Surviving the First Few Days,
Means Answering the Call

by Heather M.

ATF Alternate Universe

No infringement of anyone else's, be they individual or corporation, ownership rights is intended.

This is a sequel to Christmas for Some, Means Answering the Call. JD Dunne is an Army reservist who has been sent to active duty in Iraq. It would help to read it before reading this one.

Sources: reports from Dec. 26 and 27th.

News articles submitted by Alexandre Trudeau for Dec. 1st and 8th, 2003, Maclean’s Magazine

I am building this story around real events, though not one hundred percent accurate, as this is an amateur work of fiction, truly no disrespect is intended.

“Wilmington, you’re a horse’s ass!” Buck chastised himself mercilessly as he held a sobbing Casey in his arms.

An hour ago they had watched as the transport plane, carrying JD grew smaller gently arcing before disappearing altogether. Only when they finally turned away from the window did they realize that just about everyone else had stayed as well. Grouping now into individual families, wives and mothers-in-law hugged one another, fathers picked up grandchildren, brother and sisters took nieces and nephews by the hand and parents walked hand in hand as the friends and families of those answering the call moved down the hallway toward the main concourse of the airport.

There was little in the way of conversation. A marked contrast was evident as this group began to merge with the rest of the airport’s noisy holiday travelers.

JD Dunne’s family had hung back allowing most of the rest of the families to move on a head of them.

One by one, groups of families and friends veered off as they came to their respective exits leading to the parking levels.

People in line at the ticket counters hardly noticed them as they waited in the excited anticipation of the coming holidays.

An older gentleman in the family group just ahead of them made a sudden side step as a blue Hot Wheels racing car zoomed between his feet and across the floor ending its trip at the toe of Vin’s boot.

“Jonathan Dutton!” thundered the father of the six-year-old owner of the car from one of the long lines. “I told you to keep that car in your hand! Apologize right now! Then pick it up and get back over here!” From the look on Jonathan Dutton’s father’s face he was down to his last nerve and it was fraying fast.

“Sorry Mister,” said the boy in a scared little voice as he looked up at the older man.

“That’s alright son,” said the grandfather, as he shifted the weight of his sleeping infant granddaughter from one shoulder to the other to smile down at the youngster. From what Chris could remember the man had just said good-bye to what appeared to be both a son and a son-in-law.

Vin knelt down and picked up the car and handed it to Jonathan Dutton, “Here ya go pard, no harm done,” Vin gave the boy a reassuring smile.

The boy shyly took the car from Vin’s out stretched hand and scampered back to stand behind his mother.

“One more time Buster and you’ll lose that car…” they heard as they moved on down the concourse.

“Fool,” muttered Buck under his breath as he sent an angry glanced back over his shoulder.

“Easy Buck,” cautioned Chris, half expecting Buck to turn around and go back to have a few choice words with the father. They had all been startled by the youngster’s name and Chris had felt Buck bristle at the angry words.

“How’d he like to have to say good-bye to…,”

“He didn’t mean it Buck,” said Josiah cutting him off, “his day is just getting to him.”

They walked on in silence for another minute before Casey slowed to a stopped, “This is where I parked. Buck, I’ve your truck.”

“You’ve got the Lady?” Buck repeated, frowning with confusion.

“With the snow yesterday Vin gave Nettie and me a ride and then when we left last night JD only had keys for the truck.”

Buck blew out a sigh, as he brought a hand to rub the back of his neck. He must really be losing it if he hadn’t even noticed “the Lady” was missing from the ranch this morning.

“I ahh, I have to go back to your place anyway I forgot all my stuff when we were leaving this morning.”

“Then I guess I’m headin’ home from here.” He took a quick look around, “I gotta make a pit stop first.”

After Buck disappeared around the corner Chris turned to look down at her, “You okay Casey?”

Casey could see the concern in his eyes, she gave him a strained little smile and a stiff nod of her head, “I think so.”

