As if to add to the dark mood of the day, the sky outside had turned overcast. The gentle breeze that usually blew across the island had ominously increased in strength. A storm was coming.
It didn't matter. Vin's friends sat around him maintaining a vigil. Occasionally, he would rouse and moan in pain, but he was never lucid. His temperature was too high, despite Nettie constantly wiping him down with cool washcloths.
Meatball left his side only to greet Major Boyington when he'd stopped by. The major let the dog stay where she was - firmly planted on Vin's bed - when it had come time for him to leave.
Ezra had been in the island's radio shack for two hours when he returned to the hospital, out of breath from having run across the small island.
"I found it!" He waved a piece of paper triumphantly in the air.
Nathan stood up and took it from him. "The HMS Tracker?"
"She's a Brit carrier. Her sickbay has penicillin... and check those coordinates... we could get to her in an hour if we fly at top speed."
"I'll go!" JD, Buck, Nathan, and Josiah said in unison.
"Nobody's going anywhere," Colonel Laird appeared in the doorway. "There's a typhoon out there. You'd be flying right into the middle of it."
The five pilots looked at each other. "Yes, sir," Ezra said, unexpectedly conceding defeat. He had expected Laird to show up. He'd made no secret of why he was in the radio room and what they intended to do if they found a supply of the medicine Vin needed.
"Good. I can't afford to lose any more pilots, especially not on a whim."
Josiah, Nathan, Buck and JD gave the Colonel a murderous look but said nothing. They knew Ezra was up to something.
As soon as Laird was gone, Ezra turned to them. "I know we all want to go, but now is not the time for grandstanding displays of posturing. Nathan is a good pilot, but he hasn't been flying that long. I'm a good pilot, but commercial aircraft don't take risks... Buck, on the other hand, is used to flying in storms. And JD..." he smiled "well, we all know what he can do. Our best bet is to send the pilot most likely to get there and back."
So it was between Buck and JD... "I ain't risking the kid," Buck said. "I'll go."
"No," JD asserted himself.
"No argument, JD... you're not..."
"You've never landed on a carrier, Buck," JD pointed out.
"Neither have you."
"No, but I've practiced short landings, and you haven't."
The kid was right. It was first at thought that the long nose of the Corsair made it too dangerous to land on a carrier. Buck's training had occurred before the brass had discovered that was not the case. But landing any aircraft on a moving target was dangerous.
"JD's going," Chris said tiredly. The pained expression on his face told Buck what he was feeling - that as hard as it would be to lose their two youngest should the mission fail, Chris would not be able to bear the loss of Vin and Buck, too.
Chris was presently incapacitated, but he was still in command. No one argued.
JD planted his cap on his head and took the coordinates from Ezra.
"JD?" Chris said as he headed out the door. "Be careful, okay?"
"I'll be fine, sir. You just help Vin hang on until I get back."
+ + + + + + +
JD had never been scared at the controls of a plane, until now. Gale force winds buffeted the little Corsair, flinging pellets of rain into her canopy with such force that he feared the protective bubble would crack and leave him at the mercy of the elements. Lightning flashed around him, and he was thinking that if anyone was firing at him with anti-aircraft artillery, he wouldn't know it.
He didn't think anyone was, though. The enemy would not suspect that anyone would be foolhardy enough to be flying in the middle of a typhoon.
He checked his fuel gauge. The strong headwind was causing him to use up fuel faster than he wanted to. He didn't want to have to refuel on board the Tracker, because they'd probably make him wait for calmer seas and he couldn't afford to lose the time.
He kept trying to raise the ship on his radio - he hadn't even made certain that they knew he was coming. He was pretty sure their flight deck would be secured, and he wasn't sure they'd give him permission to land - or if he'd even be able to see her in the roiling waters below him.
Finally, a British accented voice responded to his radio calls. It was just an acknowledgment and then the voice was replaced by an older, sterner one. It was the skipper of the Tracker.
"What the bloody hell do you think you're doing?" he asked.
JD could not allow himself to be intimidated. Too much was at stake. "I've come for medicine for a sick man on Espiritos."
"And just whose orders are you acting under? We're in the middle of a bloody typhoon! Are you insane?"
JD considered his answer carefully. "Uh... yeah, probably. A little, sir."
There was dead silence on the other end - apparently, that answer wasn't one the Tracker's skipper was prepared for. JD thought he heard a hint of humor in the skipper's voice when he spoke again.
"It appears that some of my crew are similarly afflicted. For reasons that pass understanding, they are going to try and get your bloody posterior onto my flight deck. I'm turning you over to my operations commander. God help you, you blithering idiot!"
