In the intense activity of the next few hours, as plans were made to travel south, fully equipped, but without drawing attention to themselves, Chris forgot something, he forgot to tell JD about the call he had made to Florida. Even as he stood in the hospital at the foot of Buck's bed he forgot.
"I can't tell you much, because I don't know much," he was talking to Buck as much as JD, "but we do have a lead and we're going to follow it were ever it goes. I know you want in JD but he needs you too."
JD nodded, "I know I'll be here, we'll be here," he corrected.
One by one the team came in to offer support. Vin came in last, he hesitated. Chris understood, finally Vin approached.
"Did I look like that?" he asked, referring to the time he had been shot Chris nodded.
"Jesus," he breathed, coming to his friend's side he took his hand, "Hang in there buddy, I know it hurts but it's worth the fight."
Once Vin had left, Chris stepped in closer, he bent his head to speak into Buck's ear.
"If you make a liar out of me Buck, I'll never speak to you again, you hear me you scoundrel!"
+ + + + + + +
As the Private jet Trevalian had chartered headed south, the United jet from Miami landed.
The woman was in her mid fifties, but she was also tall, slim, still beautiful and immaculate, she did in fact look like a rich bitch, which was just what she was not. She strode through the hospital as if she owned it, sweeping aside any one who tried to impede her progress. As she opened the door a nurse behind her protested that only family were allowed in.
"Well that's me honey."
Then she fell silent, her face changed, no make up could hide the look of horror, even terror. One hand came up to her face, the other stretched out as she walked so slowly toward the bed. JD looked on curiously.
"Oh God, oh God," she whispered, as she approached.
She came to the bedside, her hand hovered over him, it was as if she was scared to touch him, scared she might cause more damage. JD understood how she felt, who ever she was.
"It's OK you can touch him, you won't hurt him," he explained, standing on the other side.
She looked up. "Thank you JD."
That threw him. "How dose she know my name, used it like she'd known me for years? Well who ever she is, she clearly knows Buck, knows him very well." He had to say something to comfort her.
"He's going to make it, he'll be alright," he said confidently.
"Yes, I promise you." He remembered Chris's emphatic promise.
She put her hand on Bucks. "He's so hot."
"He's got blood poisoning and pneumonia, but he will be alright," JD reiterated.
Just then one of the nurses came by, she gave JD a little signal.
"We have to go now just for a short time so the nurses and doctors can work," he explained.
"Can't we stay?"
"Best not, we'd only be in the way, it only takes about twenty minutes, come on I'll buy you a coffee."
Usually it was JD who needed the support, who was looked after and reassured, now the tables were turned and he had to be the strong confident one. Outside in the waiting area he noted the suitcases, who ever she was she'd only just got there.
"Excuse me Ma'am who are you?" he asked as he handed over the coffee.
"Cindy," he clearly didn't recognise the name, so she elaborated.
"Cindy Wilmington, I'm Buck's mom."
+ + + + + + +
Ezra settled into his seat on the spacious private jet, this was the life, this was the way to travel, to live. He could understand why so many criminals risked so much to achieve this. Trevalian appeared from the back of the plane, having changed out of the expensive suit into black jeans and a navy polo shirt. Ezra automatically checked out the footwear. Tan leather boots with elasticised sides, old, worn, comfortable and practical. He picked up a bottle of mineral water and took a seat next to Ezra. It took Ezra a while but in the end he couldn't resist.
"So what do I call you, Trevalian, Mr., Your Lordship..?"
"My name's Mark."
"Mark, do you mind if I ask you something?"
"You can ask I don't guarantee to answer."
"Fair enough; so just how rich are you?"
Trevalian almost spilt his drink in surprise.
"I'm sorry, I was . It was rude I.."
"It's alright Mr Standish, I'm just not used to people being so direct. Well let me see, er.. rich enough, to buy this plane with out having to think twice."
"That is.. that is very rich."
"Yes it is."
"You always been rich?"
"Your daddy always been rich?"