“Miss Welles,” Ezra picked up her hand and kissed the back of it, “If I can ever be of service during Mr. Dunne’s absence, please call, no request is too insignificant my dear.”

Ezra had her smiling with amusement at his lavish display of manners. “Thank you Ezra.”

Then came hugs from the other three.

“Hey Casey.”


“I ‘spect you know what “elegant Ez” said there,” nodding in Ezra’s direction, “goes for all of us, only without all the frills.”

“Thanks Vin,” Casey gave Vin a giggling smile.

“Try and have a good Christmas Casey.”

“I will Nathan, you too”

“Safe journey to Tucson and have a Merry Christmas little sister,” said Josiah.

“You too Josiah.”

“We ready to roll?” asked Buck as he strode up to the group. “See you boys in the morning.”

Buck and Casey made their way out the automatic doors. There were the three solid lanes of airport buses and taxis. Buck took Casey by the hand and they dipsy-doodled their way through the stalled traffic and across to the open air parking garage.

It wasn’t until Buck was in his seat and had slammed his door muffling the outside noises did he hear her.

Buck turned; Casey’s cheeks were wet with tears. She was holding her hands to her mouth in an attempt to hold back a great howling sob.

“Awww Casey,” he whispered as the realization hit him. He slide out from behind the steering wheel across the seat and took her in his arms. He cradled her as if she were a small child as her last shred of control gave way. Great bawling sobs shook the small figure in his arms.

“Let it go darlin’,” he whispered, “Let it go. Ol’ Buck is here to hold on to.”

“I’m so.. so.. so.. sorry” she stuttered, “I couldn’t be brave….. any….” Another sob eclipsed her words.

“Ya got nothing to be sorry for darlin’.”

“I tried to be strong, I wanted him to know I was behind him…” Another sob shook her.

“Ya did darlin’, ya did.” Ya sure as hell did a better job than I did, he thought grimly to himself as he thought back to his spending half of Saturday night in the barn feeling sorry for himself while Casey had been carrying this load for who knows how long. “Wilmington, you’re a horse’s ass!” he railed at himself. “There’s more people hurtin’ here than just you.” He hugged her close as another sob erupted. This one wasn’t as bad.

He continued to whisper words of comfort, letting her cry out her fears and after a few minutes the crying lessened until finally she took a deep trembling breath and just lay still in his arms.

He just held her close kissing the top of her head and stroking her hair. “When had she started to wear it long and loose?” he wondered. Why hadn’t he noticed that the “kids” weren’t kids any more? He pulled in his chin to look down at her, “Feel better?” he asked as he gently wiped her tears away with his fingers.

She gave him a tiny nod before she sat up again. “I’m so.. sorry,” she hiccupped. “I just couldn’t hold it in any longer. I guess I’m not very strong.”

“Casey, don’t think that, you did just fine… more than fine. Ya saw him through this better…” Buck looked away from her to stare sightlessly out into the garage and sighed heavily, “better’n most of us.”

“Look darlin’” he reached across in front of her and popped the glove box open. He rummaged around for a second before finding a pen and an old debit card receipt for gas. Scribbling on the back of it, “Here’s my cell number and extension at work. Any time and I mean anytime, at work, 3 a.m., anytime you need someone to… well, you know, you call me okay?”

She wiped at her eyes with the back of her hand before giving him a little smile, “Okay Buck but… you know that… the same goes for you too.”

He returned a gentle smile and marveled at how lucky JD was.

He slide back behind the wheel and turned to give her a wink as he turned the key in the ignition, “Let’s go get your things.”

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

It was dark and had been for several hours now. The trip seemed to be taking forever.

They had landed and disembarked so that they could get on another plane. This one was a military transport and would take them overseas. The seating was crowded and uncomfortable. The monotonous droning of the engines discouraged anything but necessary conversation and filled his ears just enough to keep him from sleeping. Like the rest of the men, he dozed while his thoughts bounced between home and what he would be missing and the unknown ahead of him.