JD felt some measure of relief. Obviously, Ezra had negotiated with members of the Tracker's crew, who had neglected to inform their skipper until it was too late to stop JD from making a rendezvous with the carrier.
He smiled to himself. Wherever there were strings to pull, Ezra knew where to find them and how hard to tug.
His elation was cut short when he made visual contact with the carrier. She looked like a bathtub toy. She had turned into the waves - which were huge - and was pitching mercilessly. How the hell was he going to put his Corsair down on that?
He fought the urge to panic. There was no turning back now... well, okay he could still turn back, but this close to the help Vin needed to stay alive, he'd never be able to live with himself if he did.
He took a deep breath and remembered what his mama and uncle had taught him when they rehearsed their aerial stunts. Move with as one with the others... know where they are now and where they will be 10 seconds from now...
Carefully, he lined his plane up with the deck of the carrier. It was tricky because he had to keep his nose down slightly in order to see her. He used his stick to dip and climb with the waves until he had established a rhythm that matched that of the bobbing Tracker.
The Tracker cleared him to land whenever he was ready and he took a series of deep breaths to steady his nerves. He could feel cold sweat dripping down the inside of his flight suit.
For the first time, it occurred to him that in five minutes, he could be dead.
Then, on the deck below, he saw two of the Tracker's crewmen waving him in. Crazy bastards must have anchored themselves to the deck somehow, because as JD watched, a huge wave broke over the bow and knocked the two men off their feet, but didn't wash them overboard.
Seeing exactly how short the carrier deck was had also sent his heart rate sky-high. His Corsair didn't have a tail hook, so his forward momentum was going to have to be checked by cutting the engines and adjusting his flaps.
Then he'd have to hope the plane stopped and could be anchored before another one of those terrifyingly huge waves washed her off the deck.
Damn Damn Damn.
He sucked in a deep breath and held it as he cut his airspeed and prepared to meet the carrier's deck as it surged upward. Then, he prayed he wouldn't die.
+ + + + + + +
JD's timing was perfect. He hit the carrier deck going uphill and was able to stop before he went over the bow. Suddenly, he was surrounded by Tracker crewmen who worked feverishly to secure his Corsair.
He was helped out of the cockpit and taken into the dry hangar deck while they used winches to pull the plane back to the stern so he'd have the length of the ship to take off again. One of the sailors offered him tea and some soda crackers to ward off seasickness. JD wasn't prone to that particular malady, but the big ship was moving so violently in the storm that he appreciated the gesture.
A medic came running up with a small box that JD tucked into his flight suit.
In just minutes, he was being helped back into his Corsair. He checked his fuel. He had a little over half a tank. Enough to get back to Espiritos.
As the crew eased away from the aircraft, he began to time the rise and fall of the carrier, waiting for the right time to gun the engine with what he hoped was enough force to clear the deck.
Then, in the distance, he saw something that almost made him freeze in terror - a wave that had to be 40 feet higher than the ship's deck. It was going to break over the bow... and if the Corsair wasn't washed away, its engine could be swamped and rendered useless.
JD released the engine and set his flaps to the maximum angle that he dared. It was now a race to see who got to the bow of the carrier first - him or the killer wave.
He was dimly aware that he was screaming as the Corsair rolled down the deck and was launched into the air as the Tracker dipped into the trough of that hideous wall of water.
The spray from the wave splashed against his canopy as if a bucket of it had been thrown at him, and the engine sputtered briefly, but then caught again.
Glancing behind him, he saw the Tracker fading in the distance. He was airborne. He was on his way home.
+ + + + + + +
Vin's breathing had become more labored. He was so weak that even that simple act had become a moment to moment struggle.
Outside, the typhoon raged on, and with each passing minute, their concern for JD mounted. He'd reached the HMS Tracker, but that was the last radio contact anyone had had with him.
Chris scratched Meatball behind her ears and leaned back with a sigh. Had he done the right thing? Or had he selfishly sacrificed JD in his desperation to save Vin? And if the fever had burned away Vin's brain, was he even doing the right thing trying to save him?
He closed his eyes against the pain in his head, the effects of his own injuries still very much evident.
The others were in the operations tower, waiting to help guide JD in if they had to. Laird was spitting nails, and General Travis wasn't very happy, either. There wasn't going to be any way to excuse sending JD into that storm if he didn't make it back. Well, no way that anyone but the Seven and maybe Nettie would ever understand.
The door to the ward burst open so suddenly that Chris was startled. He groaned as his abused body reacted. Turning carefully to avoid further pain, he saw JD, followed by the others. The kid was soaked, his black hair plastered to his head.