"Was there ever a time when your family weren't rich?"
"We had a brief reversal of fortune in the seventeenth century, but we got over it."
"Clearly. Then if you have all this," he indicated their surroundings, "why are you serving in the military?"
"Let me ask you something, youre an educated man, of exquisite taste, there must be easier, cleaner and less dangerous ways to earn a living than the ATF, so why do you do it?"
Ezra thought for a while. "Because I can make a difference and because I'm good at it."
"Then you have your answer."
+ + + + + + +
JD sat down dumbfounded in front of Cindy. He tried to take in what she had said.
"I always thought I mean I always assumed "
"That I was dead," she volunteered.
"Well yes, he's never said not in so many words I just assumed. Why? Why would he want to let people think that?"
"Old habits die hard."
"What old habits?"
"Tell you what, why don't your ask him your self when he's better."
"Yes of course. Mrs Wilmington it is very nice to meet you." He stood and extended his hand.
"Why thank you JD, but you must call me Cindy." They shook hands.
"How do you know my name?"
"My son and I do communicate occasionally, you're all he ever talks about, I'd have known you any where." She smiled at him, and in her smile he saw Buck. "He's very proud of you; you know."
That meant more to JD than almost anything, he knew Buck liked him, even loved him, wanted to protect him, educate him about women, guns and life, but to know Buck was proud of him was more than he could have dreamed of.
The nurse beckoned to them, JD and Cindy both rose but she held back, her smile quite gone.
"He will be alright," JD confirmed.
+ + + + + + +
The jet landed at a private landing strip on a Tennessee stud farm owned by a friend of Mark's father. Chris made a mental note that next time he recruited someone for the team, they would have to be the son of a multi millionaire it definitely had its advantages.
Two big off roaders, stood on the tarmac.
"I have secured mounts and supplies for us as near as I can to our target. From now on I am in your hands gentlemen, lady," Mark announced.
As they drove toward the state line Vin noticed the way Mark was slowly and very carefully loading the pistol he had borrowed when they landed.
"Do you actually know how to use that?" he asked.
"In theory yes, but I've never had to shoot at anything more aggressive than a cardboard target," he admitted. "Not a lot of call for gun play at sea. Besides thats what Marines are for."
Vin chuckled, "True," he confirmed.
"Look I know I'm a liability, don't worry I'll stay well back. But the thing of it is; David is in deep, and I'm the only one he knows and the only one he'll trust. You guys are a team right."
"Well David and me we're a team. Look if things get really hairy there's a shot gun back there and that I can use."
Vin understood team loyalty.
By the time they reached North Carolina the sun was setting. Vin was driving the lead vehicle while Mark tried to decipher the scrawled directions he had been given. It was gone ten when they pulled in to the yard of Greening's Distillery. Lights came on in the front office, as they came to a stop. A man in a pair of faded jeans and white tee shirt came out.
"My Lord," he addressed Trevalian, "Its a pleasure to see you again."
Chris was surprised to realise that the man was as British as the man he addressed.
"We've only just acquired this place, Harry is one of our trouble shooters," Trevalian explained. "Have you got what I asked for?"
"Of course, will you need to leave tonight?"
"I don't know, from now on you take your orders from Mr Larabee here." He pointed to Chris.
Chris looked at him and nodded.
"If that is alright Miss Bennett?"
"I think that would be quite appropriate," she conceded command gracefully.
"Well sir?" Harry addressed Chris.
Henry Pasco had in the space of ten hours provided seven strong reliable mounts and three pack horses with all the necessary supplies and kit, on the pretext of organising a management training exercise for his bosses.
"No, we'll set out at dawn," Chris confirmed.
"As I thought, you can all sleep in the house it is at least air conditioned, my wife has food for all of you, this way please."
An hour before dawn they rose and found Mrs. Pasco cooking an enormous breakfast of bacon, eggs, sausages, fried bread and grilled tomatoes, not to mention coffee and toast. Chris woke last, "I am getting too old for this" he told him self. He could hear a shower running as he pulled himself off the mattress on the floor of the living room. "Too old and too soft," he decided as he tried to stretch his cramped muscles. He had been stretching for a couple of minutes when he realised he was being watched by a girl of about ten in a towelling robe.
