Notes: Thanks to Shallan, Malu, and Zadra for giving this story a quick once over. Thanks to Cassie and Mog for keeping me honest in the Mag 7:ATF universe.
Dawn: Alyssa Milano
Ranger Gregor: Adrien Paul
by C.L. Combs
“You got everything, Ez?” Buck Wilmington asked, trying to hold back a yawn.
Making sure the strap to his carry-on bag was firmly positioned on his shoulder, Ezra Standish nodded at his fellow ATF agent. “Thank you for the transportation from the airport. I appreciate it.”
“No problem,” Buck replied with a dismissing wave. “JD can get a ride from Chris when the rest of the guys fly in.”
“After the six hour delay in Dallas, I’d have almost preferred staying in San Antonio with our fellow teammates instead of taking Mr. Larabee up on his offer for an early departure,” Ezra commented with a yawn. Both men had had minimal amounts of sleep the past two weeks while posing as arms dealers, so their leader Chris Larabee had sent them home right after the bust.
Buck gave him a sleepy grin. “At least I’ve got a night without listening to JD’s Nintendo games beeping in the background.”
“Well, I am off to sleep for a week,” Ezra replied with another yawn. “Enjoy your evening.”
Fighting to stay awake, Buck drove to the loft he shared with his fellow teammate, JD Dunne. While he normally enjoyed the exuberate energy of the youngest Team Seven member, tonight Buck was actually looking forward to an evening alone. All he really wanted to do was veg in front of the Broncos game he’d taped with a pizza and a beer. Then like Ezra, he wanted to sleep for a week.
Closing the front door and clicking the deadbolt shut, Buck yawned as he headed towards the couch, dropping his duffel bag half-way there. Toeing off his boots, Buck leaned back and stretch, popping his back. Glancing at the answering machine, he blinked as he noted the red ‘24’ blinking on their machine. Twenty-four messages? The Denver women must have missed me. Well, too bad, ladies. Ole Buck’s too pooped to woo tonight.
Buck had barely started searching for the TV remote under the newspapers on the coffee table when the phone rang. Thinking it was probably JD, Buck absently picked it up. “Hello?”
“Wilmington? Where in the Hell have you been this week?”
Buck blinked, recognizing the voice. “Captain Elliot?” Confused, Buck tried to figure out why his old boss with the Denver PD would care where an ATF agent was. “I’ve been out of town. Why?”
A heavy sigh echoed across the line. “I have news.”
Picking up on the reluctant tone, Buck instinctively knew it wouldn’t be good news. “What’s up?”
“Ted Montabone escaped from prison three days ago.”
// It’s all YOUR fault, Wilmington! I’m going to KILL you!//
Buck closed his eyes as the blood-covered images assaulted him. The ancient, painful memories he thought he’d left behind crashed down his head with surprising intensity. Fighting to keep in control, he softly asked, “Any idea where he went?”
“We think he went to Arizona, but no one knows for sure.”
Pulling himself together, Buck sat up straighter. “So there’s no way of knowing if he plans to carry out his threats?”
“None. Though hopefully, he’s got enough problems staying ahead of the search to worry about you.” There was a pause, heavy with memories. “Still, I wanted to let you know so you could watch your back.”
Voice rough, Buck softly replied, “I appreciate that.”
“Let Chris know, too, so he can watch your back as well.”
Buck winced. So much had happened to Chris since they had been partners in Homicide. So much had happened to both of them and between them during the intervening years. Buck wasn’t sure he was ready to dredge up old ghosts for both of them. “I’ll handle it.”
“And remember, if you need anything, anything at all, let me know.”
“Appreciate it.” Softly saying goodbye, Buck hung up the phone. Closing his eyes, an image of a pair of soft brown eyes and a warm, sweet smile floated in front of him. It was a ghost that had been with him for over ten years, slowly fading yet never totally disappearing. “Ah, Morning Dawn, how am I going to handle you tonight?” Buck dropped his head in his hands. He knew the nightmares would return with a vengeance. He just didn’t know if he could fight them again.
“Hey Buck? You home?” JD called out as he stepped into the loft. Silence greeted him. “Hey Buck, you still asleep?” The young man bounced up the stairs, full of energy after being stuck on a plane for several hours. Planning to yank his friend out of bed to face the brilliant day, he skidded to a stop when his eyes discovered a neatly made bed. “That’s weird,” JD muttered. Buck rarely made his bed, unless he planned on being out of town for several days. Yet he should have slept in it last night.
Oh well, maybe he went over the Marian’s. Or Susan’s. Or Katie’s… Shrugging, JD trotted back down the steps and walked over to the couch, nearly tripping over Buck’s duffel. Not thinking much about it, he glanced at the answering machine. TWENTY-FIVE MESSAGES? And Buck hasn’t listened to them yet? Puzzled, JD hit the ‘play’ button. He smiled as a message from his girlfriend Casey filled the room, saying she was sorry she had missed him and would make it up to him once he got back. Playing with ideas of how she could make it up to him, JD barely listened to the message from Susan asking if Buck was home yet, vaguely noted the one from Mrs. Swiss downstairs saying she picked up their mail, and ignored the one trying to get Buck to re-mortgage the loft.
Then a stern voice boomed into the room. “Wilmington? This is Captain Elliot. I need to you call me pronto.” JD frowned. Why would Buck’s old boss call him? The next message was also from Captain Elliot. So was the next one. And the next one.
Suddenly, the fact that Buck wasn’t in the loft as he had planned became a bit more ominous. Looking around as another message from Captain Elliot rang in his ears, JD noticed a frame picture sitting on the coffee table. He picked it up to study. It was of a much younger Buck and a young woman with soft brown hair and eyes. Blinking, JD realized that in the four years he had known the older man, he had never seen such a contented smile on his friend’s face. Who on earth is this? And why is this picture sitting out when I know I’ve never seen it before?
“Wilmington, I REALLY NEED TO TALK WITH YOU. CALL ME!”
JD looked down at the machine. Something was going on here, but he didn’t have a clue what. He glanced at the duffel bag that had not been opened. Thought of the neatly made bed upstairs. But most unsettling was that Buck was not here where he was supposed to be. Don’t panic, JD. Try the office. He grabbed the phone.
“I love you, Buck.”
The soft whisper barely reached his ears. Buck grasped the bloody shoulder tighter. “Don’t go, Morning Dawn. Fight, darling, fight!” Anguish filled his soul as the delicate eyelids closed for the last time. “Oh God, NO! Dawn! Dawn!”
Buck awoke with a jerk, tears streaming down his face like they did that fateful night. It took a moment to realize he wasn’t at Dawn’s apartment in Cherry Creek. He was in that special spot entwined with her memories, so he could mourn her yet again.
Slowly standing and pulling away from the rock that had supported his all-too-brief nap, Buck ignored the small dome tent behind him. He wasn’t ready for sleep. He wanted to remember her as she had lived, not how she had died. Taking a deep breath, the tall man walked onto a gently curved rock outcropping. Before him stretched a mountain valley, the rugged, pine tree covered slopes sharply dipping down to a quiet valley, a stream cutting through the green meadow grass. A soft breeze dried his tears, the scent of pine teasing his nose.
They had found this particular spot one day when they had been hiking. Buck only had to close his eyes to see her spinning on this very rock, arms opened wide. He had admired her sleek curves in denim shorts and a T-shirt sporting a red rose and the saying, ‘a touch of class’. “Isn’t this the most beautiful view, Buck!” she had exclaimed. “A picture just wouldn’t do it justice!” Buck had the same thought, only he had been thinking of her.
They had spent their first night together in this spot. It was here with an eagle flying above that he had proposed to her. And it was here that he had sat for four days mourning her, with a worried Chris silently watching him grieve. While he had been with numerous women since, there had only been one Morning Dawn.
At first, he had come back often to this spot, silently celebrating her birthday, the anniversary of their first date, the anniversary of his proposal. He had spent several days on the rock after Sarah’s and Adam’s deaths, mourning them and recovering from his own frustration when Chris shoved him away. Whenever his soul needed the gentle soothing her touch once provided, he would come here.
Yet those visits had gradually grown fewer. Buck had only returned once since Chris had formed Team Seven, and not ever since he had gained his energetic protegee and roommate. Until now, when the past once again decided to haunt him. Damn you, Montabone. Damn you for taking her. And damn you for making me remember again.
A part of him felt guilty. How could he forget her? How could he stop mourning that beautiful ray of sunshine? But another part pointed out that he hadn’t really forgotten. The piece of his soul that had been hers alone still remained untouched, lonely in a way no other woman had ever been able to completely erase. Only JD and the other men who had become his family had ever come close. All of whom should be home now and possibly worrying since he had simply disappeared. With a sigh, Buck started to turn back towards his cell phone, wondering if it would work and what he could possibly say to JD to explain what he was doing.
With harsh suddenness, something slammed into the back of his head. The echo of the rifle report swirled with the sense of falling before blackness overtook him.
“… and his duffel is still right here!”
“Maybe our Mr. Wilmington has simply gone out to obtain some nourishment?”
“No, we have enough food, and he should have been too tired to go out.”
Chris Larabee and Vin Tanner walked in through the open door to spy JD waving at the kitchen area. His audience consisted of the rest of Team Seven, namely Josiah Sanchez, Nathan Jackson, and Ezra Standish. The four looked up with mixtures of disappointment and relief shining from their faces. Noting the clothes the two men still wore, Josiah softly commented, “Didn’t get all the way to Vin’s place?” Chris was to have dropped off Vin before driving out to his ranchette on the city’s outskirts.