He seemed relieved to see that Vin was still alive.
"Where's the medicine?" Chris asked. Vin had no more time to wait.
"Doc Murphy has it. He needs to read the instructions for giving it to him and he'll be right here... how is he?"
Chris shook his head.
JD, Buck, Nathan, Josiah and Ezra joined him, forming a circle around the bed as if by doing so they could concentrate their will on Vin and give him the strength to hang on for just a little while longer.
As sick as he was, Vin seemed to sense that they were there. He opened his eyes briefly and tried to focus, but the effort was just too much for him. He looked so bad... so weak and fragile. If Chris could have taken him in his arms and passed onto him his own strength and will to live, he would have.
Dr. Murphy arrived in minutes, a large syringe filled with a murky white liquid on a tray.
He gently pulled back the thin sheet covering Vin's naked body and swabbed his hip with alcohol.
He looked at the six men surrounding the young Lieutenant. "You understand that no one knows how this drug works. It may do nothing for him. It may even kill him."
His response was anguished stares, but no one said anything. "As a battle casualty, he normally wouldn't need to consent to treatment, but this... Major Larabee, you're listed as his next of kin..."
"Do it," Chris said flatly.
Murphy nodded and injected the drug.
No one really expected Vin to be suddenly cured, but it was still a let down when there was no response at all.
"How long before we know if it works?" Buck asked.
Murphy shook his head. "I don't know. I'll give him another dose in 4 hours... I just don't know..."
Chris was restless. For the past three days he had been sitting in this bed waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Chris punched the bed and cursed. This was driving him mad. Three days ago they had started Vin on the penicillin. Three days of waiting and nothing.
Well, that wasn't wasn't exactly true. Vin was still alive, and he was doing a little better. His breathing had eased some, and his temperature was down. He was still very ill, though, and Doctor Murphy repeatedly cautioned them that he might still take a turn for the worse and not pull through.
Chris glanced over to the next bed and sighed. Vin was pale and looked younger than JD. He was so still that it scared Chris. Ever since Vin had joined the unit he was always moving, never staying in one spot for very long. His insatiable curiosity had gotten him into more fixes than Larabee could count, but he never could get or stay mad at him.
Chris swung his injured leg carefully over the side of the bed and got into the wheelchair. His head didn't hurt as much as it had but if he moved too fast he would become dizzy and nauseous. Once he was settled he pushed himself the short distance to Vin's side. Chris reached under the oxygen tent and took Vin's hand and gave it a squeeze.
"Hey Pard," Chris said. "Don't you think it's about time you woke up?" Chris didn't expect an answer and dropped Vin's hand. On the nightstand were cool water and a cloth. Chris wet the cloth and unzipped the tent enough to put his arm through and wipe Vin's feverish body down.
"You know JD went to a lot of trouble getting that medicine for you. Least you could do is respond to it. The way he tells it he had to fly to Hell and back to get it here."
Chris stopped what he was doing and just stared at Vin. He'd never been good with words but he had to tell Vin. Had to tell him just in case. Chris threw the cloth on the table and cursed. When he got his emotions back under control he took Vin's hand again.
"There's something I need to say. You know I'm not good at this so feel free to stop me at any time." Chris looked at Vin and smiled. "Guess you're going to make me do this, huh?" He cleared his throat. "After Sarah and Adam were killed I became reckless. Reckon I was trying to kill myself with all the crazy things I pulled. Without Buck pulling my ass out of the fire I suppose I would have succeeded. Buck tried to help me but he was almost as devastated by their death as I was. Buck was Adam's godfather and he spoiled him something fierce. I also suspect Buck had a soft spot for Sarah as well." Chris smirked and shook his head. "I know what you're thinking. That Buck has a soft spot for all women. It's true, he does, but I think Sarah was special to him. Well, anyway after they died, I started drink and pushed everyone away. Tried to push Buck, too, but he's a tough one to budge when he doesn't want to go. He was the one who suggested being a mail runner. Guess he figured it would be dangerous enough that it would get my mind off of losing my family. But it didn't. I was still angry, and more reckless than ever. Then the war broke out...."
Chris paused and looked up at Vin. Maybe it was his imagination but Vin seemed more relaxed. It was as if Vin was listening to what he said, so he continued.