"Hi," she said.
"I'm finished with the shower, mummy says your to use the blue towels."
"Oh, er.. thanks."
When he emerged in the big kitchen the others all applauded.
"Very funny," he chided. "When you lot have finished filling your faces there are horses to be got ready."
Vin grinned at him and with a fork still full of crispy bacon indicated out of the window. There out side in the corral, the girl he had met earlier, along with two other girls and their father were brushing and tacking up the horses. The job was all but done, the little girl was putting a bridal on a horse twice her height. The shadows cast by the electric lights only emphasised how small she was in comparison to the horse.
"Ma'am is she alright?" Chris asked.
Mrs Pasco looked out of the window, "Oh yes, she's fine dear, never underestimate a little girl's love of horses," she smiled at him, "they have no fear you see."
He looked on as, with a little help from her sister, she heaved the saddle on to the horses back and started to do up the synch. Then he turned back to his men and Miss Bennett, who now wore riding breeches and a plaid shirt.
"You came remarkably prepared Miss Bennett," Chris commented.
"There mine, " Mrs Pasco interjected. "more comfortable to ride in than jeans."
Celia smiled at him smugly.
"Well what about the equipment?"
"All done Mr Larabee," Mrs Pasco pointed to the pile of saddlebags by the door, "we just need your personal stuff, now sit down and eat man!"
"I am definitely too old for all this, thank God Buck's not hear to see this, he'd never let it drop." That thought snapped him back as to why they were all there.
"I have to call the hospital," he said out loud.
The amusement disappeared from their faces
"We left that for you to do," Josiah said quietly.
+ + + + + + +
Chris had told JD he would not be able to contact them for a while and he didn't know when he would be able to call again. For his part JD had only said that Bucks chances were unchanged. He did tell him about Cindy. Chris apologised for not warning him.
+ + + + + + +
It was going to take them two days to reach the location Chris had chosen as a forward command point. They couldn't get any local help to guide them, as they didn't know who to trust. Pasco had been able to help a little but he was a relative stranger in the district. One of the main reasons Chris had been so slow that morning was that while the rest of them slept he had pored over maps and aerial photos until the small hours.
The weather was hot and humid, and they were all grateful for the shade the dense forest provided them. Still it was hard going. Twickers Point might have had a trail leading to it, but Knife Ridge, their goal, did not. So it was slow going picking their way up the valley. As the sun began to sink behind the steep ridge in front of them Chris called a halt.
They made camp in a moss covered clearing by the river, there was a small area of white water and below it an inviting pool of slack water. After seeing to their mounts and getting a fire started, people began to look longingly at the river.
"Well I dont know 'bout you guys but I'm going swimming," Nathan announced.
He was already beginning to strip when Ezra joined him. "Sounds good to me Mr Jackson."
It was an infectious idea, by the time Celia returned to camp with her quota of firewood Nathan and Ezra were down to there boxers, and with the exception of Vin, the others weren't far behind.
"Er..hm.," she interrupted loudly.
The men froze, except Vin who had seen her coming and was trying not to cry with laughter.
"Before you gentlemen go skinny dipping I'd like a few ground rules. First you warn me first and I'll go for a walk down stream, second, every one stays below the rapids and who ever does the cooking; which won't be me! Gets the water upstream of you."
Their collective look of abashment and compliance was making Vin laugh so much he was having trouble breathing.
"Mr. Tanner you're not going to join them?"
"No ma'am," he managed to say between howls of laughter.
"Then when they are quite finished would you be kind enough to come find me?"
When he did go and find her she was also swimming in the river, just down stream of the men. She saw him approach and waved. He waved back as he got close enough to speak.
"Suppers on and everyone is near enough decent," he called.