Vin silently shook his head as Chris approached the youngest team member. “JD, what’s going on here?”
“Something’s wrong, Chris. I can’t find Buck. Hell, other than the duffel bag and the picture, there isn’t even any evidence that he got back!”
“What picture?” Vin asked. Ezra silently handed Vin the frame he held.
“You sure Buck isn’t visiting one of his lady friends?” Chris asked with a slight smirk. He knew his old friend well.
JD shook his head. “I called all the current ones and a few of the older ones. Even then, he usually takes his cell phone. Plus there’s all the messages from Captain Elliot.”
“Elliot?” Chris repeated with surprise. “What did he want with Buck?”
“Apparently something big, since he left nearly twenty messages on our machine,” JD replied. “Though I think he did get a hold of Buck by the sounds of the last message.”
“What did he say, JD?” Chris asked patiently. He took the frame from Vin while still concentrating on his youngest agent.
“Well, here’s the last message…” JD pressed the appropriate button.
“Wilmington, Elliot again. Montabone is NOT in Arizona. In fact, no one knows where the hell he is. So watch your back!”
Montabone! Chris felt like he’d been punched in the stomach. The image of his partner, rocking and sobbing while he cradled a blood covered body close to his chest, filled his mind.
“Chris,” Vin asked cautiously, “You know this Montabone?”
Shaking the image from his mind, Chris absently replied, “Yes.” He glanced down at the picture, remembering the sweet young woman and how happy she had made Buck. Rusty connections from the past cleared through his brain.
“Then who is it?” JD asked, worry thinning down his patience.
Chris forced himself to look at his men. “Buck’s business. JD, is Buck’s backpack still here?”
“His backpack?” Nathan questioned as JD raced to check. “Why would he want his backpack?”
Chris remained silent. Vin felt his own concern climb as worry radiated from his friend.
“No, it’s not,” JD replied, breathlessly. “His hiking boots are gone, too.”
“Then I know where he is,” Chris replied. He turned to Josiah. “Call Elliot and find out what the status is on Montabone. If he’s in the Denver area, I’ll take Buck to my place where we can keep him safe.” He turned to the door.
“Where are you going, Chris?” Nathan asked in confusion.
“To get Buck,” Chris tersely replied.
“I’m going, too,” JD declared.
Before he could take a step forward, Chris turned back. “No. Buck doesn’t need your questions right now. Let me get him, and we’ll meet at my place.”
The door slammed in JD’s face.
“Buck, you need to move.”
Buck tried to lift his head to see the speaker, but the eruption of pain suggested that was a bad idea. He couldn’t help the soft moan that escaped.
“Please Buck, he’ll find you if you don’t.”
Dawn wanted him to move. Nothing made any sense, but if Dawn wanted him to move, he’d do anything in his power to obey. “O-kay, darling,” Buck whispered, his dry throat making the words sound more like a hiss.
Somehow, he rose to his forearms before a sharp explosion of pain radiated from his left shoulder. Biting his lip to keep from crying out, Buck tucked his left arm close to his body as he fought to keep the darkness at bay. He finally forced his eyes open a crack. For a moment, he studied the yellowish brown rock and dirt under his hand.
Swallowing hard against the dry throat, his right arm snaked ahead, then pulled the rest of him forward. More pain erupted from his right leg, but Buck continued. The scrape of rock against his bare skin hardly registered between the pain of his head, shoulder and other assorted tender spots. Slowly, he managed to drag his long body across the rock to where it dipped into a patch of soil with a line of short juniper bushes. Once he was tucked against them, Buck lost the battle with the darkness. A soft breeze caressed the unconscious man, oblivious to the dark-haired man below who was swearing because he couldn’t find his prey.
JD rubbed his hand over the handle of his motorcycle as he waited in the bushes at the end of Chris’ driveway. Sure, Chris had told him not to come. But Buck was practically his brother, damn it, and that meant he wasn’t going to just stay away when he was in trouble. Which had to be the case, if the look on Chris’ face earlier was any indication. His gut twisted with the thought of Buck alone, in trouble or worse. If he needed space, JD would give it to him – as long as he was within view.
JD nearly jumped ten feet. He turned, finding Vin Tanner standing behind him. “Man, don’t DO that. You nearly gave me a heart attack.”
Vin rocked back on his heels nonchalantly. “Chris leave yet?”
JD turned back to the driveway. “Not yet.”
“You know, Chris did tell you not to come.”
Stubbornness and attitude filled the young face. “I don’t care. Buck needs me.”
Vin shrugged. “I was thinking it’s a good time to go camping, myself.” Noting JD’s disbelieving stare, the sharpshooter continued, “It’s a free country, right? Nothing stopping us from pitching a tent. And it’s not our faults if we just happen to be in the same woods as Buck and Chris.”
A wide, mischievous grin stretched across JD’s face as he caught on. “Especially if they don’t see us.”
An answering grin broke across the other agent’s face. “Yep. Yet if trouble breaks out….”
“We’ll be there to help out,” JD finished. “But how are we going to follow Chris without him seeing us?”
“That’s why we’ll be using the tracker,” Vin replied innocently.
JD’s smile grew even wider. “You put a tracker on Chris’ truck?”
“Need the practice following perps, don’t we?” Vin countered.
“Okay, as long as you’re the one to tell him that if we get caught.”
“Besides, Ezra said we ought to field test it. He also lent you that fancy new camping equipment he bought, though he said to tell you it better be in ‘pristine’ condition when you return it.”
JD shook his head as he looked back towards the house. “What do you think this is about?”
Vin shrugged worriedly. “I don’t know. But Montabone’s got to be bad news if Buck took off and Chris is going after him.”
JD nodded worriedly. “I want to know, and yet I’m scared to, you know?”
“Yeah. That’s why we’ll stick close, but give them
some space.” Vin tapped the kid’s
shoulder. “Let’s get in the Jeep and
God, his head hurt. Buck gingerly lifted his eyes and found himself staring at a juniper bush. Not that anything was making much sense, but it did seem strange to be so cuddly with something so prickly. It was a struggle, but vague memories of Montabone and standing on his and Dawn’s rock finally filtered through. He must have been shot and fallen off their perch above the valley. Cautious fingers gently probed the right side of the back of his head. His hair, neck and face were caked with blood and dirt. No wonder he felt so bad.
He attempted to roll over, only to have the pain in his shoulder clash with the pain in his head. For a moment, Buck’s stomach rolled ominously until the agony subsided. Had he been shot in the shoulder, too? Another gentle search found no blood or dislocation around the shoulder, but a lot of pain and swelling. He must have bruise or broken something in the fall. A little further down the arm was dried blood around a long, painful gash. There was another dull ache from his calf, though it hurt too much to move his head and check on it. It was definitely not his day.
After much careful maneuvering, he managed to glimpse the steep mountain slope above him through blurry eyes. His camp had to be up there, along with his water, first aid kit, cell phone and gun. Unfortunately, the thought of simply getting on his feet made him sick to his stomach, let alone climbing. Nor did he know if Montabone was still around. Either he took off, thinking he had killed him, or else he was hanging around, waiting to finish the job. At the moment, Buck suspected it wouldn’t take much to finish him off. He could barely move and certainly couldn’t defend himself.
Yet he needed water. Buck ran a tongue over his dry lips. Between the blood loss and the hot sun baking him and the rocks, he was heading towards serious trouble. Nor would relief come at sunset. In the dry mountain air, the temperatures easily dropped by 30 to 40 degrees at night, threatening hypothermia for a man in his condition. He also couldn’t count on anyone looking for him. Chris might know where to look, but only if his friend knew about Montabone. If it had been JD in such a position, Buck would have torn him a new one for pulling something so stupid. Guess experience hadn’t made him much smarter.
However, there was the creek at the bottom of the valley, and going down seemed like a much better option that up. At least, it would once his head stopped spinning. Leaning more into the slight shade of the bushes, Buck felt himself drift off.
Half hour later, Elephant Ridge trail head, Arapaho National Forest
Chris slammed the truck door, taking out a bit more of his anger. For the entire drive to this remote national forest trail, Chris had been furious with his old friend. When a convicted murderer with a beef against Buck escapes from jail, what does he do? He goes off to the middle of nowhere without a word to anyone, far away from his friends and any protection. Once Chris knew Buck was safe, he was going to kill him.
Taking a deep breath, he pulled his backpack up onto his shoulders and studied the sky. Clouds heralding a predicted cold front were building to the northeast. Hopefully, Chris could get Buck back to the truck before it hit. With that thought in mind, Chris started the three mile hike to where he knew he’d find his friend.
The steady pace of walking began to soothe his anger. Calmer, old memories began to creep in. Somehow over the years, Chris had forgotten how hard Dawn’s loss had hit Buck. During the first couple of months after the tragedy, his normally talkative partner had been silent. Exhaustion and grief took a noticeable toll on the strong man while nightmares plagued him even during brief naps. Chris once had feared that his partner’s haunted eyes would never return to their normal, friendly glow. Yet, Buck did eventually regained his energy and his charming rogue nature. Hadn’t he?
Suddenly, Chris remembered the time when he had told Sarah that Buck was back to normal because he had three dates the next weekend. Sarah had given him a sad smile and a shake of her head. “He’s not dealing with it, honey. It’s much too painful for him. But it’s not in Buck’s nature to brood, so he’s just burying it deep enough so he can go on. The more women he’s with, the less time he has to remember Dawn is gone.”