He shifted in his seat trying to get comfortable. Another nine hours to go.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck sat and nursed his beer.

The saloon was bursting with holiday laughter and merry making while he sat in small corner booth sipping occasionally on his beer thinking over the past three days.

Sunday night the CDC had been too quiet. Even if JD wasn’t half a world away he wouldn’t have been home until late anyway. He’d have been out with Casey, she and Nettie were leaving for Tucson Monday morning. But the fact that JD wasn’t even coming home that night made the house seem unnaturally quiet and especially empty and that had just about driven Buck nuts.

All day Monday there had been a steady stream of co-workers dropping by their office once they had heard the news, offering their support and their prayers, many of them women. Normally Buck would have been lapping up the attention but for some reason he just didn’t have the heart for it this time.

Ezra and Nathan had finished up for the holidays that day. Nathan and Rain had early-morning flights to Kansas City. Ezra had an evening flight to Los Angeles and then an overnight flight to Paris and then on to Rome.

Ezra had suggested that since he was going to be “in the neighbourhood” as it were, he could travel the extra few hundreds of miles and drop in on JD. The offer had been tempting and if anyone could pull it off it would be Ezra but as Josiah pointed out, he doubted that even Travis had enough favours to get Ezra’s butt out of that much trouble if he were caught.

Monday night he had invited Cheryl over. She was bubbly, a great cook and loved to play with whipping cream after dessert. They were in the sack by eight, finished by ten-thirty. At one a.m. he’d given up trying to get any sleep and leaving Cheryl to her slumber, he’d gotten up to sit and stare at the lit Christmas tree and think about JD.

The memory of decorating the tree had made his chest ache.

He had helped JD and Casey secure the tree upright and then had showered and dressed for his date with Belinda. When he was leaving JD was putting the strings of lights on the tree while Casey was popping popcorn. He had leaned over Casey’s shoulder as she showed him the book on origami. They were going to decorate the tree with ornaments crafted from paper, no glue or tape allowed just scissors and needle and thread to hang the ornaments with. He had returned with Belinda an hour and half later, the movie had been sold-out and secretly the tree decorating had sounded like fun.

The four of them had had a great time.

They had folded birds in flight, large petal flowers that looked like poinsettias, reindeer, angels and pinwheels. Casey’s and Belinda’s delicate fingers had folded the most intricate little stars. Buck had been unsure initially as to his paper folding talents and had started by stringing the popcorn and they had all laughed at the naked silhouettes he’d cut out in the snowflakes. Casey and Belinda finally bullied him into trying a basic crane. In the end he had made six of them, larger than the other decorations to accommodate his bigger fingers.

The angel at the top of the tree was a masterpiece. JD had folded it, cutting just two slits to hold the wings and halo upright. He didn’t know the kid had such imagination.

Then they had sat back in the dark with their drinks and talked as they admired the finished product. JD and Casey had gone to bed first and he had sat with his arm around Belinda basking in a Christmasy feeling he hadn’t felt for along time…

Today had been agonizingly slow with just Vin, Josiah and Chris in the office.

Ezra had telephoned just before noon; he was still at LAX. It seems that intelligence reports of terrorist plots had prompted the cancellation of six Air France flights between LA and Paris. Since the President had raised the national terror alert to orange on Sunday it had made re-booking on alternative flights nearly impossible. At the moment he had a flight to Montreal booked and he was optimistic that he would yet spend Christmas with his mother.

Some well intentioned person had printed a copy of “A Soldier’s Christmas” off the net and left it on JD’s desk. Buck had angrily waded up the piece of paper and thrown it in the trash. He didn’t need to be reminded of what JD wasn’t going to have this Christmas.

Tonight he thought he’d try Chris’s way of dealing with things and had gone to the Saloon after work but too many years of hauling Larabee’s inebriated ass home had left its mark and after three hours he still sipped at the same, now warm, beer.