"After Pearl was attacked I jumped at the chance to fly the fighters. I had a new place to focus my anger. Buck joined up with me and we went through training together. Never dreamed they would make me a squadron leader, and when they did I never expected to be given the chance to pick my own men. Buck was my first pilot. He refused a squadron of his own so he could stay with me. Josiah came next. Then Ezra. Yeah, Yeah I know," Chris laughed. "You want to know why I picked him. Ezra was brash and insubordinate but God help me, I think that's what I liked about him, and so I gave him the chance. Buck couldn't understand why I took him either. But you want to know the person he was least sure about? You. When the MP's showed up to deliver you to the training ground Buck was leery. After you explained that you had been set up, Buck did some checking on you. Buck always did watch my back. Guess he saw I was taking a liking to you. Not sure what it was about you. From day one you were so sure of yourself. Always confident in your abilities and easy to get along with. Not sure what drew me to you... I guess maybe it's because I see in you the man Adam might have been...."
Chris tried to swallow the lump in his throat as he leaned back and looked at Vin. He knew exactly how he felt about Vin but he didn't know how to say it. He'd been out of practice for so long. Never wanted anyone to get close like that again. His reasons were selfish. He didn't want to be hurt. That's why he had wanted to push Buck away except Buck wouldn't go. "I don't know what it is between you an' me, Vin, but I felt it that first day I met you.... I think you did, too..."
"It's called love."
Chris turned sharply at the voice and instantly regretted it as his vision started to black out. He felt a hand grip his shoulder as he closed his eyes. Once the pain and dizziness had passed Chris cautiously opened his eyes to see a very anxious Buck sitting across from him.
"I'm alright," Chris assured him. "Just moved too fast."
"Damn, Pard, you scared me there for a minute," Buck smiled as he sat back.
"How long you been listening?" Chris asked.
"Long enough," Buck said and sat on Chriss bed. "Why dont you just say it?"
"Its hard," Chris admitted. "Im out of practice."
"You also dont want people getting close so you can be hurt again," Buck said. "Well, buddy, I hate to tell you its too late. Not only has Vin weaseled his way into your heart but so have the others."
"Even Ezra?" Chris asked with a smile.
"Yeah, even him," Buck laughed.
"I suppose youre right," Chris sighed.
"So then, go on and tell him," Buck encouraged.
"Cant do it with an audience," Chris scowled.
"Well I aint goin nowhere," Buck smiled. "Want to make sure you do it right.. he's my little brother, too, ya know."
+ + + + + + +
These sensations assaulted Vin as the blackness started to retreat. The voices he could ignore, for now. The confusion would pass but the pain was something he had no control over. His leg and arm were throbbing with sharp, fierce pain, and he felt closed in by strange walls that were only inches from his face in every direction. He could not hold back the groan that escaped.
"Jesus!" Buck yelled as he jumped up and moved to Vin.
"Vin?!" Chris called as he took Vins hand.
Buck pushed his hand into the oxygen tent and placed his hand on Vins cheek. Vin responded by leaning into Bucks hand as if looking for reassurance.
"Come on, Vin," Buck said as he ran his hand through Vins lank hair.
"Damn it, Buck!" Chris yelled and tried to rise.
"You just sit there!" Buck ordered as he turned and glared at Chris. "Dont need you getting messed up again."
Chris glared back as Buck continued to talk to Vin. He felt Vins fingers move and gave them a squeeze. Chris smiled when Vin gripped his hand weakly.
"Come on, Vin, open them eyes," Buck said. He smiled when Vins eyes opened to slits. "Hey there, Junior."
"Love ris,.... too..." Vin croaked as drifted off again.
Buck laughed as he resealed the tent and turned to Chris. "Told you it wasnt hard to say it."
Chris ignored his teasing. "Go get Doc Murphy."
+ + + + + + +
Murphy smiled after he had finished examining Vin. "His fever's broken. His lungs sound good. He's still very weak, but, by God, I think he's going to make it."
Meatball, who had rarely left Vin's side, detected Murphy's optimistic mood and thumped her tail happily against the bed. Vin opened his eyes and squinted down at the little dog. He reached out to pet her, but was encumbered by the plastic oxygen tent.
Murphy, who by now was used to the dog, pulled the plastic back so he could reach her. "I don't think we need this anymore," he smiled.
Vin rested his hand on Meatball's back. She rolled over for a tummy rub, but Vin didn't have the energy to do more than pat her a few times. She seemed happy with that though, and closed her eyes contentedly.
Buck patted Vin on his good leg. "Nice goin' Junior."
There was a hint of a smile on Vin's face, even though he didn't open his eyes.
When Murphy left, Buck looked at Chris. "Think he'll remember what you told him?"
"Don't care if he does," Chris shrugged. "I do love him... hell, I love all of you guys... but..."
"Vin's special," Buck concluded.