Chris had considered her words worriedly. He knew Buck had come close to cracking those first couple of weeks. It hurt him to see his partner in such pain. “Do you think I should talk with him some more?”
Sarah, in her gentle wisdom, shook her head. “Once he has some distance, he’ll deal with it in his own way. You’re helping him enough just by being there for him.”
A few years later, it had been Chris’ turn to mourn. However, he was definitely the brooding type and had built high walls to keep everyone away, including Buck. For the first time, Chris wondered just how much he had hurt Buck by not letting his partner be there for him like he had for Buck. Not that his friend had ever said anything to him about that time. Had Buck built his own walls that were invisible even to Chris?
Pausing a minute to catch his breath before continuing on the switchback, Chris stared at a pine tree without seeing it. Yes, he had hurt Buck, but they were okay now, weren’t they? They were still good friends and part of a team that was more like family than co-workers. As the team leader, Chris now worried about six men, not just his old partner. In fact, Buck rarely gave him cause to worry. He knew his old friend so well, he saw through the carefree façade and trusted the experienced, level-headed agent underneath. Besides, Buck also had JD to look after, a responsibility he took to like a momma hen with a single chick.
Should he have paid more attention to Buck? The last time he had seen his friend was just before Josiah drove him and Ezra to the airport. Both men had been exhausted mentally and physically from the assignment, but Chris had figured a restful few days would take care of that. However, he hadn’t expected Montabone to escape. How hard had the news hit an exhausted Buck? Had Buck ever dealt with Dawn’s death during the ensuing years? Apparently, he hadn’t even told JD about her, and he thought Buck told the kid just about everything. Had the nightmares returned?
With renewed determination, Chris continued up the steep trail. If the ghosts were again haunting Buck’s sleep, he would help his friend deal with them. That’s what friends did.
He was done. Buck felt his body fall limp against several young pine trees. He could no longer remember where he was trying to go or even why. His world had narrowed to making the next painful inch down the slope, while pain and exhaustion tempted him to given in to the darkness again. “No…More…” he mumbled through a dry mouth.
“Rest, my love. Chris is coming.”
“Chris is coming,” he mumbled before unconsciousness overtook him.
“Maybe we should have put the tracker on his backpack,” JD complained, running a hand through his hair. Following Chris hadn’t been too hard until they hit the intersection of three separate trails.
Vin was kneeling, examining the dirt. “I don’t think anyone’s been on this northerly one. So it has to be one of the other two.”
“Any idea which one?” JD asked hopefully.
Vin stood up and adjusted the weight of his backpack. “Nope. Both show recent traffic.”
JD sighed as he studied the two narrow trails. One continued up, presumably to the top of the mountain or whatever high point was scenic enough for someone to hike to. The other sloped downward into another set of switchbacks like the one they had just climbed up. “So, do we go up or down?”
“Buck’s your roommate. Which way do you think he’d head?”
Before JD could reply, gunshots could be heard echoing from above. The two agents looked at each other. “Up!” they said in unison, their feet were already digging into the trail’s soft dirt.
Josiah softly swore as he slammed the phone. Nathan and Ezra exchanged worried looks. Their big friend rarely lost his temper, unless it was with a particularly nasty perp. “Josiah?” Nathan ventured.
Josiah sighed, debating how much to tell his co-workers. Upon finding out the evil Montabone had committed in Buck’s life, he could understand why Chris had been silent on the subject. Yet both he and Buck were part of a family now. Josiah had a bad feeling they were going to need all their family to get everyone out of the situation in one piece. “According to Elliot, they’ve discovered evidence that Montabone came to Denver. They also have a report that he was sighted near Buck’s place a couple of days ago.”
Ezra frowned. “I assume this is the same Montabone that scared our normally fearless leader, and sent our normally unflappable Mr. Wilmington fleeing into the deep woods?”
Josiah nodded. Nathan turned to Ezra. “You know where they went?”
“Vin and JD are following Chris, and I entrusted my satellite phone to Vin.” Ezra glanced up at the clock. “Approximately an hour ago, they arrived at a trailhead in the Arapaho National forest for ‘Elephant Ridge’. They have not contacted me since.”
“Surely Montabone wouldn’t have followed Buck all the way out to the middle of nowhere,” Nathan commented hopefully.
“Depends on the amount of incentive he has.” Ezra looked at Josiah and raised an eyebrow. He suspected there was much more to the story than just a perp Buck put away.
Josiah sighed. “He has plenty of incentive.” Looking into the expectant faces, Josiah softly began, “A little over ten years ago, Buck was engaged …”
“Engaged?” both Ezra and Nathan exclaimed, stunned.
Josiah silenced them with a reprimanding glare. “Engaged to, by all accounts, a delightful young woman by the name of Dawn Montabone…”
Chris swore as he rolled behind the fallen trunk of a lightening-struck tree resting on a rock. He had just barely found Buck’s camp when the shooting started. A glimpse of the shooter as Chris dove for cover had confirmed it was Montabone. However, from his view behind the way-too-skinny log, he didn’t see any sign of his friend around the tent. “BUCK!” he shouted as he pulled out his gun. The only answer was another shot in his direction. Chris pinpointed the report as coming from his right, probably from the stand of pine near the edge of the ridge. Swiftly, he twisted out of cover just long enough to send a shot towards the stands and duck back.
What worried him was that there was no answer from Buck. On previous trips, Buck had rarely left the rock he’d proposed to Dawn on. Chris feared his friend wasn’t answering because he couldn’t answer. Which meant he had to figure out some way to get this jerk so he could find him. Another shot sprayed wood splinters in his face. Chris swore again as he wiped the debris from his eyes. He wasn’t in the best position, either to defend himself or to spot Buck.
Suddenly, gun fire erupted from the trail. Straining, Chris could hear Montabone crashing into the brush behind the pines. Apparently, he didn’t want to face more than one surprised man at a time.
Cautiously standing up, he fully expected to see Buck there. However, the dark-haired figure that greeted his eyes was a lot shorter than his old friend. “JD! I thought I told you to stay away!”
JD shrugged, defiance radiating from his stance. “We weren’t going to come close unless you and Buck ran into trouble. I think getting shot at is definitely in the ‘trouble’ category.”
Chris was about to reply when another figure stepped out of the trees. Before he could lift his gun, he recognized the newcomer. “Vin,” he growled.
“You’re welcome.” Vin pushed back the rim of his cap with his gun barrel, blue eyes reminding his friend that they had just saved his rear end. “I don’t know if we hit the shooter, but he’s out of sight now.”
Now glaring at both young agents, Chris was about to chew them out when JD suddenly piped up, “That’s Buck’s tent. Where is he?”
Worry and fear tightened in his gut as Chris glanced around the area. “Don’t know. Buck shouldn’t have gone far from that rock. Start searching.”
Vin walked over to the rock in question as JD checked the tent. “What’s so special about that rock?” the youngest man inquired, still confused about the whole situation.
“Let’s just find Buck,” Chris hedged worriedly.
“But if we don’t know what’s going on, how are we going to find him?” JD demanded.
“And it would be nice to know why we’re getting shot at,” Vin added, noting the view looked vaguely familiar, except for the storm clouds darkening the horizon. He knelt down to study the granite.
Chris sighed. “Buck proposed to his fiancée on that rock.”
“Fiancée?” Both younger men turned in surprised to face Chris. “Buck actually PROPOSED to a woman?” JD asked in shock. He’d never seen Buck become serious about any woman, let alone give one a ring.
“The woman in the picture,” Vin uneasily guessed. When Chris nodded, Vin had to swallow hard to ask, “What happened?”
Chris turned back to the trees. “She took a bullet meant for Buck.”
Vin closed his eyes a moment in sympathy, then opened them to spot a drop of blood splatter on the rock in front of him.
“And Montabone was the shooter,” JD whispered, putting it together. Any annoyance at his older friend flew out of his soul as the young man contemplated the pain Buck must have gone through.
“Ah, guys…” Vin was leaning over the edge of the rock.
Chris felt his heart sink. It took a lot of strength to ask, “Buck?”
“I don’t see him.” Vin could feel JD reluctantly approaching him from behind. “But I see a Rockies baseball cap like his snagged on one of the aspen branches below. Several other branches around it are broken, but I can’t see the slope past them. The trees haven’t dropped enough leaves yet.”
“Oh… my… God,” JD slowly declared, taking his first look at the drop. Fear turned his stomach to ice as he wondered if his friend could have survived.
“The trees may have broken his fall, JD. He could still be alive,” Vin assured him, hoping to keep his friend from panicking. He decided to stay silent about the drop of blood.
“But he’s got to be hurt,” JD forced himself to reply.
“So we’d better find him before this storm hits,” Chris growled. He was scared that despite Vin’s optimism, his old friend might already be gone.
“The radio said they expect the snow line to be around 9,000.” Vin pulled himself up and picked up his pack.
“How high are we?” JD asked. Coming from Boston, he still had trouble estimating elevation in the high country.
“Almost nine,” Chris replied grimly. “If Buck’s hurt, he won’t last through the night unless we find him.”
Vin and JD exchanged bleak glances before following Chris’ swiftly retreating back.
Blood was everywhere. Buck felt like his soul was splatter on the floor along with it. He held her tight, desperately trying to hold her spirit with him, though a tiny part knew she was already gone.