“Buck?” The greeting shook him out of his thoughts.

“Chris,” he replied as Larabee slipped into the opposite seat in the booth.

“I don’t think I have to remind you that this isn’t the way to deal with things.”

“Ya don’t, this is still my first,” he replied sourly, the last person he needed lecturing him on this subject was Chris. “Ask your snitch Inez, I’ve been a good boy,” retorted Buck a little petulantly as he caught the skeptical look in Chris’s eyes.

“Steady there stud, she only called me because she was worried about you.” Chris waved off the waitress who approached the table. “What are you doing here Buck?”

“It’s too… quiet at home.”

Chris nodded. His face was impassive as he cursed himself for not realizing it before now. “How about you come home and have supper with me?”

“Yeah right, like I’m some poor, pathetic sap who needs company and sympathy.”

“No, like you’re the friend that was there for me all those years.” Chris could see from the flicker in Buck’s eyes that he’d hit home, “Besides I’ve got six hours work in the barn before I turn in tonight and it’s already eight o’clock, I could use some help… but you’ll do.”

Buck did a double take and then snorted and smiled a little, “You’re a prick ya know.”

Chris’s expression never changed, the only indication of a smile was in the gold/green depths of his eyes. “That’s boss prick to you Buck,” he said as they both started to rise from the table, “and don’t ever forget it.”

Wednesday morning, Christmas Eve, came and with it, the first present arrived, e-mail from JD.

Hi guys,

arrived safe 16 hours after leaving, with a ten hour time difference that made it early afternoon Monday. I wouldn’t recommend military transportation to anyone unless it was someone I really wanted to piss off.

They gave me 24 hours to get squared away and catch up on my sleep, my body still wants to be awake at Denver time but that’s okay because I’ve got night patrol to start.

I don’t now how much I’m supposed to keep secret because it sure seems as if it’s not CNN at your elbow then it’s a reporter from some other country.

I’m stationed at Tiger Base, near a place called Al-Qa’im on the Euphrates River. It’s along the bottom of what the news reports back home call the Sunni triangle. This base is huge, there’s hundreds of soldiers here. It’s just full of Abrams and Bradleys, helicopters seemed to be constantly buzzing overhead.

We sleep in these huge circus tents with no heat and so far it’s goddamn freezing at night. There’s plenty of water for drinking but not much for showering. I’ve had one hot meal since I got here and we don’t step anywhere outside of our tents without our helmets and bullet proof jackets. Given the lack of privacy, heat, bathing facilities, warm food and our drab uniforms I’d say this place is Ezra’s definition of hell.

My unit is part of Operation Rifle Blitz. So far I’ve had one night of training with Sergeant Ingram. A real s.o.b., makes you feel like you don’t know anything. I think it bothers him that I don’t get all rattled when he yells at me, feels just like home. LOL He reminds me a bit of Chris. Tonight I go on my first patrol.

The other new guy in my unit is Brian Randall, Randy’s the assistant manager at the only grocery store in a little place called Tweed, North Dakota. Nice guy.

Buck I forgot – the insurance is due on my bike by the 29th can you pay it and I’ll catch you later? Thx

Gotta go, we only get ten minutes at a time to send e-mail and I guess I used the first eight on Casey’s message. Use this e-mail addy to return messages.


~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD tried hard to stifle a yawn. So far it had been quiet tonight, which in and of itself was a bit unusual. He was becoming accustomed to the occasional background noise of helicopters and the occasional gunfire. He’d e-mailed Casey and the guys and then had gone to an early mass the military Padre was holding. He had taken communion. Somehow doing familiar things, regular things, helped take away some of the loneliness he was feeling. Now he was waiting for Sergeant Ingram and the rest of the unit to arrive for patrol.

He had sent the e-mail before the early mass so that others would get it first thing in the morning. He knew he’d been a smart ass with the s.o.b. remark about Chris and asking Buck to pay his insurance on his bike. Maybe distance had made him bolder than he should have been but he just wanted them to know he was okay and that everything was going to okay.

