant Jerry Bragg could give Josiah a run for his money in size. The only difference was Josiah was taller and older. Last was Lieutenant Jeb Pruitt. He was blonde with blue eyes and looked like he was twelve.

"General Moore and Admiral Travis should be here soon," Pappy said. "Let's go over to the Sheep’s Pen for a drink."

As they started walking a stocky white dog with a black nose came sauntering from behind the tents. When she saw the group she trotted over. Pappy leaned down thinking she was coming to him, but she trotted right past him and went to Lieutenant Tanner.

"Hey, Meatball," Vin said bending down and scratching the dog’s ears. "When are you gonna dump these guys and come with me?" Meatball barked and wagged her tail so hard her entire back end was moving.

"Tanner's the only outsider Meatball goes too," Pappy said, shaking his head.

"There's no accounting for taste," Chris commented.

"I heard that," Vin said.

"You were meant to."

"Just wait, Cowboy, I'll get you."

"Cowboy?" Bobby said laughing. He quickly stopped when he saw the look in Major Larabee's eyes. He was very happy when the glare was shifted to Lieutenant Tanner. Except Vin wasn't afraid and just smiled back.

"Hey, Vin, Bobby won some surfboards in a poker game the other day," Jeb said.

"Yeah?" Vin asked.

"Wanna try them out?"

"Sounds like fun," Vin said. "Come on, JD, let's leave the old folks to their drinking."

They watched as the three youngest and the dog disappeared behind the tents. Chris doubted Vin had ever even been on a surfboard living in Texas. He just hoped they didn't kill themselves. He also hoped the others could stay out of trouble, now that the young lieutenant had apparently flagrantly disregarded his duty to see that they did in favor of a good time. Kids! Chris snorted to himself.

+ + + + + + +

Ezra sat across from Bobby waiting for the young man to make his bet. The poker game started as soon as Pappy and Chris left to meet with the generals. Bobby Boyle considered himself a good gambler. Problem was Ezra was better. The game had started with Ezra, Buck, Josiah, Don and Bobby. Now it was just down to two. Ezra couldn't complain - he'd won a fair amount off each of the men.

"I do hope you plan to bet before the war is over," Ezra said dryly.

"Keep your pants on," Bobby groused.

Ezra had raised the bet to a staggering one hundred dollars. For Bobby, that was three month's pay, and he didn't quite have enough. He'd asked all his teammates but they knew better than to take a risk against Standish. Ezra decided to offer him a way of paying the difference.

"I can see you don't have sufficient funds to cover the wager," Ezra said. "I can offer an alternative to capital funds."

"Damn it, Ezra, just say you'll take something in exchange," Buck said.

"I believe I did."

Josiah laughed at Ezra's comment as the Lieutenant turned back to his opponent. "There is something in this camp I will take in exchange to cover the bet."

"Yeah what?" Bobby asked suspiciously.

"The creature you call Meatball," Ezra said. "Lieutenant Tanner seems rather found of the beast."

"Don't do it, Bobby!" Larry warned. "Pappy'll kill you."

"Not if I win," Bobby said eagerly.

"Larry's right," Jerry said. "If you lose you're dead."

"Damn," Bobby sighed knowing they were right. "Hey, I could bet the Rock."

The Rock was a kangaroo Bobby had bought on their R&R leave to Australia. Ezra knew Vin liked the kangaroo, but not as much as the dog. Besides, it would be much easier to take Meatball home with them, thereby ensuring the debt was paid.

"It's either Meatball or fold," Ezra said.

"Bobby!" Larry warned when he saw the look in his eyes.

"I can't lose!" Bobby insisted.

"Your funeral," Larry said, shaking his head.

"Alright Standish, Meatball it is," Bobby said and laid down his cards. Everyone whistled at the full house of King's over Jacks.

"Very respectable indeed," Ezra said. "But I don't believe it's sufficient."

Bobby looked at him in disbelief. There were not very many hands that would beat the one he'd just laid down.

Ezra spread out his cards to reveal four of the prettiest ladies in the deck. The look on Bobby's face was priceless and Ezra smiled, showing his gold tooth as he began to straighten out the cash.

"What am I gonna tell Pappy?" Bobby said hanging his head.

"Well, whatever it is you better run fast afterwards," Larry said as he stood.

