The Seven left for the mission right on schedule. They would rendezvous with the Black Sheep at a set coordinate twenty minutes away. Once they met them it would be another hour to their target. Chris glanced around at his team. Vin was flying next to him and Chris could see him checking the gauges in the plane. Next to Vin in the V formation was JD. Next to JD was Buck. On Chris's left were Ezra, then Josiah and last Nathan. They would be flying cover for Boyington's crew while they made the bomb run. That suited Chris just fine. He hated flying with a 1,000 pound bomb under each wing.
"Bandits three o'clock," Vin called.
Chris knew it would be useless for him to look. Vin could spot planes well before the rest of them. Less than five minutes later six Corsairs were headed straight for them.
"Nice to see you on time," Boyington called.
"We've been waiting for you," Chris answered.
"Tanner," Boyington growled.
"How's my dog?"
"Fine, sir, she loves it on Corina."
"Don't get too attached," Pappy warned. "I will get her back."
"Eventually, sir," Vin chuckled. "But not for awhile."
"Alright, Larabee, take your group topside," Boyington grumbled.
Chris led his group above Pappy's and they continued toward the objective. Ezra came over the radio and suggested a wager. Chris smiled when Bobby readily agreed and said Meatball should be the prize. Ezra disagreed saying he wasn't foolish enough to bet such a high stake. Everyone laughed at Bobby's expense but it didn't keep him from betting four laying hens against Ezra's case of Coca-Cola to the team with the most kills. They flew for another hour and Chris watched as the sun began to set. The plan was to hit the target then head home under the cover of darkness.
"There's our target," Boyington said. Just past one of the islands was a large ship. "She's loaded with supplies and ammunition. We take her out and the rice balls have nothing to fight with for a few days."
"Let's get her!" French said enthusiastically.
"Let's go," Boyington said. "Keep an eye out, Larabee."
Chris's men watched the Black Sheep speed towards the target. On their first run only two bombs hit the target and they could see fires break out on the ship.
"Chris!" Vin yelled. "Bogeys ten o'clock high!"
"Where the hell did they come from?" Buck demanded. "They couldn't have known we were coming."
"I suspect it's a returning patrol," Ezra added.
"Does it matter?" Chris said. "Lets go."
They flew to meet the threat head on. There were ten enemy Zeroes against their seven. Chris went after one with Vin right on his tail for cover. The dogfight took them away from the island and Chris warned Boyington. Pappy said they had one more pass and they'd be up to help in a few minutes.
"Vin, there's on one your tail!" JD yelled.
"I see him," Vin said. Chris broke off his pursuit so Vin could try to shake the enemy plane.
"I got him," Buck yelled and a burst of bullets came from his plane hitting the Zero.
The firefight continued as Chris took down another enemy plane. Unfortunately, he never saw the one come from out of the sun until the bullets riddled his plane. Vin heard him cry out and watched as Chris's plane began to drop.
"Chris!" Vin yelled and followed him. "Pull up!"
"Vin, look out!" Nathan yelled.
But it was too late. Another burst of gunfire hit Vin and smoke instantly burst from his plane. The plane began to jerk and buck and it took all Vin's concentration to control it.
"Break off!" Pappy yelled when he saw two of Larabees planes hit. "Head home!"
They all did as they were told and broke off the fight. The enemy plans didn't follow and Ezra speculated they were low on fuel and couldn't. The other planes surrounded the two disabled ones as they headed back for home.
"Chris!" Nathan called. "How bad?"
"Chris!" Vin yelled desperately when there was no answer from the major.
"I'm alright," Chris said in pain.
"Bullshit!" Vin said angrily. "How bad?"
Buck was flying next to Chris but he couldn't see in the cockpit. Smoke was coming from the front of the plane obscuring his view. The only thing Buck could see clearly was blood on the glass window.
"Shit!" Vin cursed.
"What?" Pappy asked.
"Sorry, major, but I'm going down," Vin answered. "I'm losing power fast."
"Vin, how bad are you hit?" Nathan asked desperately.
"Shoulder," Vin answered. "Jus' went through the meat. Not that bad."
"Chris!" Buck yelled as his friend's plane started to nose dive. "Bail out, Chris!"
Vin could no longer worry about Chris. His own situation was getting worse. The bucking and jerking was making it difficult for him to control the damaged Corsair as he tried to unlock his canopy. He finally got it open and pushed it back. Getting out was his number one priority as the power finally failed on his plane. Vin pushed out of his seat, pulled himself out of the doomed plane, and jumped.
"There goes Vin!" JD yelled.
"Got his coordinates," Ezra and Josiah said as one.
"And there goes Chris," Buck said in relief.
They watched as the two parachutes drifted lazily down to the ocean. Buck was worried that Chris hadn't said anything about his condition. But he was glad that he'd finally been able to jump.
"Hang tight, Pards, we'll be back to get you."
+ + + + + + +
Vin glanced up and watched the Corsairs disappear. He hated having to bail over the ocean. The survival shit they gave you was basically useless, especially the shark repellent. Whatever made them think some chemical was going to keep a hungry shark away he never knew. Vin saw that Chris's chute was drifting about two hundred yards away. There was no controlling them and you were just along for the ride. Vin would swim over as soon as he hit the water. He saw he was getting close and pulled the tab that would inflate his May West. As he hit the water Vin cried out in pain as his leg hit something. There was no stopping his decent and Vin felt something tear into his left calf. As he continued downward his hip slammed into something that stopped his momentum, and he lay supported by his Mae West, gasping for breath.