Ingram, jeez what an asshole! Ingram seemed awfully preoccupied with making sure his “balls were kissing mother earth” when they were crawling around on the ground as part of the some of the drills he was running them through last night. Josiah had warned him regular army Sarges were “sons o’bitches." He knew because he’d been one of those “sons o’bitches” in 'Nam. What Josiah didn’t have to tell him was that that was how they kept their men alive.

The night was clear and cold, he never thought of Iraq as being cold, the news always mentioned the desert but it was really cold at night around here. He looked up at the stars over head and wondered what Casey and the others would be doing now, half a day away on Christmas Eve.

Casey would be getting ready for the party with her umpteen cousins in Tucson. God he missed her, he only hoped she’d try to have a good time and not worry too much about him. Ezra would be hobnobbing with the “rich and obscenely wealthy” as Ezra had referred to them, at the villa in Rome with Maude. Some how JD didn’t feel quite so lonely knowing Ezra was only two time zones away. Nathan would be miserable. He would be trying to be pleasant to Rain’s sisters. JD wasn’t quite sure what it was about Rain’s sisters, at the wedding one of them couldn’t even seem to remember Nathan’s name. All Nathan would say is, “A man has his limits!” The office would have emptied at noon, a little more than an hour ago now, except maybe for Chris, A.D. Travis and a couple of others. Josiah would have dragged Buck and Vin down to the shelter to start preparing for Christmas dinner. That’s where he had planned to be… but life would go on and he would be here, doing his duty, fulfilling his commitment.

He yawned again. Man it sure was cold. Silent night, holy night…

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Buck hummed along with Shania Twain on the radio. He banged pots, pans and what ever else was in the sink as he washed up. He found it helped to be busy. Physically busy. Last night, after having supper with Chris and then working at the ranch until midnight he’d gone home and slept like a baby. The fact that he probably hadn’t had eight hours sleep total in the three previous nights could have had something to do with it too.

The e-mail had helped too.

Now he knew where the kid was, the base sounded big. Maybe it was a false impression but bigger seemed safer to Buck than smaller. Baghdad seemed to be the major target anyway. He could tell from the smart mouth comments JD was just trying to let them know that he was okay and not to worry. Damn that kid! He felt like swatting him on the head and hugging him at the same time.

He felt better.

Working with Josiah, Vin and some of the other volunteers at preparing trays of raw vegetables, cooking cranberries for sauce and rolling out dough the other volunteers would need for making pies had made Buck felt better too. Some how doing and worrying about JD wasn’t nearly as bad and as sitting and worrying about JD.

Shania Twain’s “Silent Night” came to an end and the radio D.J. announced it was six p.m. and time for the news.

Buck half listen to local news report as he dried the dishes. Christmas Eve services, light-hearted news reports, a reminder of national terror threat level orange. He stopped what he was doing and listened more closely as the report turned to Iraq. “….another series of deadly raids on U.S. forces. Striking several times in a 24-hour period in Iraq’s restive Sunni Triangle, insurgents killed five soldiers early Christmas morning in Iraq. The region, north and west of Baghdad, is an area in which opposition to the U.S. led coalition has been the greatest.”

The pot he’d been holding clanged as it bounced off the floor. Buck felt his knees go weak, he groped along the counter as he made his way unsteadily toward the chair at the other end. The newscaster’s words, “killed five soldiers” echoed in his head. He sat down heavily, he felt numb.

Buck put his elbows on his knees and leaned over to rest his head in shaking hands. “Come on Bucklin,” he said to himself. “Dig deep. It’s still down there. Just like when Ma died, just like when Sarah and Adam died. Ya still got some of it left.”