Chris nodded. "Yeah... I don't know why. It's like... we have always known each other, you know? I don't think if I had a brother, I could be closer to him."
"Sarah would have liked him," Buck commented.
Chris nodded and smiled slightly. "Yeah, she would have."
Buck clapped a hand on Chris's shoulder. "I better get outta here before we start exchangin' flowers and spoutin' love poems..." he laughed, breaking the moment.
"Go to hell."
"Oh Im goin somewhere but it aint hell," Buck laughed as he stood up. "Got a date with a pretty little red-haired nurse. Gonna let her play doctor. Im goin to heaven, ol' Pard."
"God youre incorrigible," Chris said shaking his head.
"Yeah, I know," Buck smiled. "Now lets get you back to bed. Youre looking a little peaked."
Buck helped Chris back to his bed. Once he was settled it wouldnt take long for Chris to fall asleep. Vin's response to his words and touch had reassured him and finally put him at ease. Buck straightened the blankets then headed for the door. Before he walked out he turned and looked at the young lieutenant. Vin was back. The penicillin had worked. Vin was still sick but he wasnt going to die. Buck smiled thinking what would happen when he told the others. Yup, tonight was going to be heaven.
Chris woke the next morning to someone calling his name. He rubbed his eyes then glanced over at Vin. The lieutenant was sleeping but Chris could see he was caught in a dream. He sighed as he sat up and pulled the wheelchair closer to the bed. As he was getting into the chair he heard a yip. He looked back at Vin and noticed Meatball was on his far side. The dog seemed to think she could come and go as she pleased, and she was pretty much right about that. The hospital staff was not amused but had to admit Meatball had a calming effect on the young lieutenant. By the time Chris got over to Vin the nightmare had passed and Vin had relaxed into a deeper sleep.
"You couldn't let me know you were over there before I struggled into this chair?" Meatball just raised her head and thumped her tail against the bed.
"Talking to the dog Major?"
Chris turned to find Nettie standing next to his bed. He hadn't heard her come in. She came around to the other side of the bed and sat down. Chris noticed she was carrying something. Nettie smiled and pulled the napkin off.
"Pineapple upside cake," Chris said surprised.
"I'm better at apple pie but apples are hard to come by," Nettie said as she placed the cake on the nightstand. She cut a piece and handed it to Chris.
"Thanks," Chris said as he bit into it.
"Figured you could use something besides the rations they got here," Nettie smiled as she stood and walked over to Vin. "How's he doing?"
"He's holding his own," Chris said. "He woke me this morning calling my name. Guess he was dreaming."
Chris watched as Nettie brushed the hair off Vin's forehead then leaned down to kiss him. Nettie stood back up and nodded in satisfaction. Chris smiled knowing she was testing Vin's temperature. His grandmother always did it that way and it had made Chris feel safe. Nettie fussed with the blankets then patted Meatball.
"You're a good girl," Nettie said. "But you want Vin to wake up don't you?"
Meatball barked and wagged her tail. Chris finished his cake and leaned back to watch Nettie care for Vin. He was surprised she was still on the island. When the Navy had taken Espiritos over, Nettie had been here with her niece Casey teaching native children at a small school. Her tendency to slip into her Texas drawl when she was around Vin belied the fact that she was well-educated. Like most Texans she valued her own judgment and her independence, and when the Navy had tried to move her off the island, she had refused to go. The way Chris heard it she had leveled an old Spencer carbine at the young officer and told him to "git". The officer, being a smart man, had done just that. Now she was a permanent fixture on the island and she helped out wherever she could. Chris had asked Vin why he was drawn to the older woman. Vin had been reluctant to tell him but finally admitted that Nettie reminded him of his mother. Chris was glad Vin had found someone who cared for him in Nettie.
Chris got as comfortable as he could in the wheelchair and closed his eyes. Vin was in good hands.
He had only dozed for a few minutes when Meatball barked and woke him up. He opened his eyes to see Nettie smiling and leaning over Vin.
"Well, looky who decided to finally wake up."
Vin blinked a few times and Chris smiled as Vin tried to processes what was going on.
"Net...tie," Vin finally croaked.
"Well, at least we know that fever didn't mess up his brain if he can remember an old coot like me," Nettie said smiled.
"Chris?" Vin whispered fearfully.
"His right over there," Nettie said and pointed. She smiled broadly as Vin blinked again and tried to focus, not realizing he was staring in the direction opposite of the way she was pointing. She gently turned Vin's head to face Chris.