"Just my fucking luck," Vin cursed through gritted teeth. "Got the whole damned ocean to land softly on and I hit a fucking coral reef."
When the pain subsided Vin cautiously sat up. He was right on the edge of the reef and he could see it was a pretty big one. Vin checked the damage and could see blood starting to soak through his pant leg by his calf and hip. Just as he was about to rip his pant leg the wind caught his parachute and tried to drag him further onto the reef. Vin cursed and braced his feet as he popped the hooks holding the chute. Once it was off Vin slowly pulled it towards him. At least he tried to. His left arm was basically useless. He knew the bullet had gone right through but they usually did a lot of damage because of their size. Vin gathered the chute as best he could. He knew he had to get Chris but wanted the material for bandages. Once the chute was as secure as Vin could make it he stood carefully on the reef. His left leg hurt like hell as he stood there looking over the ocean. He spotted something white not too far away.
"Damn I hope that's you, Chris," Vin said as he sat down and slid into the water. "Also hope the damned sharks have something else to eat."
Vin swam out as well as he was able with only one arm working. The salt water stung a like bitch in his wounds but he continued towards Chris. A short time later he reached his friend.
"Chris!" Vin called as he swam over.
"What kept ya?" Chris asked weakly.
Vin cursed when he saw the blood over Chris's right eye. "Where else you hit?" Vin asked as he cut the ropes holding the parachute.
"Right leg," Chris answered.
"Don't we make a great pair," Vin smiled. "All my damage is on the left."
"How bad?" Chris asked in concern.
"Not as bad as you," Vin assured him. "Now iffin youre done jawing, I don't feel like being dinner for the sharks. Got a nice cozy coral reef not too far away."
"Lead on," Chris said wearily.
Vin knew Chris wasn't in any shape to swim. He was just glad Chris had been able to inflate his May West before he hit the water or he would have drowned. Vin needed his right arm to swim so he wrapped his left arm around and through Chris's parachute straps. When he was ready he started back towards their refuge. It hurt like hell, but they didn't have much choice. Chris tried to help swim but with his leg shot up he wasnt much help. Vin just concentrated on getting back to the reef before it got dark. By the time he reached his destination, Chris had passed out. It took some work, but Vin was finally able to roll Chris up on the reef. Vin didnt want to go too far since the stuff was sharp. He climbed up just as he felt something bump his leg. Vin scrambled back from the edge as the ominous fin swam away. He shuddered as he gathered his parachute and started to rip it into strips. He just hoped the others came and got them soon.
Buck couldn't believe this was happening. Both Chris and Vin were shot down; he was now the leader. He was just glad they were still flying with Major Boyington. Right now he was giving the orders. They were flying directly to Espiritos to give their report and get help for Chris and Vin. Buck was relieved to see dark silhouette of the island just ahead. The major requested clearance and it was given right away. Once they were down Buck jumped down from his plane and headed straight for the major.
"So when do we go back for them?" Buck demanded.
"As soon as we get a Duck," Pappy replied. "You're in charge of the Seven so you'll have to come give your report to the brass with me."
"The hell I will!" Buck raged.
"Easy, Buck," Josiah said. "The major's right. You have to go."
"You think I can sit there and tell what happened while Chris and Vin are hurt and floating around out there?" Buck declared as he waved his hand toward the horizon.
"Josiah, you better come as well," Pappy suggested. "Bobby, Ezra, you get the Duck. The rest of you make sure these birds get fuel and ammo."
Pappy headed for the buildings by the runway. Buck was arguing with Josiah behind him. Pappy was glad Josiah was able to get Buck calmed down before they got to the generals office. The noncom at the front desk asked them to wait while he checked if the general was available. The young man came back immediately and held the door for them.
"Greg," General Moore said warmly as he stood and held out his hand. "How was the mission?"
"Not so good, sir."
"I see," General Moore said taking a seat and motioning them to do the same. "Where's Major Larabee?"
"That's the problem," Pappy began. "Both he and Lieutenant Tanner were shot down."
"Damn," General Moore cursed. There was a knock on the door and Colonel Laird walked in.
"We need a Duck to go get them," Pappy continued, ignoring the colonel.
"What do you need the Duck for?" Colonel Laird asked.
"Chris and Vin have been shot down!" Buck said angrily.
"You can't go get them with a Duck," Laird said reasonably. "They're at least ten miles behind enemy lines. They'll have to wait for a sub."
"They were both hit!" Buck yelled. "They'll attract every damned shark in the ocean."
"They have shark repellent."
"Lot of fucking good that will do!" Buck exclaimed. "Everyone knows it doesnt do shit!"
"Captain," General Moore said mildly. "Calm down and we can work this out."
"Y'all can sit here jawing," Buck said standing and heading for the door. "I'm going to get my friends."
"Captain, you better make sure he doesn't do anything stupid," Colonel Laird said, looking at Josiah.