He forced himself to breathe slowly and deeply. He fought hard to keep his sense at panic at bay as he reached down deep within himself to resurrect the strength that had carried him through the hardest times in his life. There’s thousands of soldiers in the Sunni triangle, he told himself. Get yourself a god-damn map and find out where Al-Qa… what ever is compared to this Fallujah! He took another deep breath as his panic receded and reason began to take over again. “The military will let you know. Probably already has… Which mean Christmas for the families of five men will forever be connected with their deaths…”

“God damn it!” he swore viciously out loud, “This fucking war!” and pounded his fist on the counter beside him in rage.

Another breath and another, he was calming down. He’d found it again, he would make it through this, too.

The swinging door to the kitchen squeaked as Vin shuffled into the kitchen under the weight of three twenty-five-pound bags of potatoes, one stacked on top of the other. “Buck? Buck! Help me out here will ya?” Vin peered over the top bag.

“Buck! Are you okay?”

Buck rose unsteadily from his chair and made his way a little cautiously over to Vin. “I’m fine.” He took the top most bag of potatoes and they both set their loads on the large work table.

“Buck what’s wrong?” Vin’s eyes narrowed as his eyes searched the too pale face. “Ya look like hell!”

Buck’s face broke out in a smile. It was a pale imitation of his usual hundred watt grin. “Now, junior, you and I both know that just ain’t possible.”


“Come on” Buck turned and neatly scooped the dropped pot off the floor and set it on the work table as he headed toward the door, “let’s get the rest of those potatoes on in here then see if Josiah is willing to call it a night.” He pushed through the swinging door leaving Vin to follow behind him scowling with his annoyance at Buck’s answers.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Nettie watched the worried profile of her grandniece. Casey sat on the edge of the chair chewing on her lip her arms were wrapped tightly around herself as she starred intently at the CNN report on the television.

They had had a good time at the Christmas Eve party. This was Nettie’s family. Every five years the Haynes rented a large hall and everyone young and old alike came. They met and re-met family they hadn’t seen since the previous family gathering. They visited and laughed and ate and danced. Casey had been very popular amoung her cousins, male and female alike. She cut a striking figure in the short sleeveless black dress. The silver sparkles that decorated the dress shimmered and twinkled with every move, complimenting her slim figure. The shy, self-conscious sixteen-year-old from five years before had blossomed into a lovely young woman.

Nettie had been worried Casey wouldn’t enjoy herself. The young woman had been distracted and preoccupied since they had arrived. They had hardly even settled in with Nettie’s sister and her husband when Casey had logged-in using JD’s lap top. He had lent it to her while he was away. But just before noon today JD’s e-mail had arrived and Casey had been all smiles at the party.

Even so at Casey’s urging they had left early and once they were home Casey had immediately turned on the TV only to hear the news reports of the soldiers killed this night half a world away.

Afghan in hand Nettie walked over and arranged it gently around her niece’s slim shoulders before perching herself on the arm of the chair Casey was sitting in. She put her arm around her shoulders. “I’m sure he’s alright,” she said quietly.

Casey nodded absently still watching the news report. The announcer then moved onto another story now and Casey looked up at her aunt giving her a weak smile before answering, “I’m sure he is too.

What Nettie saw in those young eyes reminded her of herself, more than fifty years before, barely more than a newly wed and already pregnant with her first child when her husband had gone off to Korea. The memories of listening intently to the radio every night for any little tidbit of news would never be forgotten. She had been both anxious to hear as to how the UN police action was progressing hoping for the expected quick resolution and dreading what might be reported.

“Aunt Nettie?”

“Yes child?” The phrase had become an endearment for the old woman, she was well aware the young woman beside her was no longer a child.

“What am I supposed to do? How am I supposed to stand this… I mean… it’s worse for JD, he’s over there and I’m safe here but this waiting and worrying. I shouldn’t be complaining…” she stammered into silence.

Nettie saw the distress in the young eyes and lamented briefly to herself how nothing had changed three generations and three wars later. Those who remained home always felt they had it easier that those who went and felt guilty for their perceived “weakness”.