+ + + + + + +

Chris walked towards the Sheep’s Pen to collect his team. The combined mission with Pappy’s crew was to start tomorrow night. Two flight groups were needed to destroy a medium sized fleet of ammunition boats the recon planes had found anchored off the island of Ridan. The island was 20 miles behind enemy lines. It was decided Chris’s team would meet Pappy’s en route to the island. Once the teams joined, Pappy would be the designated flight leader. Chris’s team would provide cover while Pappy’s crew made the bomb runs. This suited Chris fine since he would be able to keep his bunch on their own island where they would, he hoped, stay out of trouble.

As he walked towards the Quonset hut that held the bar Vin, JD and Jeb appeared from the jungle.

"Howdy, Chris," Vin said.

"Enjoy your day?" Chris asked sarcastically after seeing Vin’s wet hair.

"Yup." Vin looked Chris over and smiled. "Guess ya can't say the same fer yerself."

"No," Chris said. "You also didn’t do what I asked."

"What were you supposed to do?" Jeb asked Vin.

"He was supposed to keep Buck and the others out of trouble."

"What could have happened?" JD asked. "We’re on an island."

"You don’t want to know," Vin laughed.

Chris shook his head and continued on to the Sheep’s Pen. As he walked in he saw Ezra counting his winnings. Obviously he had fleeced the Black Sheep again. It appeared the one that was hit the worst was Lieutenant Boyle. The young man sat across the table from Ezra staring at him with a blank, stunned expression.

"Ah. Major Larabee," Ezra said in greeting.

"Ezra," Chris sighed. "Give the money back."

"I must protest...."

"Now, Chris, he won it fair and square," Buck defended.

"That’s right Major, he did," Captain Casey agreed.

"Then why does Lieutenant Boyle look like he just lost his mother?"

"Because Pappy’s gonna kill him," Lieutenant French laughed.

"Do I dare ask why?"

"Because Vin is now the proud owner of that canine he is so fond of," Ezra answered.

"You mean it?" Vin asked eagerly. "You won Meatball?!"

"I did," Ezra smiled.

"Well alright!" Vin cheered.

"Major Larabee, you aren’t going to let Vin take her are you?" Jeb asked fearfully.

"A bet's a bet," Chris smiled. He was all for a little fun at Pappy’s expense.

"I’m dead," Boyle said hitting his head on the table.

"Well, boys, we're out of here," Chris said.

"As always, it’s been a pleasure," Ezra said, stuffing the money in his pocket as he rose from his chair.

As Chris lead his men to the airfield, Vin whistled for Meatball. She trotted eagerly over to him and followed him to his Corsair. Vin picked the chunky dog up and awkwardly climbed the ladder into his plane. She wouldn’t have endured such undignified treatment from anyone else.

When Vin had settled his slight body in the cramped cockpit, there was just barely enough room for the dog to sit in his lap. She settled there willingly, her ears perked and tongue hanging out. Chris would have sworn the animal was smiling.

Boyington's men stood by and watched forlornly when Chris signaled the tower that they were ready for take off. The okay was given and Chris was the first one off followed by Vin. Once they were in the air Chris glanced over to Vin and smiled at the black nose pressed against the canopy. He didn't know who looked happier, Vin or the damn dog. Chris just wished he could be there when Boyle explained to Pappy where his dog was.

+ + + + + + +

Greg Boyington made his way to the Sheep’s Pen after seeing the two generals off, thinking the mission should go smoothly since they'd be flying with 'Magnificent Seven’. Any other team and Greg would have balked. Major Larabee wasn’t a stickler for the rules and regulations of the Marine Corp like most pilots in the Pacific, and his team was a perfect compliment to his own.

Greg looked at his watch and saw it was time to feed Meatball. He whistled for her but she didn’t come. He continued to the Sheep’s Pen and stepped inside. As he did all conversation stopped. The men parted like the Red Sea, leaving Lieutenant Boyle in Greg’s line of site.

"Oh, hell!"

"What’s going on?"

"Pappy... now don’t get mad..."

"What did you do?" Boyington glowered.

"Well, you see I was gambling with Lieutenant Standish...." Boyle explained.

"Didn’t you learn your lesson last time when he took you for everything?"

"He took him for more than everything this time," French said under his breath.

"What was that,Don?"

Boyington put his hands on his hips. "Someone want to tell me what happened?"

"Well, Greg it’s like this...." Captain Casey started.

"It’s okay, Larry, I’ll tell him," Bobby said as he looked at Greg. "I lost something of yours to Standish."

"Yes, and...?"

"I lost Meatball."

"You what?!"

Chapter 3

As they approached Corina Chris radioed the tower they were coming in. He was the first to land and he taxied his plane to its spot next to the runway. He cut the engine and unbuckled his parachute and helmet. The breeze felt good as he pushed back the plane's window and climbed out. As he was jumping off the wing Yosemite came running over.