"Yes sir," Josiah said following Buck. He stopped by the door and turned. "You know Buck is right. Bleeding neither of those boys stand a chance."
General Moore leaned back in his chair and pinched the bridge of his nose. He knew they were right but there wasn't much he could do. He looked up at Pappy.
"Greg, give the colonel their coordinates." He listened while Greg gave the location to the colonel and watched as he left to get the rescue team under way. When he was gone the general looked at Greg. "I don't want to know what you have planned. Just don't hurt anybody while you do it."
"Yes, General," Greg smiled as he stood to leave.
"Greg, just one question. Did you sink her?"
"She blew up as pretty as a picture," Greg said smiling as he walked out.
General Moore leaned back in his chair thinking. He knew Greg was up to something to save Major Larabee and the young lieutenant. He was glad Major Boyington had a reputation as a rogue. In situations like this it came in handy. He silently wished them luck as he got back to reading the papers on his desk.
+ + + + + + +
Vin was cold. Sitting in water in the middle of the night wasn't his idea of fun. While he still had enough light to see, Vin had bound Chris's wounds as best he could. The Major had a nice crease just over his left eye and a bullet hole in his right thigh. Vin had used his parachute as bandages. His left arm was useless and had made getting Chris settled a challenge. Once Chris was taken care of, Vin tried to bind his own wounds. The cuts from the coral he wrapped as best he could. He couldn't do much with his arm except stuff some of the silk in both the holes and hope for the best. Vin shivered and shifted to ease and ache his back. He was sitting with Chris's head in his lap. The major was still unconscious which worried Vin. The water level on the coral was too deep for Vin to move out from underneath Chris or he would drown. Vin shivered again and pulled the parachute closer around his shoulders. The extra was tucked around Chris as well. Vin wasnt sure how long it would take Air, Sea Rescue to come get them but he sure hoped it was soon as he sat huddled against the breeze sweeping across the water.
+ + + + + + +
One by one, Ezra saw to it that Buck, Nathan, JD and Josiah folded out of the poker game that had started in the officers club. He'd started it to give the illusion that the Seven intended to stay on the island and then to provide a distraction while they headed for a rendezvous with the Duck. He then found a reason to excuse himself, saying he'd return shortly, even though he headed straight for his Corsair.
The Duck was an amphibious plane that could land on water. It also had a compartment underneath to hold several people. When Major Boyington said they were going to steal it Buck thought he was out of his mind. The major just smiled and told the Seven to trust him.
Buck darted from one plane to another as he made his way over to the awkward-looking aircraft. He had stopped to check to see if the guard was still lurking around when Nathan ran into him. Buck kept himself from falling, barely, until JD bumped into Nathan. It was decided they would go with Buck to help get Vin and Chris aboard. JD because he was small, but strong, and Nathan because he could patch them up until they got back to Espiritos. Buck glared at them and they both smiled sheepishly. Buck made a dash for the Duck and climbed into the cockpit while Nathan and JD climbed into the compartment just below. The explosive sound of the engines cranking up was loud in the dark and Buck hoped someone didn't hear it and decide to start shooting. Hearing him start the plane was the signal for the Corsairs to start as well. The Black Sheep along with Ezra and Josiah would fly cover for the unarmed plane. Buck taxied towards the runway and sighed with relief that no one seemed to notice he was stealing a plane. Once they were in the air he felt even more secure.
"Why werent we challenged? Buck asked no one in particular.
"Twelve-year-old scotch will make any man turn the other way," Ezra said.
"The lure of spirits can be very hard to ignore," Josiah added.
"Amen to that," Bobby chimed in.
"How long until we reach their coordinates?" Jerry asked.
"About 90 minutes," Larry replied.
"Damn just in time for dawn," French growled.
"Didnt have much choice in the time," Pappy said. "If we do this right, well be in and out before the rice balls even know weve been there."
The rest of the flight progressed with no one talking. They knew what was at stake in this mission. Vin and Chris couldnt wait a few days to be picked up by a sub. They were both injured, no one knew how badly, and the night air at sea could chill even in this tropical clime. They didn't even want to think about sharks.
As they flew the sky started to lighten and Pappy told everyone to keep their eyes open.
"Were getting close to their coordinates," Ezra announced.
"Ok, Buck, you go low over the water," Pappy explained. "Ezra, Josiah you go with him. Well keep top cover."
"Roger," Buck said and started his descent. Ezra and Josiah followed.
As the sun rose they were able to see the ocean better and JD whistled. "How are we supposed to find them in this?"
"Just keep your damn eyes open," Buck snapped.
JD flinched. "Sorry, Buck."
"So am I, JD," Buck sighed. "Just keep your eyes open."
JD scanned the water through the small window on his side of the plane. Nathan did the same on his side. JD looked at Nathan and the black pilot turned to him and shook his head. JD bit his lip and went back to looking. He noticed that the water seemed to be getting lighter.
"Buck can you go lower?" JD asked. Buck did and JD could see it was a huge coral reef. "Better be careful when you land, Buck, theres a coral reef in the area."
"Terrific!" Buck exclaimed.
JD suddenly spotted a patch of white at the edge of the coral. As he watched the white billowed out and JD knew it was a parachute.
"Hey! I see one of their chutes at the edge of the coral."