Suddenly, Buck found himself sitting cross-legged on their rock, looking out over the valley. A warm presence leaned against his arm. “You haven’t come in quite a while, Love.”
“Oh, Darling, I’m sorry.” Buck gently cupped Dawn’s delicate face.
Her hand gently wrapped around his. “Don’t be. I was hoping you’d have found another to love.”
Buck shook his head. “I’ve tried, but you took a part of my soul with you. I don’t have any more to give another like she deserves.”
“Yes, you do,” Dawn refuted softly. Then she changed the subject. “What have you been doing? Last time you were here, you told me all about the new team Chris was putting together. Three others? Josiah, Nathan, and Vin? Have you made peace with Vin?”
Buck nodded. “Yeah, Junior’s a good guy. I knew it, and I’ve accepted that he can reach Chris when I can’t. We’ve also picked up two more guys. Ezra Standish, he’s our main undercover man. He’s a sweet-talking southern who’s slipperier than a wet eel. Dresses real nice all the time and is into the finer things. He’d have appreciated your artwork.”
She slugged him in the arm. “I thought you liked my drawings.”
“I do.” Buck gave her a slow, charming smile. “Didn’t understand all of them, but then, I’m not the art genius.”
Dawn returned with her own shy smile at the compliment. “And who’s the other?”
“JD Dunne.” Buck’s face lit up at the thought of the young man. “He’s a good kid. Just barely out of the academy when his momma passed away, so he moved from Boston to Denver to join us. The youngster had no place to stay, so I offered him my spare room. He’s been my roommate ever since.”
“So he keeps you in line?” Dawn asked with a grin.
Buck snorted. “He’s just a green kid. I’ve been the one showing him the ropes.”
“But he’s special.”
“Yeah, he’s like a kid brother.” Buck blinked his eyes, suddenly tired. “You would have loved him.”
“I know I would have,” Dawn gently smiled. “I’ll bet he’s another white knight, just like you.” She ran a gentle hand through his hair. “Sleep, my love. You’re safe for the moment, and Chris will be here soon.”
Buck felt himself slide until his head was in her lap, her gentle hand easing his aching head.
The cold wind was picking up, its temperature matching the fear tightly gripping Chris’ heart. He knew the wind preceded the coming storm, and that Montabone was still lurking about the area. However, both were secondary concerns at the moment. Chris concentrated on keeping his footing on the steep trail down the mountain slope. There was no time to hike back to the easier one. Every instinct shouted that they had to find Buck soon. If it wasn’t already too late.
In the back of his mind, Chris knew he was close to losing it. The unwavering faith and loyalty that Buck Wilmington normally provided him was missing, leaving a gaping hole he wasn’t willing to acknowledge yet. Never before had it occurred to Chris just how much he depended on that light-hearted source of strength always being there, ready to back him no matter what. Now Buck was depending on him, like he did during the months right after Dawn’s death. Chris refused to fail him.
Once they had reached the valley floor, Chris led their small party to the base of the rock. All three pairs of eyes searched the steep, rocky slope, praying to find some sign of their friend.
“Could he be under those trees?” JD whispered. He continued to push the fear aside. He wasn’t giving up on Buck until he knew for certain.
“The slope there is pretty steep,” Vin commented just as softly. “Though there are plenty of bushes and saplings further down to hide in.”
“Hide in?” JD asked.
Vin’s sharp eyes continued to scan the hillside. “Montabone might have tried to find him, to make sure the job’s done.”
JD shuddered. If the job was Buck’s death, he didn’t want it ‘done’.
Ignoring the conversation, Chris’ eyes continually swept over the rocks and brush. He refused to quit until he found Buck. A faint wisp of gray flashed in his peripheral vision. Turning his head, Chris noticed a hiking boot sticking out from under a small group of young pine trees near a stand of aspen. “BUCK!” Chris raced up the slope, not caring whether the others followed or if Montabone was around. He had to reach his friend.
Whipping off his backpack, Chris knelt beside the long body. He swiftly cataloged all the bloody tears in Buck’s jeans and T-shirt. Noting blood-matted hair at the back of the head, Chris softly whispered, “Buck?” His right hand searched and happily found his friend’s weak, but steady, pulse. He laid his hand on Buck’s left shoulder, only to feel the faint flinch. “Buck,” he called louder.
The voice was hoarse and raspy, but it was still music to Chris’ ears. “Easy, Buck.”
“Sa-said you come…”
“Buck!” JD slid in next to Chris, eyes wide. Hands nearly touched the blood-matted hair, then backed away for fear of hurting him. “Oh, God, Buck.”
Vin quickly assessed the situation. Chris looked almost as shaky as JD, with Buck barely looking alive. It was up to him to take charge until Chris found his feet again. “JD, here.” He shoved Ezra’s satellite phone into the younger man’s hands. “Call Ezra. Tell him where we are and he’s to send a rescue unit.” JD looked at the phone like it had grown horns, then glanced up. Vin shooed him with his hands. “I learnt how to check for injuries in the Army. Buck’s going to need help, and it’s going to be rough on him if we have to make due and cart him out by ourselves. So call Ezra.”
Chris met the scared hazel eyes. “Go ahead.”
Taking a deep breath, JD stood up and walked a couple of feet down the slope before opening the phone.
Chris looked at Vin. “What can I do?”
“Get him to respond to you,” Vin replied as he gently felt Buck’s shoulder. His efforts were rewarded by a sharp gasp from his patient.
“Easy, Buck,” Chris repeated. “We’re just checking you out.”
“I know, partner. Can you tell me what hurts?”
Chris glanced at Vin, who nodded. They were so far away from help, and Buck was too dehydrated as it was. Chris yanked his water bottle out of his pack, then gently lifted Buck’s head to give him a couple of sips of water.
“Thanks.” Buck’s eyes closed again, then jerked open with a gasp when Vin touched a painfully tender spot.
“Can you tell me what hurts?” Chris gently asked again, trying to figure out how to comfort his friend.
“Head… Shoulder… Leg…”
“Which leg?” Chris glanced up at Vin, who had been slowly feeling for injuries down the lanky body.
“Ah, right one.”
Vin was gingerly pulling back the torn and blood-soaked denim, eliciting a sharp hiss from his patient. “Looks like a nasty gash.”
“Head hurts,” Buck softly repeated, blinking unfocused eyes.
“I know.” Chris wrapped his hand around Buck’s good one. Buck squeezed it as Vin continued to check him out, sluggishly responding to Vin’s requests to move his feet and hands. Chris gingerly brushed back some of the blood-matted hair to examine the head wound. His stomach clenched when he realized it was a bullet crease. Another quarter inch and they would have found Buck’s dead body at the bottom of the slope.
Glancing at the sky, Chris noted that the storm was almost upon them. He had to start thinking again and fast. Storms in the mountains, especially snowstorms, were nothing to play with. Yet it didn’t take a genuis to realize Buck wasn’t mobile enough to hike back the four miles to the truck. Hell, Chris wasn’t even sure they could get him back up the steep slope to the tent. It was unlikely that the three backpacks they carried were fully prepared for winter camping with a badly injured fourth. There was also the hazard that Montabone might be still waiting to take another shot at Buck, not caring if any of the rest of them got in the way. They had to plan on how all of them were going to get through the next few hours if any of them, especially Buck, was going to survive. He gave his injured friend a little more water as Vin began digging into his pack. Feeling the slight shivers, Chris pulled his jacket out of his pack to drape over Buck’s torso.
JD rejoined them. “Mary Travis answered the office phone. Apparently Ezra, Josiah, and Nathan are on their way here. She said she’d call Ezra and have him call us.”
Dropping to his knees, the young man brushed back a lock of hair from his friend’s face. “I’m right here, Buck.”
“Good.” Buck struggled to keep his eyes open. His friends were there, yet some instinct told the injured man they were still in danger. He had to both conserve his strength and stay alert. Yet his head hurt so bad, it was hard to stay coherent.
JD somehow sensed the struggle in his friend. “It’s okay now, Buck. We’ll take care of you.” He laid the back of his hand against Buck’s forehead, uncertain whether the cool skin he felt was due to the cold or shock.
The phone rang. Vin picked it up. “Ez? Yeah…” Vin stood up and walked a couple of feet down the slope.
Chris waved JD to take his place. Once the younger man was kneeling next to Buck, Chris walked down to join Vin.
His friend looked intense as he softly argued into the phone. “…I know, Nate. But he’s moving everything okay, we’re on an exposed northeast slope, and there’s nothing around even remotely resembling a backboard. Besides, I’m much more worried about the head injury… I know, but if we don’t move him to some sort of shelter soon, it won’t matter if his back’s hurt.”
Chris touched Vin’s shoulder and silently requested the phone with his hand. Relieved, Vin handed it over. “Nate, this is Chris.”
“Chris, you need to be careful moving him, or just wait until we get there.” Chris could tell Nate was in full medic mode.
“Where are you?” A cold, wet drop struck Chris’s bare arm, sending an icy reminder of their precarious situation. He glanced at the angry clouds above.
“We’re just entering the Arapaho Forest now.”
Too far, though Chris wasn’t surprised. More cold drops struck his arms and neck. “Okay, it’s raining. We can’t wait. Stop at the ranger station and get a map of the hiking and four-wheel drive trails. Northwest of the Carson Creek four by and the Elephant’s Toe hiking trail crossing is an abandoned cabin. You’ll find us there. Just be careful, the weather’s turning bad.”