"I don't know what you boys did over on La Cava but Major Boyington called just a little while ago mad as hell."

"He did, did he?" Chris smiled.

"Yup, he said, 'As soon as the bastard gets back to the island have him call!'" Yosemite quoted. "What did you do?"

"Hey, Yosemite," Vin called as he walked over with Meatball trotting at his side.

The big Sergeant frowned. "Is that who I think it is?"

"Yeah, Ezra won her off the Black Sheep," Vin laughed.

"No wonder Boyington is spitting nails," the mechanic said shaking his head. "Am I ever glad I'm not a pilot."

"I take it Pappy knows?" Vin smiled.

"Oh, yeah," Chris said.

"Is he mad?" JD asked hearing what Vin said as he walked over.

"What do you think?"

"This is just payback for the time he stole our whiskey shipment," Buck said.

"Oh, I agree," Chris said as he made his way towards the radio shack. "You know how I love paybacks."

"As much as I enjoy a profitable card game," Ezra smiled as he joined them.

Chris let JD go in first to fire up the radio. JD was a whiz at fixing and maintaining the old equipment. They watched as he turned some dials.

"Corina calling La Cava," JD said into the mike.

"You know Pappy's going to want her back," Nathan said.

"Never planned on keeping her," Chris assured Nathan.

"But Chris..." Vin protested. Meatball sat at Vin's feet with her tongue sticking out the side of her mouthing, panting.

"I know you like her Vin but I only took her to show Pappy I could," Chris said.

"I know," Vin sighed. "But do we have ta give her back right away?"

"Oh, don't worry, Pappy's going have to come up with something good to get her back," Chris smiled.

"You're all heart," Josiah laughed.

"Larabee!" blared out of the radio.

"Gee, Chris, I think it's for you," JD laughed as he stood up and handed the major the mike.

"What can I do for you, Boyington?"

"You know damned well what I want?"

"It wouldn't walk on four legs and be white would it?"

"Larabee! I want my damned dog back!"

"You should teach Boyle not to bet things that aren't his," Chris laughed. "But don't worry, Vin will take good care of her."

"Alright, Larabee, let's cut to the chase. What do you want?"

"Don't really need anything right now but thanks for asking."

Buck couldn't hold it any more and started laughing. He could just imagine the look on Boyington's face. Things were deathly quiet on the other end of the radio.

"Alright, Larabee, we'll play it your way for now," Boyington said. "Put Tanner on."

Chris bowed and handed the mike to Vin. "Tanner here, sir."

"You better take good care of her!"

"You know I will sir!" Vin assured him.

"Fine! Boyington out."

+ + + + + + +

Major Boyington leaned back with a smile.

"I don't understand, Pappy," Boyle said. "You don't seem too upset."

"If you had lost her to anybody but Tanner I'd have your hide," Pappy growled. "I know how much he likes her so I know Meatball is in good hands."

"So what do we do now?" Casey asked.

"We let the Seven have their fun," Pappy said. "But like Larabee said when we got his whiskey, ‘Paybacks are hell’."

+ + + + + + +

"Well, that weren't so bad," Vin said turning off the radio.

"He's up to something," Ezra said.

"I'm sure he is," Chris agreed as he headed for the door.

"Yeah, but what?" Buck asked.

"I don't think we want to know," Nathan said.

"Well, whatever," Vin said. "At least we get to keep the dog. Come on, JD."

They watched as the two youngest jogged away followed happily by Meatball.

+ + + + + + +

The next morning, Chris woke to find Vin still asleep. It was rare that he would wake before Vin - Tanner was a light sleeper by nature, and even though he would never admit it, the threat of an enemy attack during the night often made him too jumpy to really get any restful sleep. Chris checked to make sure the young lieutenant was all right, and discovered Meatball curled up in the cot next to him. Vin was lying on his side with one arm thrown over the dog and the other tucked under the pillow. Maybe having a dog was a good thing. At least Vin seemed to sleep better. Chris got up and tried to be quiet moving around the tent. Meatball watched him and Chris put his fingers to his lips. The dog's tail started thumping against the cot and Chris knew Vin was awake.

"You might as well get up," Chris said.

"Why?" Vin asked with his eyes still closed.

"Because we have a mission to fly."

"Not until later," Vin said rolling to his back and stretching. Meatball followed suit and rolled over onto her back as Vin scratched her belly.

"Oh, I see. Since you have a new lady friend in bed you figured you could laze around."