"Could they have climbed on it to get out of the water?" Buck asked.
"I would," Nathan said.
"Ezra, Josiah Im going to put down," Buck explained. "JD and Nathan saw a parachute."
"Roger," Josiah said. "Well cover you."
"Captain," Pappy called. Make it fast."
Buck began to make his decent and he got a better look at the coral reef. He landed far enough away so it wouldnt damage the plane. He guided the plane back around towards the reef and began to slow down.
"This is a close as I dare to go," Buck said.
"Thats okay," JD said. "Ill swim over."
Buck heard the panel slide back and saw JD squirm out of the belly of the plane. Once he was in the water he inflated his May West and began swimming towards the reef. As he got closer, JD could see Buck was a little off and began to swim over to where the parachute was flapping in the wind. He couldnt see either Vin or Chris, and as he climbed up on the coral he cursed as the sharp edges scraped his palms. Once he was on it, he stood up and walked over to the parachute. He pulled the fabric up and jumped back in alarm as he heard a pistol being cocked.
"Dont shoot!" JD yelled. "Its me, JD!"
When a bullet didnt rip through him JD cautiously lifted the fabric. He found Vin slumped over Chris with a gun in his hand. Both men looked in bad shape. Chris wasn't even conscious and Vin didn't seem to immediately realize that help had arrived.
JD bent down and slowly took the gun from Vin. Vin tried to pull it back, and JD rested a hand gently on Vins shoulder. "Its okay, Vin, its JD."
"JD?" Vin asked in confusion.
"Yeah, we came to take you home."
"What kept ya?" Vin asked just before he passed out.
JD gently lay Vin back on the coral. The tide had shifted and more of the coral was exposed so there was very little water. JD decided to get Chris back to the plane first. It was easier said than done. Chris was dead weight, and the irregularities in the coral provided uncertain footing. Once JD had him in the water, he thought it would be a simple matter of just swimming to the plane, but he discovered that Larabee's Mae West was saturated and no longer buoyant. It was more of a hindrance than a help, so he struggled back to the coral and removed it, Luckily, Chris was still wearing his parachute harness, so JD had something to hang onto as he clung for dear life and swam to the plane with only his life vest to keep them both afloat.
He was panting with exertion when he handed him over to Nathan, who pulled the Major into the plane by his chute harness. Without hesitation, though, he had Nathan hand him a dry Mae West for Vin and then headed back for the Lieutenant.
He was careful not to cut himself as he climbed back onto the coral . Vin was semi-conscious, so he had a slightly easier time getting him into the water. The lieutenant became fully alert as JD attempted to get him into the Mae West, jarring his injured shoulder. He let out a sharp cry of pain.
"Sorry, Vin," JD said as he swam with Vin back to the plane.
"Sokay," Vin hissed.
Vin didnt have his parachute harness still on and Nathan was forced to grab Vins shirt and pull him in. The lieutenant cried out again as he was jostled roughly. JD helped push him in while Buck radioed that both injured men were on board. When Nathan got Vin settled he helped JD get back in the plane.
"Everyone ready?" Buck asked.
"Yeah!" JD yelled pushing the door shut. "GO, Buck!"
Buck throttled the power back up and the plane began to move across the water. As the speed increased, the plane bounced on the surface a few times then lifted into the air. As it began to climb, Ezra and Josiah moved in around it. The Black Sheep met them and they took up a protective grouping around the unarmed plane. Buck knew there was going to be hell to pay for stealing the Duck, but he didnt care. Chris and Vin were alive and they were heading home.
"Here, JD, give this to Vin," Nathan said, handing JD a canteen.
The space was tight and JD was in the corner with Vin's head in his lap. JD lifted Vin's head and placed the canteen to his lips. Vin drank greedily and when he was finished JD placed the canteen nearby.
He was shivering and JD grabbed a blanket and spread it over him. "Thanks, JD," he sighed.
"No problem," JD smiled but looked at Nathan with concern. Vin was burning up. His injuries didn't appear serious, but that wasn't a good sign, he knew.
"Vin," Nathan called from where he was checking the major. "Has Chris been unconscious the whole time?"
"Just about," Vin croaked. "Bandaged him the best I could."
"You did great, Vin," Nathan said. "What about you?"
"Been better," Vin said and finally gave in to his weariness.
JD glanced at Nathan as he checked Chris. Nathan had a scowl on his face that worried JD. He knew head wounds could be dangerous and JD was worried Chris might not wake up. JD absently brushed the wet hair from Vin's face and waited.
"Well, that's all I can do," Nathan said as he tucked the blankets around Chris.
"Will he be okay?"
"Head wounds can be tricky but Chris is stubborn." Nathan turned around in the cramped space so he could check Vin. "Now let's see how bad he is."
Nathan started with Vin's right shoulder. He could see the bullet had passed right through and that Vin had stuffed some of the silk from the parachute in the wound to stop the bleeding. Nathan knew if he removed it now it would start to bleed so decided just the leave it alone. He didnt see any other damage to Vin's upper body and replaced the blanket. When he lifted the blanket off Vin's legs he saw Vin's left leg was a bloody mess. Nathan cut the pant leg to find an ugly jagged cut along Vin's calf. Nathan took a closer look and could see pieces of coral embedded in the cut.