“We’re exposed to both the elements and Montabone, Nate. None of us, much less Buck, will last long here. I promise we’ll be careful.” Chris closed the phone before Nathan could argue anymore and looked at Vin. “How bad is he?”
Vin sighed. “I think his shoulder blade might be broken. His leg and arm need to be cleaned up and maybe stitched. He’s covered in scratches and bruises, but I don’t think there’s any serious internal injuries. Nor do I think he hurt his back in that fall – his shoulder probably took the brunt of it. It’s that head wound I’m worried about, but so far he seems fairly coherent.”
Chris nodded as the chilly rain began to pick up. “Then let’s get him out of here and someplace drier.
The two men had barely reached the others when a bullet whizzed by Chris’ head. “Damn!” Chris swore as he ducked. Their shooter was back.
“We’ve got to make it to the trees below!” Vin exclaimed as he, too, ducked. He fired a shot in the direction of the sniper.
“Gimme a shoulder,” Buck gasped.
“Buck…” JD began.
“Chris!” Buck pleaded.
“Vin, JD, head for the trees,” Chris ordered.
“Chris,” Vin began, then flinched when a bullet grazed his jacket.
“I said, RUN!”
Eyes wide as he met Buck’s unsteady gaze one last time, JD turned to race for the trees. Vin was on his heels, carrying both his and Chris’ packs. Chris, staying tucked behind the meager shelter of the young pine, shot toward the shooter to distract him while they ran.
Once the younger men had reached the tall lodgepoles, they turned to back towards their older friends. “JD, get on a rain poncho. I’ll cover them.”
“What?” JD exclaimed, looking at Vin.
“We don’t have much time, and we won’t do them any good if we’re soaked icicles, too.”
Back behind the young trees, Chris looked down into his friend’s much-too-pale face. “You ready for this?”
Buck blinked up at him. “Not much choice, is there?”
“No,” Chris admitted.
“Then gimme a shoulder.”
Somehow, Buck managed to drape his good arm over his friend’s shoulder. Chris helped him to his feet, carefully but as fast as he could, knowing Nathan would kill him if he could see them. Ignoring Buck’s gasp of pain, Chris took a deep breath and hurried his friend towards shelter.
The rain began to fall in earnest, providing slightly more cover for the limping, stumbling pair. Vin and JD fired in the direction of the shooter, hoping to keep him too busy to fire on Chris and Buck. Only a few rounds drilled into the dirt around their feet. Still, JD considered it a minor miracle that they made it unscathed.
Vin glanced at Chris and Buck once they were under the sparse shelter of the lodgepoles. The cold rain had already soaked their hair and jackets. Buck was shivering but amazingly still on his feet, though he leaned heavily on his old friend. Chris dipped his mouth near his friend’s ear as he tucked the jacket tighter around him. “Think you can make it to that old cabin near the rope bridge?”
“H-Have t-t-to,” Buck stuttered, shivering and wobbly.
Chris’ face grew grimmer, but realized there was no choice. He gingerly placed his own hat onto his friend’s head and gave his good arm a light squeeze. “Let’s go.” Carefully picking their way through the darkening gloom, Chris and Buck led the way as Vin and JD watched their backs and followed.
Once through the ancient screen door, Ezra shook the cold drops out of his collar. It was turning cold and wet, and Ezra hated being cold and wet. Yet he, at least, was healthy. It didn’t sound like his friend was so lucky. The words Nathan had tossed about with Vin, such as ‘spinal cord injury’, had scared the undercover expert. He wanted to find the rest of their team as soon as possible, so they could get Buck the care he needed.
Josiah was already to the wooden desk with the young ranger behind it. “Excuse me, we need a map covering the four wheel drive trails and --”
“No can do,” the ranger shook his head with authority. “We are under a winter storm warning, and it would be irresponsible to allow you to go four wheeling.”
“This is not a pleasure trip,” Ezra explained with more patience than Nathan felt he had as he showed his badge. “We are federal agents with the ATF. The rest of our team, including a grievously injured fellow agent, is in a remote part of your wilderness and require us to rescue them.”
The young rangers didn’t even glance at the ID. “That’s the best story you can come up with? Why would ATF be out here?”
Ezra took a deep breath before he could continue. “Our colleague was camping on Elephant Ridge without realizing that a man he formerly arrested had followed him.”
“There’s no campground on Elephant Ridge,” the ranger pointed out, rolling his eyes.
“But backpackers will go up there on occasion,” an older, deeper voice commented. The three agents turned to find a man in his mid-thirties wearing a forest service uniform, shaking the water off his poncho as he focused on them. “I’m Ranger Doug Gregor. What’s the problem?”
“We are ATF agents, Sanchez, Jackson and Standish,” Josiah introduced. “One of our teammates was camping up on Elephant Ridge when a man he put away apparently took a shot at him. The rest of our team has found him, but Buck’s hurt and the shooter’s still after him.”
“Buck?” the ranger repeated, his eyes darkening in concern. “Buck Wilmington?”
Ezra nodded. “That is correct. Do you know him?”
The ranger nodded. “Buck’s an old timer around here. We’ve shared coffee over a campfire a few times. How bad is he hurt?”
“Our guys said he took a fall off a rock up there,” Josiah explained.
“Damn, I know which one it’d be, and that’s a good size drop.”
Josiah felt his gut tighten with that bit of news. Yet this ranger seemed to know the area well, and might be able to help them. “Our leader, Chris Larabee, told us to meet them at the crossing of ‘Carson Creek’ and ‘Elephant Heel’ trails?”
“Elephant Toe,” Nathan corrected.
Gregor thought a moment. “Yeah, I know Larabee, too, and I know where he means. There’s an old broken down cabin near that crossing and not too far from where that drop-off would be.”
“Chris did say something about a cabin,” Nathan interjected. “But I’d feel a lot better if we could get Buck to a hospital as soon as possible.”
“Yeah, and that cabin’s pretty rickety. I wouldn’t want to weather a storm in it, and it looks like we got a good one brewing.”
“Sir, should we call in a helicopter?” asked the young ranger behind the desk, wanting to make up for his earlier rudeness since his boss seemed to know the people involved.
Gregor shook his head. “The winds are kicking up too hard. A chopper wouldn’t make it. But if we hurry before this wet stuff turns into a couple of feet of snow, we should be able to four wheel into there.”
“We?” Nathan questioned.
“Easier to go along than to give you city boys directions. It’d be too hard to find in the dark unless you know the area. Besides, Buck’s a good man. I’d like to get him to safety, too.”
Ezra gave him a tight smile. “Then let’s go.”
They were within sight of the cabin when Chris felt Buck’s legs buckle. He tightened his grip on the suddenly limp body, but could barely keep Buck from slipping to the slick, rocky ground. The rain had changed over to sleet during the last five minutes. Wouldn’t be the first time the weather service was off on their elevation estimates.
Vin was beside them instantly, gently helping to support their friend. “Now what?”
“Help me get him into a fireman’s carry.”
Vin raised an eyebrow as JD joined them. “Buck?”
Chris laid a gentle hand on his friend’s face. The dark mustache contrasted sharply against the colorless skin. “He’s out, JD. We’ve got to get him to that cabin and warm him up.”
Carefully, the three of them managed to drape Buck over Chris’ shoulders. The fact that Buck didn’t even moan during the certainly painful procedure worried them even more. Vin tapped JD on the shoulder. “I’m going ahead to check out the cabin. You keep an eye out for the shooter.” Vin dashed ahead, his sharp eyes noting everything around them.
As fast as he dared, Chris followed in Vin’s wake as he balanced his heavy yet cherished burden. He was forced to slow down as the icy rocks challenged his progress.
JD was beside him when they were close enough to get a good look at their shelter. “That’s it? Damn, Chris, it looks like it should have fallen in ages ago.” One half of the ancient cabin had already caved in, splintered wood pointing up around the edges of the pile. The rest only stood due to a stone chimney and a well-placed tree. Chris didn’t comment, concentrating on staying on his feet and keeping Buck on his shoulders. It looked bad, but it was shelter.
Vin met them just outside the half still standing. “I’ve draped a few tarps near the fireplace where the roof’s leaking and stretched out Ezra’s tent on the windward side.”
“Ezra?” Chris gasped as he followed Vin.
“Yeah, Ezra lent me his stuff,” JD explained worriedly. Seeing the large gapes between the wooden planks above, he didn’t see how the roof could do anything but leak.
“JD, see you can find some dry wood,” Vin ordered. “We’re going to need a fire to keep warm.”
“Just keep an eye out for Montabone,” Chris grunted as he carefully maneuvered through the leaning doorframe. JD nodded and headed back out into the growing darkness. Seeing one of Vin’s old army blankets spread out over an air mattress in front of the stone hearth, Chris carried his friend that way.
Vin helped him ease Buck down. “I figure once we get him dry and fixed up, we can make up a place with my old sleeping bag underneath and Ezra’s fancy one tucked over the top of him.”
Chris nodded as he tried to work the kinks out of his sore back. His friend, who was usually larger than life, looked completely drained lying on his back. Only the slight rise and fall of Buck’s chest assured him that his old partner was still alive. Noting the blood still clinging to his face and hair, Chris bent down next to his backpack. “I’ll set up a couple of pots, collect some water we can use.”
Vin nodded from where he knelt next to Buck. “Sounds like a good idea.” Sharing a look full of worry, Chris turned to find a place to set his camping pots.
“There’s a curve just past the boulder on the right.”