"Why not?" Vin asked as he propped himself up on an elbow. "All she wants is a little scratch behind the ears and she's happy. Speaking of lady friends, did you hear from the General's daughter?"

"No, I haven't heard from Mary."

"You on a first name basis now? Must be gettin' serious," Vin teased.

Chris swung a playful punch at Vin but quickly jumped back when Meatball snapped at him.

"The mighty Larabee bested by a woman," Vin laughed as he patted the dog.

"Go to hell."

"Figured we'd go together," Vin said as he rolled out of his cot.

"You keep it up and I'll send you there first," Chris warned.

"Like to see you try."

"Not with that she-devil here."

"Suit yourself," Vin shrugged. "I'm going for a swim."

Vin pulled on pair of shorts, grabbed a towel and ducked under the tent flap. Meatball followed happily behind as Vin disappeared into the jungle. Chris finished getting dressed and headed over to the airfield. He wanted to make sure the planes were ready to go. As he got closer he saw Yosemite under one of the planes.

"How do they look?" Chris asked.

"They’re fine," Yosemite said wiping his hands on a cloth. "Lieutenant Tanner's plane needed new spark plugs and some oil. All the rest were good."

"We leave on the mission at 1400. They need to be fully loaded."

"Don't worry, Major, it'll get done."

Chris nodded and headed for the mess. The rest of his crew was sitting eating when he walked in. Chris grabbed a plate and took some reconstituted powdered eggs and Vienna sausages. After getting some coffee he joined them at the table. JD was wolfing down the grayish-yellow eggs like they were going out of style.

"Slow down, JD," Buck said cuffing him on the back of the head.

"You gotta eat them hot," JD protested. "If you don't they're disgusting."

"Ezra still sleeping?" Chris asked.

"What do you think?" Josiah laughed.

"Where's Vin?" Nathan asked.

"He went for a swim," Chris said taking a bit of his eggs. JD was right - once they were cold, it was like eating rubber, except rubber tasted better.

"Meatball go with him?" Buck asked as he leaned back drinking his coffee.

"Of course," Chris said disgusted. "She's like his shadow."

"You don't seem to like her," JD said.

"She tried to bite me!"

"Bet you tried to hit Vin," JD smiled.

"He was being a smartass," Chris said. "So I tried to hit him and she almost took my arm off."

"You never were good with the ladies," Buck laughed.

"That ain't so, Bucklin," Vin said as he walked in. "I know one lady that has the major in her crosshairs."

"Vin!" Chris warned.

"Hell, Junior, I'm sure you could get the ladies, too, walking around in just shorts, hair still damp and dripping down your back."

"Shut up, Buck!" Vin said embarrassed.

"Yeah, Vin, I know there are a few nurses on Espiritos that would like to get to know you better."

"Aw, hell," Vin cursed. "Y'all win I won't tease Chris about Mary any more."

"Mary?" Buck said surprised. "The General's daughter? I thought you were talking about the black haired nurse that kept asking 'bout Chris."

"Hell, Buck, you know Mrs. Travis wants Chris," Vin said smiling evilly.

Buck continued to ask Chris about the widow while Vin grabbed some food. He lifted Meatball onto a chair, and put a plate in front of her. She eagerly began to lap up powdered eggs as Nathan looked on with a frown but said nothing. No one else seemed to mind sharing the table with the animal.

Chris had managed to get the conversation shifted to teasing JD about Casey by the time Ezra finally decided to make an appearance. He took one look at the powdered eggs, pale, stubby sausages and not-quite-rancid bacon and settled on coffee and toast. He looked askance at Meatball, who was on her second helping, but with characteristic aplomb, took the seat across from her without comment.

"So what is the topic of discussion this morning?" Ezra asked as he joined them.

"Women," Buck answered.

"Why am I not surprised?"

"What else does Buck have to talk bout?" JD asked as he got up and to get some more milk.

Chris figured it was time to get serious. "Now that you’re all here I'll brief you on the mission."

He instantly had the attention of everyone at the table - including Meatball, which he found somewhat unnerving. There would be a formal briefing later, but he wanted to make sure everyone was clear as to what was expected of them since they'd be working with Boyington's Black Sheep on this one.

"The planes ready?" Josiah asked when Chris had concluded his remarks.

"Yosemite’s checking them now."

"Well if the planes are ready then we certainly are," Nathan said.

"Good," Chris said as she stood up. "We leave at 1400 hours. I don’t want anybody doing anything stupid up there."

"Don’t worry, Chris, we’ll all come home," Vin assured him. Meatball thumped her tail in agreement.

"Let’s make sure we do," Chris said as he walked out.