"Jesus, Vin, you have the whole damned ocean to land in and you have to hit some coral," Nathan chuckled.
Nathan found a similar gash on Vin's left hip. It was still oozing blood and Nathan could see a large jagged piece of coral sticking in Vins thigh just below the hip bone. Nathan poured some saline over the cut and Vin moaned but didn't wake.
"Jeez, thats in there deep," JD commented when they got a better look.
"Yeah," Nathan agreed as he wiped the area around the coral. "Nothing I can do about it here."
Nathan packed some gauze around the coral and taped it in place. When he was finished he tucked the blankets around Vin. Nathan could feel Vin shivering and grabbed another blanket to put over him.
"Buck's probably going nuts up there," JD smiled.
"Yeah," Nathan said as he sat back. "I better tell him what's going on." Nathan grabbed the headset and throat mike and put them on. "Hey, Buck."
"Nathan! How are they?"
"Holding their own," Nathan began. "Chris has been unconscious the whole time but his leg wound doesn't look too bad. Vins just banged up and lost some blood."
"We're half an hour from Espiritos," Buck said. "Think they'll be okay?"
"They lasted the night. I doubt another hour will kill them," Nathan smiled.
Nathan didn't want to alarm JD but he was worried about Chris. If he'd been unconscious the whole night that wasn't good. Vin's fever was worrisome, and he'd lost more blood than what was good for him but Nathan hoped that with a transfusion and some rest he'd be fine. The flight back to Espiritos was uneventful but Nathan knew that wouldn't last. As they taxied to a stop Nathan could see MPs standing by the hospital truck. Once the Duck had stopped moving, nurses ran over with stretcher-bearers. Nathan slid open the compartment to see Nettie waiting for them.
"How's my boy?" she asked, and he knew she meant Tanner.
"Not too bad," Nathan said as he helped get Vin on one of the stretchers. "Lost some blood, but he should be alright."
"You boys did good," Nettie said patting Nathan's arm. "Don't none of you worry General Moore any, but Colonel Laird is spitting nails."
Nathan smiled as Nettie moved off with Vin. Chris was put on a stretcher and soon followed Vin. Nathan crawled out with JD close behind.
"Whatda ya think will happen?" JD said nervously.
"Don't know," Nathan admitted.
"Nathan!" Buck yelled as he came over. "How are they?"
"Theyll be okay," Nathan said. "Don't know if they could have lasted out there much longer, though." He was pretty certain of that. Vin was very weak, and probably would not have been able to keep Larabee's head out of the water once the tide came back in, not with their Mae Wests waterlogged.
It had been worth the risk.
"Well, come on, then" Buck said. "Let's go face the music."
They joined the Black Sheep at their planes. Ezra and Josiah fell in with them and they could hear Colonel Laird arguing with Pappy.
"I could have you court-martialed!" Laird yelled. "All of you!"
"Nope, just me," Pappy said. "They were just following my orders."
"Hell, no!" Buck said. "I knew exactly what we were doing. I'd do it again, too."
"As would I," Ezra added.
Agreement came from everyone and Colonel Laird threw up his hands in disgust. He knew General Moore wouldn't arrest any of them but they had to be punished. "You're all grounded until further notice!"
"That's it?" JD asked surprised.
"What, you want more?" Buck asked chuckling.
"Colonel Laird knows what we did was right," Pappy said. "He had to order us not to go, so we had steal that plane, so now he has to do something. Just on general principles, he'd probably rather throw us all in the brig, but he knows the general will never go for it."
"You see, JD," Ezra began. "The general realizes that he can't arrest two full fighter groups when we are so under manned. It would cripple his fighting force."
JD frowned. He still didn't get it, but so long as he wasn't really in trouble, he supposed the other guys were right.
Buck clapped him on the shoulder. "Let's get over to the hospital."
"You go," Pappy said. "We'll be over later."
"Sir," JD said stepping over. "I'll bring Meatball over as soon as I can."
"Damn right you will," Pappy smiled. "Why do you think I helped rescue Tanner's sorry ass? Damn dog would never have forgiven me."
JD stared at Pappy in awe as the Black Sheep walk away. Josiah laughed and threw his arm around JD.
"Come on, son, let's go see Chris and Vin."
Nettie greeted them at hospital Quonset's front door. "They're still working on them," she said. "You boys go on over and get something to eat."
"But Nettie..." JD protested.
"Don't 'But Nettie' me," she scolded. "There ain't nothin you can do for them right now so might as well go eat."
There was something in her tone that worried Ezra. "Is everything all right?" he asked.
"As soon as I know, you'll know," she assured him. "Now go... shoo!" she motioned them away with her hands.
"We better do as she suggests," Ezra said.
"Afraid Ezra?" Nathan asked.
"Lets just put it this way," Ezra said. "I'd rather take my chances with the MPs than Miss Wells."
"Live to fight another day," Josiah smiled.
"Always knew he was the smart one," Nettie said patting Ezra's cheek. "Now git!"
Reluctantly they did as they were told. They knew if Chris and Vin needed them, Nettie would make sure they knew.
As a civilian, Nettie was outside the base chain of command, but the doctors never minded her and Casey lending a hand. The hospital was really a row of Quonset huts joined together. There was a sickbay, the infirmary and a small triage area, which was where they had taken Chris and Vin.