"Wait there a moment I'll walk back with you." And with that she stood up waist high in the water. It took Vin a good thirty seconds to realise what he was looking at and to react by turning around.
"I'm so sorry," he stammered.
"Don't be, I didn't mean to embarrass you and you didn't embarrass me."
"Mr Tanner have you seen a woman naked before?"
"And were you so over come at the sight of my breasts that you were about to lose control of you self and attack me?"
"Are you intending to make me the butt of some lewd joke you can tell to your friends."
"As I thought, a true gentleman, so what is the problem?"
"None; I guess."
"You can turn around now it's quite safe."
"So you wouldn't have minded if the guys had gone swimming in front of you?"
"Not at all."
"So why did you..?"
"Wasn't it funny, didn't I see you laughing?"
"Yes, it sure was funny."
"Don't we; even under these circumstances deserve a little light relief."
+ + + + + + +
Cindy and JD made a good team, they supported each other and quickly learnt some of the routine jobs they could do to help Buck. They talked to him, read to him or just sat and watched over him. Each knowing how much the other loved Buck, made it easier for them to take turns and get some rest. JD desperately wanted to know about Buck's childhood, and why he should want to hide his mother from him, of all people; but he had learnt enough over the past few years that there were times when you just don't push.
It was forty eight hours after the second leg operation that the doctor came over. JD was always alarmed when a doctor or nurse came over unexpectedly.
"Don't worry JD," Kim one of the regular nurses reassured, "It's good news we hope."
"We're going to start reducing the sedation," explained the doctor.
"We'll have to monitor him closely for a while. He's going to start to come round, it could take a day or two or it could take a week. When that happens we have to start dealing with pain management. You two are going to have to prepare yourselves for that."
"But you can give him stuff right?" Cindy asked anxiously.
"Of course but he's very ill still and there is only so much his system can take."
JD was beginning to actually believe those promises he and Chris had made were going to be kept.
"So this means he's going to be OK?"
Doctor Irving looked sympathetic. "The pneumonia is improving slowly, but we haven't beaten the blood poisoning yet, when his fever breaks then we can say he's out of danger, I'm sorry it's not what you wanted to hear."
Deep down, beneath the fever, the pain, the shock, the sedation and the drugs, Buck was fighting his own battle, it hurt, he was tired of fighting, tired of the pain. But every time he wanted to give up and go to sleep he could hear JD calling him, chiding him for being lazy. 'Come on Buck lets shoot some hoops, lets go riding, want to go skiing?' He could hear JD calling him on and for some reason he could also hear his mom too, she had started to join in, the two of them wouldn't let him rest wouldn't let him give up and sleep. And at the very back of his subconscious he was afraid, if he did go to sleep and give up the fight Chris would be mad at him, and that was motivation enough for anyone.
+ + + + + + +
Chris wiped the perspiration from his eyes as they finally crested the ridge now they were only ten miles from their destination. As everyone took a drink Chris tried the cell phone again, and finally got a signal so he could call the hospital.
"Great news JD thanks."
The others looked on with anticipation.
"They're going to wean him off the sedatives," he explained.
With that bit of hopeful news in place they proceeded to their new campsite. This one was a smaller version of the first, no nice deep river just a stream, but it was clear and cool. If Chris had read his map and if the GPS hand unit wasn't lying to him on the other side of the small ridge behind them would be a clear view of Twickers Point, assuming the chopper was there. He told them to make camp and not make too much smoke while he scouted around, if he'd failed he wanted to be the first to find out.
"Where do you think your going?" Celia asked "I may have conceded tactical control to you Agent Larabee but this is still my operation."
"I'm just going to look around."
"To find out if your navigation is up to scratch?"
"Something like that"
She fell into step beside him. "Should have let Trevalian navigate, it is his area of expertise."
The two of them came around the ridge and edged toward the tree line, then they stopped. There was nothing wrong with Chris's navigation, he had found the ridge immediately opposite the encampment Ezra had seen on the satellite photo. Between them a deep valley nearly a ravine. Even without the binoculars they had with them they could see the helicopter. It was sitting near to the edge, behind it a large open area and all around the edge sturdy log cabins. Behind the cabins thick forest extended.