"Hey, Cowboy," Chris smiled. Vin stared at him as if he were trying to comprehend the fact that Chris was really there. Chris reached over and pushed the hair out of Vin's eyes. "You thirsty?"
Vin didn't answer but Chris figured he had to be. Chris poured some water into a cup and dropped a straw in it. He placed the straw to Vin's lips and it took the younger man a few minutes to figure out what to do. After Vin got his first taste he eagerly sucked on the straw until Chris was forced to pull it away before he got sick. Vin sighed and closed his eyes.
Chris frowned at Nettie. "Does he seem okay to you?"
"'m okay... cowboy," Vin sighed.
Chris and Nettie grinned at each other - both resisting an urge to sweep Vin up in their arms and give him a big hug. Chris noticed Vin was absently rubbing Meatball's head. The terrier was in heaven and happily wagged her tail. After a few minutes Vin stopped and Chris knew he was asleep again.
Chris's smile faded a bit. "He's so weak," he said sadly.
"Yes, but try to remember how he was three days ago."
Nettie was right - even Vin's color had improved. The horrifying, festering wound on his leg was still ugly to look at, but it now appeared to be healing, and the stench of decaying tissue was gone.
Nettie leaned over and kissed Vin on the cheek. She scratched Meatball one last time, covered the cake, and then walked behind Chris's wheelchair and started pushing it away from Vin's bed.
"Hold on just a minute!" Chris protested and grabbed the wheels to stop her. Nettie smacked his hand and he let go.
"Im taking you outside," Nettie said as she continued on her way. "You've been cooped up in here almost a week now. I'm taking you out to the porch."
Chris knew arguing would be useless so he wisely kept his mouth shut. Besides Meatball was there so Vin wasnt alone. Nettie pushed him out to a sunny spot behind the Quonset hut. It was late morning, but the sun wasn't beating directly down on them, and there was a shady palm nearby in case it became uncomfortable. Nettie pulled up a chair and pulled some knitting out of a satchel Chris hadn't even noticed she was carrying. After a few minutes Chris had to admit the sun felt good. He must have dozed when he heard his name being called.
"Chris?" He opened his eyes to see Mary Travis standing in front of him.
"I'll just go inside and keep Vin company," Nettie said smiling at Chris.
Chris was sorry to see her go. Things with Mary were complicated and he would have liked Nettie to stick around.
"How are you feeling?" Mary asked as she took Nettie's empty seat.
"Not too bad," Chris said. "Doc says I can't fly until my leg is healed."
"How's Vin?" Mary asked.
"You asking as friend or a reporter?" Chris saw the gleam in Mary's eyes when she asked about Vin.
"As a friend first," Mary answered a little hurt. "But this would make a fantastic story. Penicillin is such a new drug and it seemed to work fine on Vin."
"Mary, you know how Vin doesn't like to draw attention to himself," Chris said.
"I know," Mary said reluctantly. "But if you asked him..."
"Alright," Mary sighed, and Chris had to give her credit for knowing not to force the issue.
"Do your story on JD," he suggested. "He's the real hero - and he'd love the attention."
Mary smiled and held up her notebook. "Yes, the boy does love to talk."
Chris smiled thinking of the exuberant young pilot.
Mary's tone became serious again. "So how is Lieutenant Tanner?"
"He's doing good," Chris replied. "Fever's come down and he's trying to wake up. He's a little disoriented still... takes him awhile to recognize people and where he is, but eventually, he does."
"I hear Major Boyington left his dog here for him."
"Not like he had a choice," Chris laughed. "Meatball has a mind of her own."
Just as Chris said her name Meatball pushed the door open and trotted out. She had a bone in her mouth and Chris absently wondered where on earth she'd gotten it as she disappeared behind the hospital with it.
"What do the doctors think about her being here?"
"Not like they had a choice either," Chris smiled. "They tried to keep her out but she always found a way back in."
"Major Boyington always claimed she hated everyone," Mary said.
"Usually, she does," Chris said. "But, she seems to like us, especially JD and Vin."
"I heard Lieutenant Standish won her in a poker game."
Chris laughed. "He did, but we gave her back."
"Maybe I'll do a story on that," Mary said considering. "Something fun for a change."
"Talk to Ezra... he's someone who loves to see his name in the paper."
"I'm sure he does," Mary laughed. "Well I have to be going. I'm meeting Orrin for lunch."
"Thanks for dropping by," Chris said. "Say hello to the Admiral for me."
Mary walked down the steps and Chris sighed in relief. It wasn't that he didn't like her, he just couldn't see getting involved in a romantic relationship in the middle of a war, especially not with the widow of the Admiral's son.