Vin had been dosed with morphine so his wounds could be tended, and combined with exhaustion, it had rendered him blissfully unaware of the fact that he was being stripped and bathed. Nevertheless, Nettie knew he hated the stuff and if it were up to him he'd never take it. She knew Vin didnt like to lose control of himself to the drug.
As she watched the doctor examine Vin's wounds, a cold, foreboding chill ran down her spine. She shook the thought away and stepped into the room to help.
"How's he doing?" she asked cautiously, not caring for the frown on the doctor's face. She had already seen Vin's injuries.
The doctor shook his head. "These cuts are deep, and the coral embedded in them is a likely source of infection."
That word gave Nettie another chill. They'd start Vin on sulfa immediately, but deep, penetrating wounds like he had often became septic no matter what they did. Vin was okay for now, but he was by no means out of danger.
A pounding head, burning pain in his thigh and a tongue that felt like it was two sizes too big were the first things Chris was aware of. His second thought was that he was going to kill Buck for taking him on an all-night bender.
As his fuzzy brain began to clear he heard voices close by. If he concentrated he could actually make them out.
"The infection is spreading."
"I know. His fever is also up another degree."
"God, what does that make it now?"
"One hundred four... He's barely conscious."
"Is he still calling for Chris?"
At the mention of his name, Chris remembered what happened. He had been shot down along with Vin. He didn't remember much more except Vin swimming towards him in the ocean. Chris slowly opened his eyes but closed them quickly as the light drove spikes into his already pounding head. One of the nurses heard a low moan from the major and moved to his side.
"Major Larabee?" Chris opened his eyes slightly at her call. "Hold on, let me get the lights."
He heard a click of a switch and then opened his eyes warily. "How long?"
"Four? I gotta get outta here..." He tried to sit up and realized quickly that was a mistake.
"You aren't going anywhere," the nurse said as she gently grabbed his arm and lowered his spinning head back onto the pillow. "Would you like some water?" she asked as she filled a cup.
His mouth felt like it was lined with sandpaper. "Please... thanks." He took the cup she offered him, his hands shaking.
"How are you feeling, Major Larabee?" she asked, shining a pen light into his eyes.
The little beam felt like a needle being stuck in his eye. He winced and turned away. "Like shit."
"You've had a head injury. It's going to be a couple of weeks, at least, before you're back to normal."
He immediately recognized the anguished voice that called his name - Vin.
He turned his head to the left as quickly as he was able to and saw two other nurses struggling to keep Vin on the bed. He was fighting them, but didn't seem to be aware he was doing it. Chris watched in horror as they began to apply restraints - tying Vin to the bed with wide strips of cloth that went across his chest, hips and legs.
"No!" Vin screamed as they secured him. "Have to get to Chris!"
Chris looked up at his nurse with a worried frown. "What's wrong with Vin?"
She shook his head. "He has a massive infection. He's delirious from fever. Thinks you and he are still out in the ocean. He'll be okay in a few minutes..." She hurried over to help the two nurses with Vin.
Vin was calling for him and all he was going to get was doped up. Chris didn't like that idea one bit. He tried to sit up again. The nurses were so busy with Vin they didn't notice as Chris swung his legs over the side of the bed and tried to stand.
"Oh, no you don't!" scolded a familiar voice as she grabbed Chris and pushed him back on the bed.
"Nettie," Chris sighed in relief, partly because if she hadn't shown up, he would have fallen flat on his face, but mostly because she knew she would help Vin. "Don't let them tie him down," he pleaded.
"Okay, but you stay put," she said sternly. Obviously Vin told Chris more about his past than he had told her, but even she could see Vin was exhausting himself struggling against the bonds. It was more than just delirium - he was terrified and gasping for air as though he was suffocating.
She began to unfasten the strip holding his chest.
"I wouldn't," one of the nurses said, but didn't dare interfere.
"Well, I would," Nettie said and then turned her attention to Vin. "Vin, honey, it's alright. Sssshhh. It's Nettie." She stroked his shoulder gently. "Calm down, Vin, you're safe."
"Nettie?" Vin asked in fearful whisper, blue eyes open but unfocused and bright with fever.
"Yes, son, I'm here," Nettie said pushing the damp curls from off his face. "I'm gonna undo some of these straps now. You just take it real easy and don't fight me, okay?"
Chris watched Nettie slowly remove the strap from Vin's chest. When Vin didn't fight, Nettie told the nurses to un-do the rest. Once he was free Vin relaxed against the pillows. Nettie picked up a wet cloth and wiped his face.
"Nettie, I can't find him," Vin cried.
"Find who?" Nettie asked as she wiped his chest.
"Chris," Vin choked. "I can't find him. The ocean is too big."
"Vin, honey, Chris is right here," Nettie said trying to reason with him. "He's fine." She knew it would help for Vin to actually see Chris, but that wasn't going to happen.
"Ive looked and looked," Vin said in his delirium.
"It's okay, sweetie," Nettie reassured him. Between the fever and the morphine, she knew that trying to reason with him was pointless. He whispered Chris's name once more before he drifted off again. She straightened his covers and kissed him on the forehead before returning to Chris.