“It’s alright child,” she gave Casey’s shoulder a squeeze. “One of the hardest things to do in this life is to wait.” She gave her another quick little hug before continuing. “It may help to remember that part of the reason JD’s doing this because he loves you and wants to keep you safe. His job as a soldier is to protect this country and with it our way of life and the freedoms we have. Those of us here at home, it’s our job to keep these things alive.”

“But Nettie, it’s all screwed up!” Casey stood up suddenly and started to pace as she spoke. “People are more interested in what happening on American Idol or that Madonna open-mouthed kissed Britney Spears. It looks like the Enron executives will get almost no punishment for cheating millions of people out of their money and putting thousands more out of work. Is that what he’s fighting to protect? Is that what we’re supposed to keep alive?” Casey could keep the distress she felt out of her voice. “And almost no one seems to know anything about and care even less about the soldiers in Iraq!”

Nettie knew her feelings well, the impotent frustration over things in everyday life that seem foolish and unfair next to what she imagined JD must be facing everyday. “I can’t argue with you girl,” she replied in a quiet voice. “It seems many of us have gotten off the track as to what’s really important in life. But I think when it gets right down to it there are still far more people who care about learning to live side-by-side peacefully with their neighbour than those who don’t.”

She got up and walked over to stand in front of Casey and hold her by the arms. “The best thing you can do is to keep working toward your degree, make plans for your lives together after JD gets home and most importantly provide him with as much love and support as you can in those computer letters you send to him. Let him know you’re safe and that you love him. I know it doesn’t sound like much but it would mean the world to him.”

She searched her niece’s face and after a minute Casey gave her a grudging little nod.

“I can do that for him.”

Nettie gave her an encouraging smile. It would take time for Casey to reconcile herself with these newly discovered realities of life. “Are you coming to bed now?”

“In a minute.”

“Good night then,” the old woman hugged her niece and headed off to bed knowing Casey needed some private time just now.

Casey crossed the floor and turned off the television. She wandered over to the glass doors leading out to the patio. She slid the door open and stepped out. The night was cool and clear. She pulled the afghan more tightly around herself as she walked out into the middle of the patio and lifted her face to look at the stars over head. She turned to face east and wondered what the sky had looked like tonight in Iraq. It would be nearly twelve noon now in Iraq, JD’s first patrol would be over and he would, hopefully, be sleeping.

In a whisper heard only by the still night and stars in the sky, “Merry Christmas JD, I love you.”

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

JD came slowly to. His brain registering vaguely that he was cold and terribly uncomfortable. He propped himself up on one elbow and peered groggily around noting that he was in his bunk. Confusion cleared as the memory floated up to the surface. They’d patrolled for nearly eight hours in the freezing cold, arriving back just as the sun crested the horizon. He had been exhausted. Between the cold, coping with the time change and the anxiety of his first patrol, his body was spent and he had dropped into his bed, having only removed his helmet, to rest for a minute. He was on top of the covers still in his vest and his boots. He groaned as he sat up. He fumbled with the clips briefly before shrugging out of his vest. He let it fall unheeded to the ground. He then tugged at his bootlaces and in turn eased his boots off one after the other with both hands. They joined the vest. Still fully clothed he spun slowly around, rolled over and buried himself under cover. He was asleep again before his head hit the pillow.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Josiah sat back and blew out a long sigh. It was just after mid-night and he was tired. They had served 797 meals today, over one hundred more than last year, nearly two hundred more than the year before. The need was greater each year. He decided he would not dwell on that now. He could not fix it. He could only do what he did and that was help provide 797 people with a warm safe place to enjoy a good meal.

He sat with three equally tired friends Vin and Buck and Ezra.