"Nice set up," Celia commented. "I'd say this is the only place you can get a look see at them."
"So why don't they have someone up here?"
She looked around, he was right no one, she double checked, still she could see no one. "Well I'm not the expert you are, but I'll take your word for it."
"We clean, pard?" he called out loud.
"We're clean," Vin answered, materialising from apparently nowhere.
"I told you to stay with the others," Chris frowned.
"Sorry; how did you know I was there?"
"I didn't, I just know you."
Celia grinned at Chris, "Oh he's good," she commented.
"Don't keep telling him, he's smug enough as it is."
They divided into three eight hour watches of two, Chris had assumed Vin would want to team up with him but was surprised when he volunteered to partner Celia. Josiah and Nathan took on the night watch leaving Chris to pair up with Ezra, they started immediately on the afternoon watch. Staying well back in the tree cover they brought up night vision and heat sensing equipment, powerful binoculars on tripods, video and digital cameras (although their battery power was limited), not to mention food and water.
With not much to do Mark detailed himself camp duty and stable duty. The camp was a good forty minutes walk from the look out point, but any closer Chris reckoned and their campfire, even though they were careful to keep smoke to a minimum, would give them away.
Each watch was debriefed at the end of their shift, Vin made careful plans of the lay out of the camp. They started a file on every one they saw, which building they came and went to, at what time what they appeared to do, what weapons were visible and where they were kept. To make it easier they gave the people they saw names like, 'crome dome' and 'skinny long legs'.
On the first morning, before dawn, Mark walked up with Celia and Vin to the look out point. As the camp opposite came to life the English man scanned for his friend. The mist was still rising from the valley floor when he saw him.
"There," he exclaimed, "To your right second cabin, in the combats and white shirt."
The other two panned their glasses to the right.
David Dixon was about six foot, he had short cropped blond hair, a square jaw, and despite the rather loose fitting trousers and baggy long sleeved shirt, Vin got the impression that he was all muscle. They watched as Dixon strolled over to the aircraft and inspected it. He was, or appeared to be unarmed, in contrast to the others, but he also appeared to be unguarded. Then he headed in the direction of what they had already identified as the cookhouse.
Further detailed observation identified cabins where people slept, a wash house, and some sort of meeting house, there seemed very few modern conveniences, smoke rose daily from the cook house, in the evenings people carried hurricane lanterns and lit oil lamps. There were a few women, who were always armed like the men, but no children for which Chris was grateful. He didn't relish the idea of mounting an operation against this fortress at all, much less if there had been innocent children around.
During the night shift Josiah made a crucial discovery. He was using the heat sensitive camera to scan the sight when he picked up something very hot. More careful observation by him and Nathan revealed that behind and to the side of the meetinghouse was another building and this one was air conditioned, and unlike all the other buildings it was constructed of concrete.
For the next day they concentrated their attention on this building. It was just coming up to midday and Vin and Celia were waiting for their relief when Celia swore out loud.
"Oh Jesus, Oh God no!" she breathed.
"What, what?" Vin asked
"Two men just arrived."
"Yeah I saw them so.."
"The one in the black Stetson is Harold Prescott, my boss!"
"You are sure."
"That man is AD Prescott, FBI Los Angeles Bureau. He helped me set up the original pilot, he chose Alan to be the team leader on the ground. He wanted me too but I'm too fair skinned for the dessert."
"He's your mole then. Let's hope he's alone."
He pulled away from the binoculars for a moment to look at her. She looked shell shocked, every drop of colour drained from her face, she sat down on the log they used as a seat. Vin handed her a canteen of water, and after a second she drank. Meanwhile Vin returned to his observations.
"Hay he's greeting a man coming out of the bunker." The bunker was the name they had given to the concrete building.
Celia poured some water over the back of her neck and joined him.
"Oh this just keeps getting better and better," she breathed.