Nettie returned so quickly that Chris suspected she hadn't gone very far.
"She's a nice girl."
"Not you, too," Chris cringed.
Nettie laughed. "Who else keeps telling ya?"
"Vin. Buck. Ezra. Admiral Travis. Take your pick"
"Smart boys, all of them," Nettie teased. "Let's get you back inside. They're getting ready to serve lunch."
"I'd rather stay out here," Chris groaned.
"Food that bad?"
"It ain't good."
"We'll have to see what we can do about that for dinner," Nettie promised.
She helped get Chris back in his bed, piling the pillows behind his back so he could sit up. Once he was comfortable Chris glanced over at Vin. The lieutenant was sleeping peacefully when the nurses brought lunch so Nettie stayed and joined him. She took a few bites of the meal then placed it on the bedside table.
"I see what you mean," she said, standing up. "I'll bring you something good for dinner don't worry."
"I'd appreciate it," Chris said. "Oh, by the way, where'd you get the bone for Meatball?"
"I didn't give her a bone," Nettie answered.
"She came out with this big old bone in her mouth."
Nettie began to laugh. "Dr. Murphy has a reference skeleton in his office.... Or should I say he had one... parts of it have shown up missing over the past few days. He thought it was a prank."
As Nettie walked out she held the door open so Meatball could come in. The dog walked over to Vin's bed and jumped up. Chris watched her as she curled up and lay her head on Vin's stomach. Chris could swear she winked at him before she closed her eyes for a nap. Chris wondered when the staff would realize what she'd done.
Vin woke to a dead weight on his arm. As he tried to figure out what it could be his body reminded him of its other hurts. The one that bothered him the most was his leg. It seemed to burn and itch at the same time. Vin couldn't remember what had happened and he figured it might help if he opened his eyes. Except they didn't seem to be cooperating. They felt crusted shut from disuse. So he decided to rub them but his right arm was weighed down. As he tried to move the left a sharp pain assaulted him and he cursed.
Vin recognized that deep baritone and forced his eyes open. Sure enough Josiah was leaning over him. "What the hell hit me?" Vin couldn't believe that the feeble, raspy voice he was hearing was his.
"Try some water," Josiah laughed.
Josiah held the straw for Vin as the young lieutenant took a sip. Vin's voice sounded like a cross between Marlena Dietrich and a buzz saw. Since his fever had finally broken two days ago, the lieutenant had been in a deep, healing sleep but now he was awake and cranky. Or as Buck would say 'ornery as a sidewinder with lumbago'. Vin was never a model patient and Josiah knew as he gained strength he'd be giving the nurses hell. They would then call on Nettie and Vin would behave. Once Vin was finished with the water he looked around. He saw the dead weight on his arm was Meatball. The dog thumped her tail on the bed when Vin looked at her. Vin wiggled his arm out from under her and gave her a scratch.
"Hey, girl, what ya doin' here?" Vin's drawl was more pronounced and his voice was still a little rusty.
"Meatball's been with you while you were sick," Josiah said.
"Don't remember," Vin said scowling.
"What do you remember?"
"Remember getting shot down and hitting a damn coral bed," Vin said indignantly and Josiah laughed. "Swam out for Chris..."
Josiah watched as Vin realized Chris had been shot down as well. Vin looked around the hospital and Josiah could see the worry on his face. He'd already been told repeatedly that Chris was okay, but seemed to need a reminder each time he woke up.
"Easy, Vin, Chris is alright, remember?" Josiah said grabbing his arm. "Buck just took him outside for a bit of air."
"Musta been a dream," Vin sighed. "Could have sworn a shark got him before I did." His brows knitted together. "But that cain't be right 'cause we was on the coral together."
Josiah could see Vin was getting frustrated by his fragmented memory. Meatball seemed to sense the change as well and she barked. Vin turned his attention back to scratching her and he relaxed.
"Youve been pretty sick, Vin," Josiah explained. "Might not remember some things."
"How sick?" Vin asked.
"Well you were shot down over a week ago."
"Yup," Josiah laughed. "That coral you hit had some sorta of toxin that your body didn't like. The wound on your leg became infected."
"That why it itches something fierce?" Vin asked.
"Probably," Josiah said. "The doctors tried everything they could, nothing worked. Doctor told us you were done for."
Vin frowned. He was pretty sure he was still alive. "What happened?"
"Nathan told us about a new drug the Brits're tryin' out called penicillin. It hasn't been used much yet."
"You tried some newfangled medicine on me?" Vin accused.
"It was either that or bury ya," Josiah said, smiling at Vin's shocked expression. "And you left Chris as your next of kin. It was his call."