"How is he?" Chris asked.
"Not gonna lie to you, son," Nettie said in her no nonsense tone. "He's bad, real bad."
"What the fuck happened!" Chris demanded. He instantly regretted the outburst as his head pounded even more.
"Just take it easy, Chris," Nettie said as she squeezed his forearm. "You've been out for four days."
"So I was told," Chris said stubbornly. "Now tell me."
"You remind me of an old mule I had back in the states," Nettie said shaking her head and pulling up a chair. "Never could reason with him either."
"You calling me a mule?" Chris asked with a smile.
"No, I'm calling you an ass," Nettie scolded.
"Been called worse," Chris said and Nettie smiled. "Please tell me what happened."
"Well, let me start at the beginning," Nettie said.
Chris listened as Nettie described what happened. Leave it to the Seven and the Black Sheep to steal a plane to come rescue them. Their grounding hadnt lasted long since the Japanese decided to make a push up the slot and all groups were needed to protect the fleet. Netties explanation was cut short when a doctor arrived to examine him. Chris wasnt happy about it but put up with the intrusion. The doctor introduced himself as Captain Murphy.
He asked Chris to make a fist, and to touch his nose, and do a few other seemingly pointless things before pronouncing, "Not too bad for someone who has just regained consciousness..." he turned to the nearest nurse. "... but I don't want him outta this bed for at least 48 hours."
"I mean it, Major Larabee. You could wind up sniffing the tile. I've got enough to do."
Chris nodded guiltily. The doctor did look haggard. Too many wounded and not enough time to care for them all.
"Youll have a bad headache for a couple of days," he continued ignoring Chris. "And you really do need to rest."
"Ill rest after I hear how Vin is doing," Chris said.
Murphy glanced over at Vin's bed. "He's in bad shape Im afraid," he sighed. "The wounds on his leg are infected. I suspect its from the coral."
"Coral? What coral?" Chris asked confused.
"Vin had to go and land on a coral reef," Nettie explained.
"Figures," Chris sighed. "Hes got the whole damned ocean to land in."
"Thats the same thing Nathan said," Nettie smiled.
"So how bad is he?" Chris asked seriously.
"His temperature is up to 104," Murphy explained. "We cant get it to come down with the medication we have, and it looks like the infection will probably spread to his bloodstream. He just isnt responding. We could lose him."
"Shit," Chris said pinching the bridge of his nose.
Murphy put a reassuring hand on his shoulder. "Try to relax, Major, Ill be back to check on you later."
"Mama! Dont go!"
Nettie quickly moved to Vins side as he cried out. Chris watched as Nettie tried to sooth Vin. She whispered to him and stroked his cheek. It broke Chriss heart to hear Vin crying for his mother. They all knew Vin had been orphaned when he was five after his mother died. Vin never talked about his father and Chris doubted he ever knew him. Vin cried out again and Nettie gathered him in her arms. Chriss head was killing him and even though he tried to fight it, he couldnt stay awake any longer. He drifted off to sleep, knowing that Vin was at least in good hands.
JD shifted Meatball in his lap to a more comfortable position. The dog kept looking out the window like she wanted to fly the plane. The Seven were flying to Espiritos to visit Chris and Vin. This was their first chance in the past three days. They were all thrilled when Nettie had radioed the day before to let them know Chris was awake. As promised, they were returning Meatball to Major Boyington. They had all been so busy flying missions that there hadn't been time. JD was supposed to meet the major on Espiritos.
He was glad when the island finally came into view. In the distant horizon, he could see a storm was brewing, and besides that, Meatball was acting funny and JD didn't know why. She had started whining and fidgeting.
"Good thing we're there," JD said. "Meatball's acting funny."
"Maybe she's air sick," Nathan suggested.
"Nah, I don't think so."
"Probably knows she's going back to Pappy," Josiah said.
They landed a short time later and JD had a hard time getting Meatball to calm down. She wanted out but it was too high for her to jump. Josiah came over to give him a hand and Meatball let Josiah pick her up. As soon as Josiah put her on the ground she raced off.
"Meatball!" JD yelled and raced after her.
"What the hell is going on?" Buck asked.
"Don't know but she's heading for the hospital," Ezra said.
"Maybe Pappy's over there visiting Chris," Nathan said.
"One way to find out," Josiah said and began walking.
JD raced after Meatball but slowed when he saw her run up the steps to the hospital building and sit there. JD climbed the stairs to find Meatball scratching at the door. He doubted dogs were allowed inside but he opened the door anyway. Meatball darted inside and disappeared.
"Do you think that was wise?" Ezra asked as he walked up.
"She wanted in," JD shrugged.
"She's not our problem anymore," Buck grinned. "Let's go see Chris and Vin."
There was incense burning in the ward, but JD could still smell a pungent odor as they neared the corner where Chris and Vin were. They kept walking and JD bumped into Buck when he stopped short. JD became alarmed at how still Buck was and stepped from behind him. He saw Chris sitting in a wheelchair next to Vin's bed. Nettie was on Vin's other side holding his hand. Vins upper body was surrounded by plastic. JD swallowed a lump in his throat. The lieutenant was a sickly color and was very still. Meatball was sitting at Chris's feet but the major wasn't paying attention to her. She whined and Chris looked down at her.