Ezra’s fingers increased the pressure of his already impossibly tight grip on the door handle as the suburban bounced and slid around the unseen corner. He was thankful Ranger Gregor had insisted on coming. There was no way they could have managed this road without guidance.
Sparing a glance to his seatmate, Ezra wasn’t surprised to see Nathan’s face tight with worry. Nathan always took his role as medic for their team seriously. He would worry about Buck until he had a chance to examine him himself. For that matter, Nathan would worry until their teammate was well and back to work.
Admittedly, Ezra was worried, too. He had never really thought much about Buck’s past. They all knew Buck and Chris had been partners in the Denver PD. It was also common knowledge that Buck had been one of the few who stuck by Chris during his darkest days after the deaths of his wife and son. Knowing just how mean their leader could be when upset, Ezra was glad HE hadn’t been around during that time period. It must have been a hard test of Buck’s loyalty.
Even though they all knew about Chris’ losses, none of them had realized Buck had been dealt a similar blow in the past. To lose a fiancée like that had to have been a devastating loss to his friend. While Buck always played the part of a rogue, Ezra had occasionally caught a glimpse of the romantic under the uncultured exterior. But now he was re-evaluating the rest of his mental image of the big, loud, fun-loving man he had come to like and depend on. Instead of assuming that with Buck, ‘what-you-see-is-what-you-get’, he now pondered just what else Buck hid under that life-embracing attitude. It was humbling to realize he knew nothing about Buck’s life before teaming up with Chris. Even more humbling, Ezra had never noticed the lack before. He couldn’t help but wonder if that had been Buck’s intention all along. If so, maybe they had tagged the wrong man the undercover expert.
Another huge pothole had the suburban dipping and climbing. Glancing into the driver’s seat, Ezra could barely make out Josiah’s features, tight in concentration as he maneuvered his vehicle. The missionary’s son was impressing the hell out of Ezra in how he handled the deteriorating driving conditions. A good thing, too, considering it was only going to get worse before this night was over. They still had brothers to rescue.
The wind howled outside, driving the cold through the ruins and past their little haven. Vin sat on the edge of their dry zone, keeping watch for Montabone or the cavalry. A shiver raced through his body as a brush of snow touched his cheek. He glanced up at the wooden frame creaking in the wind. The rain had turned into a full-fledge winter storm, the wind plastering wet snow against everything within its path. Please, little cabin, just hold together for one more night. We don’t have anywhere else to go right now. That was especially true for Buck.
Glancing inside the shelter of stone, wood, and tarp, Vin could see their teammate shift restlessly within the nest of sleeping bags they had made for him. Although Buck was now dry and wounds dressed, both the broken shoulder and the head injury had to be painful. While Vin’s and Chris’ first aid kits carried lots of bandages and disinfectant, neither carried any drug more powerful than ibuprofen. Not for the first time, Vin wished Nathan with his well-stocked medic kit was there so that they could have made Buck more comfortable. He could hear the soft mutters floating up from the older man, though all he could make out was ‘Dawn’, ‘no’, and ‘fight’. JD knelt beside Buck, trying to calm his friend with little success. Vin suspected that the older man was being haunted by old, powerful nightmares. While the sharpshooter had some experience with such specters, he had never realized that the open, fun-loving Buck hid something that dark. A new respect for the man rose in Vin’s soul.
Chris walked over and silently handed him a cup of coffee. Vin nodded his thanks as he took a sip. Chris himself looked exhausted and worried, his partially dried hair sticking up in various directions. Wondering if he could help carry his friend’s load, Vin softly asked, “When did all this happen?”
Chris sighed and glanced over at Buck. “A little over ten years ago.” Their eyes met, Vin’s encouraging. Chris dipped his head and continued, “Dawn was a student at the Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design. She was warm and energetic, an almost perfect match for Buck. It’s the one time I’ve ever seen him deeply in love. Since Buck’s childhood was so,” Chris paused as he carefully chose what word to use, “unconventional, I think it was the only time he’d ever consider the whole ‘white picket fence’ concept.”
Vin nodded, suddenly realizing that though he’d known the fellow agent for four years, there was more to Buck’s background than he had ever guessed. However, now wasn’t the time to get into it. “Art student. Wait a minute, that picture in your guestroom; that’s the view from that rock, isn’t it?”
Chris closed his eyes as fond memories floated by. “Yeah, she painted it on one of their outings. It and some of Dawn’s other paintings were in an art show once, and Sarah wanted to buy something to support her. While we were driving there, I was just praying there would be something we’d actually like. It turned out we had a tough time picking just one; they were all so good.”
Vin waited, not wanting to spoil the gentle smile on Chris’ face. He rarely talked about Sarah, and it was good to see him enjoying her memory.
But the smile disappeared when Chris suddenly sighed. “Then one day, Buck and I were working a series of killings. It seemed that one drug gang decided they’d had enough of another, so they hired a hit man. We had managed to get close a couple of times, but couldn’t catch him. In fact, Buck even got a good look at his face at one point. So we had tossed everything we had on him plus the drawing Buck and the sketch artist had done, and tried to see if we could come up with an ID. Things weren’t as computerize then as they are now, so it was a rather slow process. Meantime, Dawn’s older brother was in town; she had been trying to get him and Buck together the entire week. So I told Buck to go on and I’d call him if I found out anything.” Chris paused, his face growing grim as he regretted that decision all over again.
“The hitman was Montabone?” JD softly asked. He had slipped over to hear the story.
“Yeah.” Chris ran a hand over his face. “The problem was, Dawn’s last name was also Montabone.”
“What!” JD exclaimed, barely remembering to keep his voice down.
“Ah hell,” Vin groaned, looking at Chris in horror as he made the connection. “Montabone was Dawn’s brother?”
Chris glanced over to Buck, his gut tightening in remembrance of that night. “Right. Only I didn’t figure that out until we made the ID twenty minutes after Buck had left. Elliot and I raced to Dawn’s apartment as fast as we could, but we were too late. Apparently, Buck and Dawn’s brother, Ted, made each other the minute Buck stepped inside the door.”
JD’s eyes were wide, all too easily picturing the scene. “Did Dawn know what her brother did for a living?”
“From everything we could piece together afterwards, no. In fact, when Ted pulled a gun on Buck, she had stepped in between them, trying to talk Ted out of it. Unfortunately, just as Elliot and I were almost to her door, Ted pulled the trigger and accidentally hit Dawn instead of Buck.”
“Oh my God,” JD whispered.
Chris closed his eyes as the bloody scene replayed in his mind. “Dawn died in Buck’s arms. I didn’t think I was ever going to get him to let go of her. It took him months to recover. Hell, I’m not totally certain now he ever really did.”
Vin’s eyes were nearly as wide as JD’s. “And Montabone?”
“He blamed Buck for Dawn’s death, even though he was the one to pull the trigger. He yelled threats at Buck while we were arresting him and all throughout the trial. Buck was in such a state of shock during that time, I’m not sure how much of it really sank in. The only thing real to him was that Dawn was gone, and it nearly destroyed him.”
JD studied his friend as he listened to Chris. “Why hasn’t Buck ever mentioned any of this to me? I thought he told me everything.”
Chris squeezed the younger man’s shoulder. “I suspect he had it buried so deep, he had almost forgotten about it by the time you came along.”
Vin’s eyes grew dark. “Only to have Montabone dig it back up for him again.” Chris nodded in agreement.
“Well, I’m here for him this time,” JD softly declared. He walked back to sit on the ground next to his friend.
He was once again holding her, covered in her blood. “Oh God, NO! Dawn! Dawn!” The pain, the shock, the despair, all combined and pressed their weight on his head. Just as they did that night.
He tried to fight it, but it was like his limbs were suddenly ten times heavier than normal. As usually, he couldn’t break the cycle of the nightmare. He could only hold her and feel his heart tear apart.
Abruptly, he was no longer kneeling on Dawn’s blood-soaked carpet, but standing on their rock. Dressed in black, he held a simple yet elegant urn in his hands. Slowly twisting off the top and tucking it into his pocket, he tipped it forward. As if recognizing the place, the soft ash was caught in a strong breeze and practically flew out of the urn. He could see it floating out into the valley before him.
“See, Buck.” He spun around, discovering Dawn standing behind him in her T-shirt and denim shorts. “I’m not at my apartment anymore. You brought me here. You brought me home.”
“Dawn?” he gasped, slow to understand.
She took a step closer. “Forget about what happened in the city. It wasn’t your fault, my love. Remember me as we were here. This is where I belong.”
“But Darling… .”
“No, my love. You are destined to do so much more. Chris can’t lead his circle of knights without you. And the world doesn’t have enough good knights; it can’t afford to lose even one of you.”
Tears welled up in his eyes. “But I miss you.”
“A part of me is always with you. Trust in that, and go live your life.”
Buck wanted to touch her, to hug her, to feel her warmth and soft skin again. Yet something held him to the rock, preventing contact. He could only look longingly into her eyes as she began to fade from sight.
A cool, damp cloth on his forehead tore him away. Pain shot through his head and shoulder as the safety of the dream world disappeared around him. Buck wanted to go back to the rock, back to Dawn, but the agony now had him in its grip.
“… He’s hurting so bad…”
The familiar voice penetrated the painful fog obscuring his mind. It was JD, sounding scared. Buck wanted to reassure the kid, but couldn’t pull together the energy to respond.
“…same size, and he was coherent enough earlier to recognize us. Those are good signs. We just have to keep him as warm and comfortable as possible… .”