"Hmm, maybe I better write him outta my will if he's gonna let 'em play Frankenstein with me," Vin said as he turned to see Buck pushing Chris towards the bed.
"That's the thanks I get for saving your ass?" Chris asked.
"You saved him?" Buck pushed Chris over to Vin then sat on the bed. "Hell, the way JD tells the story him and Ezra did."
"Huh?" Vin said confused.
"They didn't have any of the medicine here, Vin," Josiah explained. "Ezra found out who did have it, and JD went and got it."
"Flew right into a fuckin' typhoon to do it, too," Buck boasted. "Made his first carrier landing on a pitching deck," he added with awe.
Vin was impressed, and a little envious. He had always wanted to try a carrier landing, even though the idea of landing on a flat top in a calm sea made him nervous. JD was nuts, he was sure of it.
"So not only did ya risk me but JD as well?" Vin asked Chris. "Some commanding officer you are."
"You can be replaced," Chris growled.
"Nah," Vin said yawning. "You'd miss me."
They watched as Vin drifted off again. Chris smiled at patted his leg. "Yeah, I would."
"Told ya all along he'd be alright!" Buck declared.
"As I recall," Josiah observed, "It was you who closed down the officer's club and then cried his eyes out thinking Vin was gonna die," Josiah teased.
"Aw, hell, Josiah I was drunk," Buck defended. "You know how I am drunk."
Chris stared at him knowingly.
"Okay, I'll admit, I was scared there for a bit," Buck confessed.
"You weren't the only one," Chris said shaking his head. "Guess it was worse for me because I was with him the whole time."
"Yeah, and now you get to be with him as he gets better," Josiah smiled.
Chris considered this. Vin was already giving the nurses a hard time. He didn't like being fussed over, but they all wanted to fuss over the handsome young officer.
"Buck, do me a favor?" Chris asked.
"Just shoot me now."
Vin couldn't wait to go. For the past week he'd been cooped up in the hospital as he recovered. Not that he hadn't tried to get out. The first time he did the room had spun and the next thing he knew he was flat out on the floor. After his second try the nurses brought in Nettie and that was the end of his escape attempts. The nurses were sorry the doctors had released Chris since the major was the only one that could get Vin to cooperate. So now was his day of liberation and even though he was expecting Chris to come for him, there was no one around, not even Meatball.
Vin figured that now he was better, Major Boyington had taken her back, but then he heard the Quonset hut's screen door bang, followed by a distinct clicking sound on the linoleum and he knew it wasn't Chris. Meatball trotted into his room and jumped on the bed.
"Hey, girl," Vin said scratching her ears. "Where is everybody?"
"Tanner you still got my dog!" Vin jumped as Major Boyington stepped into the room. "Yup, I caught you red-handed."
"She came to me," Vin said. "Can I help it if she likes younger guys better?"
"That's insubordination," Pappy growled. "Maybe you should come fly for me and I'll teach you some manners."
"Major Larabee already tried," Vin smiled. "They didn't stick."
"How are you feeling?"
"Tired some," Vin admitted. "But I can't wait to get out of here."
"Major I just wanted to say thanks for letting Meatball stay," Vin said.
"Wasn't my idea," Pappy laughed. "She's a lady with a mind of her own."
"Hey Greg," Chris said as he walked in. "Come to get your dog?"
"Got my case of Coke?"
"For what!" Greg yelled.
"For the dog," Chris smiled.
"Oh, is that how it is," Greg said. "I help your men steal a plane to save your sorry ass and I have to pay to get my dog back?"
"Sounds about right," Chris said nodding.
"Fine!" Greg bellowed. "Youll get your damned soda - but don't think I'll forget this any time soon. Let's go Meatball."
Chris watched as the dog jumped off the bed and followed Pappy to the door. Before he left he stopped and turned back to Chris.
"Always nice doing business, Larabee."
"Same here, Boyington."
Once Major Boyington was gone Chris turned to Vin. "You ready to go?"
"Yeah," Vin said and stood. "That wasn't very nice."
"It's just business," Chris said as he took Vin's arm.
"Still weren't nice," Vin said as he limped towards the door.
"Of course it wasn't, but you know Greg expected nothing less," Chris laughed as he helped Vin towards the door.
"Yup," Vin said. "Except you didn't ask for enough. Pappy would have given us anything to get Meatball back."
"Man's gotta do whatever he has to to protect the things he cares about," Chris said.
Vin stopped walking and smiled at him. "Reckon yer right, cowboy."
Chris smiled too. It was good to have Vin back.