+ + + + + + +
Cindy had gone for a shower and a meal when it happened. The nurses had come for a routine visit, but as JD waited outside Doctor Irving came and then another doctor, no one would tell him anything. He usually only had to wait about twenty minutes, but he had been out there an hour when Cindy came back. He told her, not needing to voice his real fears.
"Come on Buck," Doctor Irving encouraged "don't do this not now." But the test results confirmed her worst fears.
"Do we have any options?" she asked her colleague. They did not.
When Cindy and JD were finally allowed back Buck was linked up to yet another machine. Before they could ask, Irving explained.
"It's a dialysis machine it's going to do the job his kidneys should be doing."
"Why does he need a machine for that?" JD couldn't bear to see one more thing sticking into his friend.
"You remember I told you we hadn't beaten the blood poisoning yet? Well the toxins in his blood are just too much for his kidneys and they shut down, it's not permanent when the toxin level reduces and he's stronger they'll start again."
JD seized a ray of hope.
"When not if?"
"Sorry, I should have said if, I'm so sorry". The doctor turned back to make more notes on Buck's chart. JD stood disconsolate, then Cindy put her arms around him and rested her head on his shoulder.
"She just doesnt know him as well as us, thats all honey, we know the real Buck ain't going to let a little setback like this stop him."
"We do?" he sniffed.
"Yes; if he asks a woman out and she says no, does my son take no for an answer?"
"If you ask him to stop teasing you, does he stop?"
"Not likely." Then JD added his own. "If Chris asks him to knock, does he?"
"I'm guessing no. So we're agreed Buck doesnt let setbacks stop him."
Together they returned to his side, one of the nurses brought another bowl of water and fresh towels. JD took one and began the now routine task cooling him down, as he moved slowly and methodically he forgot about the new line in Buck's forearm and knocked it, as a result Buck flinched and his arm moved away from the pain although not far. Cindy and JD's eyes met, it was the first reaction from him of any kind.
"Buck can you hear me? Come on you must be bored, you've never been quiet this long," JD encouraged.
"Come on my love make your old mom proud, show the know-it-all college educated rich bitches how it's done." His heartbeat, already high, increased setting off the alarms, which brought nurses and a doctor running.
"What the hell happened?" asked the new doctor, an earnest looking man with a hard edge to his voice.
"I'm sorry I touched that and it must of hurt because he moved and I'm sorry," JD stammered out, staccato, panic-stricken.
"Don't fret JD it's not your fault," Cindy soothed.
"And just who are you?"
Buck could hear voices, there was a man, he was angry, angry with mom. He had to protect her that was his job, to protect. "Leave my mom alone". The heart monitor was practically screaming.
The new doctor called for some drug Cindy did not recognise.
"What's that for?"
"Just stay back ma'am, let us work, it'll calm him down."
"No," JD protested, "Doctor Irving just started to cut down on those things!"
"Let us do our job or leave," the doctor snapped.
"Now there are more, moms in danger I have to help her, I have to."
The more his heartbeat went up the more oxygen he needed and the ventilator couldn't cope with the demand, its alarm went off.
Cindy spoke to one of the nurses, who silenced the alarms.
"Now, you shut up and let us," she indicated JD, "do our job." There was real venom in her voice. The doctor shut up.
Cindy sat down again, she took her son's hand and with infinite care turned it so the palm was facing up, then slowly and gently she traced a circle on his hand with her fingertip. The room was now silent except for the regular sound of the ventilator. JD watched the heart monitor slowly calmed down. She beckoned to JD. He came to her side, she stood up and JD slid into the seat, she never once stopped the slow circling. JD watched, and as she nodded, he took over, hoping his friend would not notice the difference. It seemed to work, Cindy walked over to the doctor she pointed to the door and walked, he followed.
JD was fascinated, he craned his neck to see them out side through the widow but never stopped the gentle circles.
"You arrogant, drug happy, bullying little ass hole, you find a doctor who knows my son's case and you get them here now!"
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