Vin was here. Good, Vin had enough survival skills to take care of JD.
“…Stay with him. The others should be here …”
That was Chris, which was even better. Everything would be okay, because Chris would know what to do to keep them all safe.
“I just wish he’d talk to me… .”
Buck moaned as he shifted in the warm cocoon that enveloped him. He had to reach JD.
“’ay ‘ee?” he managed to croak.
“Right here,” JD reassured him. Buck could almost picture the brilliant smile breaking across his friend’s face, but his head hurt too much to open his eyes to check. “You want some water?”
Buck attempted to answer, but could barely produce a croak. Somehow, JD understood. He gently lifted Buck’s head just enough to drink from the metal cup held to his lips. After a couple of sips, Buck weakly tried to pull back. The pain in his head was now echoing nausea in his stomach. “’anks’,” he managed to mumble.
JD eased him back onto the soft material beneath him. “Josiah, Nathan and Ezra are on their way, so try and get some more sleep until they get here.”
“Hurt,” Buck strove to explain. He knew the agony radiating from his body would make sleep difficult.
“I know,” JD replied, his voice sorrowful and helpless. “Just try to relax.” The younger man wrapped a strong hand around Buck’s cold one. After attempting to squeeze it, Buck felt himself drift back into the fog. Yet this time, pain floated away to the edges, still there but not with the ferocious intensity as before. Secured by JD’s hand, Buck allowed himself to relax into his friend’s strength.
When Gregor told Josiah to stop, Nathan wasn’t quite sure why. Blowing snow texturing the darkness was the only impression he had. “This is it?”
“The cabin’s just behind that tree,” Gregor explained as he pulled on his gloves. Ezra peered into the night, wondering which tree he was talking about. “This is as close as we’re going to get.”
“Be careful,” Josiah cautioned.
“You don’t think Montabone is still around in this storm, do you?” Nathan asked, incredulously.
“Probably not, but we don’t know that for sure. This storm isn’t going to make it easy on us, either.”
With a shiver, Ezra climbed out of the vehicle and felt wet snow seep over the tops of his shoes. Why oh why did he ever leave Atlanta, where they almost never got snow? Ducking his head and allowing the larger frames of Nathan and Josiah to block the wind, Ezra picked his way through the snow and rocks.
Nathan blinked when he finally got an impression of the building in the darkness. “You’re jiving me. They took shelter in THAT?”
“That’s about the only thing around here,” Gregor explained.
“One way to find out.” Josiah stopped and shouted in his deepest, loudest, best-carrying voice, “HELLO, BROTHERS!”
“HEY, JOSIAH!” a voice called back, barely cutting through the wind.
Josiah smiled. “That sounds like brother Vin. Shall we go to their aid?”
“… a good chance Montabone died in that storm up there. We might not find his body until spring.” Every motion of Elliot’s body was placating.
Chris ran a frustrate hand through his hair. “Or he got out of there before that shit turned to snow.”
“Possibly. And if he was smart, he’s left the state. Hell, he’s probably left the country.”
Chris’ glare turned glacial. “We’ve already bet Buck’s life once that Montabone left town, and nearly lost. I’m not willing to do it again.” Elliot winced. “That bastard wants Buck dead, and if he’s still alive, I doubt he’ll give up that easy.”
“I can’t give Wilmington protection twenty-four, seven. I don’t have the manpower.”
After a swift glance at his three agents sitting by the wall and their answering nods, Chris replied, “We do. You just need to find the bastard.”
“And where am I going to start looking, Chris? I’ve already got men at the stations and DIA. No one’s seen a hair of him.”
“Have you considered keeping surveillance on Mr. Wilmington’s domicile?” Ezra slowly interjected. “Obviously, the miscreant knows where he resides.”
At Elliot’s dumbfounded look, Chris quietly added, “Buck’s apartment is probably a good place to start.”
Elliot sighed. “We’ll give it a shot. Just keep a sharp eye on Buck. He’s still the target.”
Chris nodded as Elliot left. He had a bad feeling that if anyone was going to catch Montabone, it was going to be him and his team. He just hoped that it was before Montabone reached Buck again. With that in mind, he turned to Ezra, Vin and Josiah. “You willing to put in guard duty?”
“You know we are, Chris,” Josiah assured him. “Buck’s our brother; how could we not?”
Acknowledging the support with a nod, Chris continued, “Good. Then as soon as the hospital lets Buck out, we’ll take him and JD to my place.”
While suspecting the answer, Josiah couldn’t help but ask, “Is there any family we should contact?” After discovering Buck had a fiancée in the past, Josiah now wondered what else Buck had hidden.
Chris slowly shook his head. “Buck’s mom died when he was in high school.”
“I can take JD to pick up some of their stuff,” Vin volunteered, trying to lighten the mood. Ranger Gregor had arranged for all their vehicles to be brought down to the city earlier that morning. “We’ll even take a detour or two through Purgatorio to make sure we’ve lost any tail.”
A slight smile slipped across Chris’ face as he pictured Vin leading Montabone on a merry chase through the very worst part of Denver. “Just be careful while you’re at the loft.” Vin tipped his head in acknowledgment.
“And just be certain you don’t take any more of my camping equipment,” Ezra commented grumpily.
“Why?” Vin inquired, an innocent look on his face. “You got everything back, and I promise to buy you a bottle of gas to replace the one we used for your peak stove.”
Ezra lifted an eyebrow. “Have you beheld the disgusting crud smeared across my brand new equipment? You even had the audacity to misuse my top-of-the-line tent in such a disgraceful fashion.”
“We didn’t hurt your stuff, Ez, just broke it in. And there wouldn’t have been enough room if we’d have put up the tent.”
“It is a four person tent, Mr. Tanner.”
Vin could barely keep the smile off his face. “That’s just what they say. What it really means is that two people would fit comfortably, we probably could have squeezed in a third if we needed to, but four people would have been crammed in like bullets in a gun clip. We needed a lot more room than that to make Buck comfortable. Besides, I don’t think you’d have wanted us to light a fire in your purty new tent.”
Before Ezra could declare what he thought of that idea, Nathan walked in from the main wing. All four turned to him, hopeful for good news. “The tests are all in. Buck’s got a broken shoulder blade and a concussion, but his back and neck checked out fine.” Everyone relaxed in relief. “His arm will be in a sling to keep from aggravating the shoulder, and it will take a while for his head to heal, but he should be okay for light duty in a couple of weeks.”
“How long is he going to be staying in?” Chris asked.
“Doctor wants to hold him until tomorrow, keep an eye on that head and make sure he didn’t pick up pneumonia from last night. Buck’ll probably sleep most the day, so I doubt he’ll be too much trouble. Unlike a few others I could name.” Nathan gave Ezra and Vin, both notoriously bad patients, a playful glare as the younger men averted their eyes innocently.
“Then we’ll take him to my place as soon as he’s released,” Chris determined.
After a few more orders to his men, Chris walked down the hospital corridor to Buck’s room. A part of him was still worried. The trip off the mountain in the snowstorm had been tough on his old friend. The dirt trail was already rough and rocky. The wet snow on top didn’t help matters. Chris and JD had cradled Buck between them in the back of the suburban, bracing themselves against the sudden jolts, slips and bumps while trying to cushion Buck’s injured head and shoulder. It had been torture for Chris to feel his friend’s body tighten in pain with each maneuver. Even worse, instead of the curses Buck would normally yell, he had been unusually quiet with only an occasional gasp or moan. Chris wasn’t sure if it was due to the head injury or if Buck had been trying not to worry JD. However, the tightening in his gut feared it might be something else.
He stood by the room’s window, watching Buck sleep in the stark white bed. His friend was so rarely still. Chris could remember back to when Buck had as much exuberant energy as JD. The years had barely tempered that enthusiasm, only channeling it into the job, the ladies, and the need to keep up with his young roommate. The grown-up son of a Las Vegas call girl had always needed action, excitement, and adventure.
Admittedly, that was what worried Chris now. While he had handled grief by drinking, brooding, and lashing out at everyone and everything in his path, Buck folded in upon himself in quiet depression. It had happened for several months after Dawn’s death. Chris didn’t want to see it happen again. It amazed him to realize he needed Buck’s strength, his energy, his honesty, and even his short temper. They balanced each other out in such a natural way, Chris hadn’t even thought about it before. He needed Buck as Buck, not the quiet shell of Buck. Yet he didn’t have a clue how to prevent that from happening again.
Then his eyes traveled over to the chair next to the bed. JD was stretched out in the uncomfortable plastic seat, head resting against the wall as the young man dozed. So often the positions had been reversed, with Buck in the chair and JD in the bed. Now, JD was there to care and support Buck. JD wouldn’t let his older friend sink, nor would the other four men they called family. Buck would survive this intact if any of them had any say in the matter.
As long as they kept Montabone from killing him.
“Buck’s too quiet.”
Every head in the kitchen swung to face JD. The very thing that had gone through each of their minds since bringing Buck to Chris’ yesterday had just been spoken out loud.
“Where is Buck?” Josiah asked lightly, betraying none of his worry.
Vin carefully leaned out the kitchen door. Spying the subject under discussion, he pulled back to report, “Dozing in front of the fireplace.”
“Which is exactly what he SHOULD be doing,” Nathan pointed out, flicking the soap suds off his hands to make his point. “Just because none of the rest of you know how to recover after severe injuries doesn’t mean Buck’s just as pigheaded.”