"You want to see Vin?" Chris asked. Meatball stood and waited by Vin's bed.
"I'll get her, Chris," Buck said when Chris went to stand up.
Buck picked her up and placed her on the bed next to Vin. Meatball settled next to Vins good right leg and put her head down starring at him. The usually exuberant animal seemed to sense something wasn't right, and she calmly lay down with her head resting on Vin's leg.
"What is that?" JD asked pointing to the plastic surrounding Vin.
"It's an oxygen tent," Nathan explained. "Vin must be having some trouble breathing."
Seeing the crowd gathered around the young officer, a nurse rushed to Vin's bedside. "What's going on here?" she asked. "What's that dog doing on the bed?"
"Leave her," Chris said quietly.
"That dog is not staying!" She went to shoo Meatball off the bed and the dog snapped at her.
"I said leave her!" Chris cried angrily. "He's dying! At least let him have the things he loves close by."
The nurse's demeanor abruptly changed, and she left the men alone.
"Dying?" JD asked in a strangled voice after she was gone.
"Chris?" Buck looked over at his oldest friend and knew he'd lose him again if what Chris said was true.
They all looked at Nettie and they could see the tears in her eyes. Nathan walked over to the bed and touched Vin's leg, alarmed to discover how hot he was. Nathan grabbed the ends of the bandages to take a look at the cut on Vin's calf. The smell and look of it had JD retching over the garbage pail next to the bed.
"Take it easy, son," Nettie said as she rubbed JD's back.
"Jesus," Buck said.
"Why didn't you tell us he was this bad?!" Ezra demanded of Chris.
"And what could you have done!" Chris said just as angry.
"We could have been here!" Ezra yelled. "How dare you keep this from us!"
"You think I planned it?!" Chris said standing. He wasn't steady on his feet and Josiah put out a hand to catch him but Chris brushed him away. "You think I wanted to be the only one here watching him slowly slip away?!"
"Enough!" Josiah yelled. "None of this will help Vin."
"No..." Chris sighed, defeated. "Nothing can." He dropped back into the wheelchair, hanging his head. "Doc said the injuries weren't that bad, but the coral caused an infection. That's what's killing him."
"There's nothing they can do?" JD asked softly.
Chris shook his head. "He started having trouble breathing this morning." He indicated the oxygen tent. "Doc says he has maybe two days left."
"No..." JD croaked. The other men remained silent. They had all seen the horrors of war, but Vin would be the first friend JD would lose, a friend not much older than he was. It was his first real glimpse of mortality.
Vin stirred slightly, blue eyes opening just a crack to look down at Meatball snuggled close to him. A glimmer of a smile seemed to take all the strength Tanner could muster, but the little dog's presence seemed to soothe him somehow.
"I heard there is a new experimental drug that is supposed to work on infections," Nathan spoke up.
The others turned to him with hopeful eyes, and Nathan looked downward, sorry he had said anything. "The Brits are using it... I don't know where we'd get any of it."
"And there's no assurance that it would even work, anyway," Dr. Murphy scoffed from the doorway. The nurse had come to get him about the dog. But like Chris he knew it didn't real matter if Meatball stayed or not.
"You mean you heard of this drug?" Buck asked the doctor.
"Yes, but it's experimental - it's only being tested on wounded soldiers who have no other hope."
"And it's working on some of them!" Nathan retorted.
"Are you a doctor?" Murphy asked, a little more condescendingly than was necessary.
Nathan wasn't intimidated. "That's not relevant, is it?" he said, just as condescendingly, which seemed to take Murphy aback.
"No..." the doctor said softly. "I guess it isn't... but, it doesn't matter. We don't have the drug available here."
"Well, what is it?" Ezra demanded. "Tell me where I can find it, and I'll get it."
The others knew Ezra wasn't just blowing smoke. If something was to be had, he could find it, even if he had to go through the backdoor and get in on the black market.
"It's called penicillin... but I don't know where to obtain any of it."
Ezra handed him a notebook. "Write it down."
The doctor looked at him curiously, but then neatly printed the name of the drug. He lowered his voice to a soft whisper. "You don't have a lot of time." He nodded towards Vin.
"I won't need a lot of time," Ezra said, and then hurried from the ward.
Murphy looked at the others and Nettie. "You must realize that even if he finds it, it may not work. No one knows a proper dosage, or how far advanced an infection can be before the drug is ineffective. We are still learning."
"Do we have any other choice?" Chris challenged.
Murphy shook his head. "I've done all that is possible for him. Even if the penicillin works he may never fully recover."
The others looked at him questioningly. "But I thought if you stopped the infection, the wounds would heal okay..." JD said.
"Vins temperature has been dangerously high for too long," Dr. Murphy explained.
"You saying he could have brain damage?" Nathan asked.
The doctor nodded. "He could be left blind, or deaf, or palsied, or without his mental faculties. Maybe all of those things."
"Shit!" Chris cursed.
"Chris," Nettie said softly. "Maybe its best if we just let him go."
"I cant," Chris said squeezing Vins hand as he looked at the doctor. "He deserves a chance."
"Well, first we have to find the drug," Murphy reminded them. "If we don't, the whole question is moot. Barring a miracle, he's going to die."