“Since when?” JD questioned as he placed a plate into the cupboard. Buck always seemed pretty stubborn to him. “Normally when he isn’t feeling good, he’s grouchy and yells a lot. But this time he’s not even talking. It’s not like Buck not to talk.”
“Boy has a point,” Josiah softly supported.
“But head injuries are tough to recover from,” Nathan reminded them. He glanced at JD. “Just because you and Vin bounce back from ‘em like you’ve only a scratch doesn’t mean everyone else does. Plus Buck’s head is older than yours. It may take him longer to get back up to speed again.”
“Chris’s worried,” Vin commented quietly as he dried off a spoon.
Josiah nodded, understanding the wealth of information Vin had just imparted. Chris knew Buck longer and better than all the rest of them combined. If Chris was worried, perhaps there was something to worry about. “He did seem reluctant to go to the office with Ezra this morning.”
“But Montabone hasn’t been found yet,” Nathan continued, playing devil’s advocate. “Chris is just worried he’s going to try to shoot Buck again.”
“It’s more than that,” Vin disagreed. “He keeps looking at Buck funny.”
“Grief does strange things to people,” Josiah commented to the room in general. “It’s believe there are various stages a person has to work through when grieving, like denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Some people rush through some stages. Others will skip one or more, while still others will slowly work through one or two of them. But sometimes a person gets stuck in one, and can’t work themselves out of it.”
JD’s face was screwed up tight as he thought over Josiah’s words. “Sounds like Chris was stuck in anger for a while.”
Josiah tilted his head in JD’s direction. “Indeed. I suspect Brother Chris has only recently worked himself out of that one. And sometimes, a person will bury their feelings at a stage and ignore them for a while.”
“You think Buck’s stuck in depression?” Nathan asked softly.
“Possibly. Or he buried his sadness so that he could go on, only to have it come back again.”
“Does anyone know how he handled his parents’ deaths?” Nathan asked.
JD shrugged. “He’s never talks about his father. All he says about his mom is that she was a lot of fun and calls her ‘a saint’. I’m guessing she worked in a church or something. I’m not even sure how she died.”
Vin hung up his towel and turned to Josiah. “So what do we do to help Buck now?”
“The one thing we’re NOT going to do is gang up on him,” Nathan told them sternly. “He’s still hurting, and it would only drive him further away.”
“True,” Josiah concurred.
“But we can’t do nothing,” JD protested.
“We’ll just have to draw him back slowly,” Josiah suggested. “Gradually get him involved in things again. Listen if he needs to talk. Give him a little space when he needs it.”
“Which is probably now,” Vin agreed. He turned to JD. “Wanna help me take care of Chris’ horses?”
As Vin had hoped, the younger man’s eyes sparkled. “You bet!”
Vin gently cuffed him on the head. “Then grab your coat and let’s go.”
Buck had been staring at the grating along the fireplace for some time. He wasn’t really sure why. Probably because he just didn’t feel like moving.
Dawn wouldn’t want me to act like this. I need to move. But my head hurts, my shoulder aches, and it just feels good to sit. Closing his eyes again, Buck could hear Vin and JD talking as they walked out the door. Something about the horses. That’s good. JD loves Chris’ horses. I should go with them, but I just want to sleep… .
A large hand against his forehead interrupted his doze. Buck blinked up into Nathan’s eyes. “How you doing?” the medic asked.
“Tired,” Buck replied.
“Yeah. Can’t seem to concentrate on anything long.”
Nathan nodded. “That’s the concussion.”
“Never had this much trouble before.”
“Your plunge off the cliff was pretty traumatic for your body, Buck. Gonna take it a while to pull itself together. Plus the more often you hurt your head, the harder it is each time to come back. Plus you’re getting older--”
“No way,” Buck denied sleepily. “Buck Wilmington does not get older -- just better looking.”
Nathan laughed. “I’d say you’re on the mend. If your body wants to sleep, let it.”
“I think it’s going to do that anyway.”
Nathan tucked the blanket tighter around him and wandered towards the back door. Buck felt himself drifting off to sleep again…
… when a loud crash from the kitchen shook him awake. Wasn’t Josiah in the kitchen? Or did Nathan walk through while I was sleeping? Or did Chris and Ezra come back? Sitting up, Buck called out, “You okay in there?” He paused several moments. No one answered.
Damn, now what? Feeling around for the cane the guys had bought him, Buck was about to stand up when he felt eyes on him. Slowly raising his head, he found himself staring into Ted Montabone’s angry face. Vaguely noting the gun, Buck was in shock, mesmerized by the eyes of the man who had killed the woman he loved.
“So, not such a tough guy now, are we?” Montabone sneered, waving his free hand to indicate Buck’s immobilized shoulder and the bandage around his head.
“Real easy to be tougher than a man you snuck up on and shot from behind,” Buck replied evenly. Dark, angry emotions were starting to rise within him, but Buck forced them back.
“Doesn’t matter how I get you. You killed my sister and you have to pay.”
“Killed your sister?” Buck repeated angrily, losing the battle with his temper. Forgetting about the gun, Buck struggled to his feet. “I didn’t kill Dawn. YOU DID!” How in the hell could this bastard accuse him of killing her?
“YOU killed her. YOU were just USING her!” Montabone accused.
“I LOVED that beautiful ray of sunshine,” Buck countered, his voice growing louder as his anger boiled over. “She was all goodness and light. YOU were the one who brought your sin and your evil to her doorstep. YOU were the one to commit murder in her city. YOU drew the gun and YOU pulled the trigger.”
“It’s YOUR fault. You came after me.”
“No, I came to meet my fiancée’s brother. You were the one to betray everything she believed in. You brought your evil to her, you betrayed her, and then YOU KILLED HER!” Every inch of Buck wanted to punch Montabone, but a tiny voice in the back of his mind pointed out that he’d fall flat on his face if he tried. “I would have NEVER done anything to hurt her.”
“It’s still your fault,” Montabone insisted, refusing to accept his responsibility. He re-aimed his gun at Buck’s chest. Buck briefly wondered if he was up to dodging bullets, when the sounds of five guns cocking filled the room.
“I suggest you drop the gun, Montabone, before we drop you,” Chris declared coldly. Buck looked up to meet his friend’s glaring eyes. Arranged around him were JD, Ezra, Nathan, and Josiah, who was holding his right eye while aiming his shotgun at Montabone’s back.
Buck stood stilled. While Montabone was between him and his teammates, there was still a good chance one of their bullets would either miss Montabone or go through him. That left Buck vulnerable to friendly fire, and his friends knew it.
Montabone only hesitated a second. As he began to press the trigger, a shot rang out. Montabone spun to the floor as his weapon went flying. Buck turned his head to spy Vin walking out of the hall, his rifle in his hands. Turning back, he found Nathan kneeling beside the groaning Montabone. “Just hit him in the shoulder.”
“Didn’t have a good enough shot for anything else without hitting Buck,” Vin quietly explained.
“Same here,” Chris replied. He tossed a pair of handcuffs to Nathan. “Make sure those are tight before you worry about him bleeding to death.” Then he jumped forward as Buck’s knees finally buckled. He and JD eased the shaky man back to the couch. “You okay, partner?”
Buck nodded his head. “How’d you know?”
JD, eyes still wide with worry, answered, “Well, first Vin thought he heard something. So we were coming out of the barn when Chris and Ezra pulled up. Then Nathan walked up from his car out back and said he found a strange motorcycle. Then we heard the crash in the kitchen, Chris handed out orders, and we all moved in.”
“Bastard!” Montabone interrupted, glaring at Buck from the floor. “I’m still going to get you.”
Buck simply glared back. “No, YOU are going back to jail so you can think about how YOU betrayed Dawn!” Raising his head, he caught Chris’ eyes. “I should have said all that to him a long time ago.”
Chris smiled, recognizing from the spark that his old friend had returned. “Yep, you probably should have.” He gently squeezed Buck’s good shoulder, sensing everything was going to be okay.
Buck stood on the rock as he looked out over the valley. For the first time since Dawn’s death, he could stand here and feel his soul soar from this perch. He had confronted Montabone and now Dawn could rest in peace.
“Man, you know how much snow we’re going to have to dig through to reach your tent?”
Buck turned as JD joined him. The younger man wouldn’t let him come up here by himself to retrieve his equipment. After listening to JD point out that his shoulder still ached and he still got blinding headaches, Buck relented and invited him along. He really didn’t mind. It felt right to have JD with him. Chris hadn’t been too happy about the trip, either, but relented when Buck explained they were taking snowmobiles for most of the way up.
JD turned to take in the view. “It’s beautiful here.”
“It always is,” Buck softly replied. “No matter what time of the year we came up here, Dawn always claimed it couldn’t get any better. Until the next time, that is.”
Hesitant, JD quietly asked, “What was Dawn like?”
Feeling like a weight had been thrown off his chest, Buck smiled. “She was like the first ray of light peeking over the horizon after a long, cold, dark night. Beautiful, warm and full of promise – that was my Morning Dawn.” Taking another deep breath, Buck continued, “She loved hiking. We use to go every weekend, all over the mountains and Front Range. Of course, she always wanted to paint the scenes we’d see, so I’d have to help lug her stuff. Never understood why she couldn’t just take a picture and paint it later, but it was always worth it to see her turn a plain ole canvas into pure beauty…”
Above the two men, a gust of wind danced through the treetops, sending a swirl of snow down through the branches in joy.