Ezra had shown up at nine this morning ready to help. He explained that after he had ended his call from LAX that it occurred to him that if he made it to Montreal and something did happen in the way of a terrorist attack, it was unlikely he would be able to get back into the country, despite his federal badge, for who knows how long. And if that were the case, where did he want to be? In Montreal, in Rome with Maude, or in Denver, doing his duty just as JD was doing his now. Ezra then sent his regrets to Maude and had hopped on the next flight back to Denver arriving late last night.

Christmas can be such a hard time of year for so many people. At least the day had gone quickly for them.

He noted now, how Buck sat with his elbows on the table between them and his head in his hands. Buck sat like that a lot since JD left. Josiah figured it was Buck’s version of a meditative position.

He had worried about Buck. Vin had telephoned him last night after he had arrived home. Both of them had turned on the news to discover the Christmas Eve attack and Vin had called to tell him how he had found Buck obviously shaken earlier that evening and maybe this had been why.

It made sense. It was Buck’s way to tough it through on his own rather than seek help. Buck looked now as if he hadn’t had a wink of sleep last night. But he hadn’t missed a beat today, never once missing a chance at a little gentle bit of flirting to put a self-conscience mother at ease or provide some lonely old woman with a rare bit of attention. Young and old alike, they lit up under the light of Buck’s charm.

Vin had worried him the most. Serving meals at the shelter was quite likely something Vin was familiar with from the recipient’s point of view. Initially, Vin had been on edge. He’d been prodded out of the kitchen, reluctantly so, to take his turn at serving. But when he noticed a young mother with two small boys looking quite lost and unsure, Vin had handed his serving job off to Ezra and had gone over to help her and her sons get settled. Afterwards Vin seemed more at peace with the job.

“Ez are you sure this was better’n Rome?” asked Vin as he reached back and kneaded the kinks at the back of his neck.

“Eminently Mr. Tanner.”

“I don’t get it. How could standing on your feet for fifteen hours preparing, serving and then cleanin’ up 800 meals be better’n lounging around a villa with Maude?”

“I was not al….” Ezra paused a moment before clearing his throat to continue. “It would seem Mother is as… spontaneous as ever. When I telephoned to advise her that I would not be joining her after all, the servant at the other end of the call advised me that she and Paolo were off to take in the sun, sand and well-known New Year’s fireworks in Australia.”

“I thought Maude’s current husband’s name was Antonio?”

“It is…” replied Ezra dryly.


“Well we were sure damn glad to have you here Ez,” blustered Buck as he slapped Ezra on the back.

Ezra grimaced under the assault. “No doubt. I take it then, Mr. Wilmington you are the person who advised some of our patrons this evening that I was a white collar criminal who was performing community service this day as part of my sentence?”

“Hell yes Ez, I had to find some way to explain why you carried that towel around on your arm like you were the maitre’d at the Waldorf while you poured the coffee. That and your fancy manners, some of them were gettin’ the wrong idea about you, if you catch my drift.”

“… and you thought it better to be thought of as a criminal rather than explain good manners?”

“Hell yes!”

Ezra shook his head in resignation as Vin and Josiah laughed. It was good to laugh and see Buck grin even for just a second.

Josiah was just relieved that they had made it through Christmas.

~ ~ ~ * ~ ~ ~

Their day had started as the previous two had, after sunset. They had patrolled again last night.

They had returned just as the first rays of sunlight glowed in muted orange and yellows dispersed by the ice crystals in the cold air. After slowly rounding one of the many temporary buildings that housed equipment the Bradley drew to a stop. They all piled out and followed Sergeant Ingram wordlessly toward the check-in. Ingram stopped suddenly and drew sharply to attention. JD and Brian Randall, the two “newbies” in the outfit were too tired to notice he’d stopped and had plowed right into him. The Sarge had turned an angry glare on them both before turning back to stand in salute. Recognizing the stance JD and Randall had followed suit and stood at attention. Confused, it took JD a moment to realize why their Sergeant was saluting. Two hundred feet ahead of them an honour guard stood at attention while other soldiers undertook the grim task of loading the anonymous “transfer tubes” reverently into a waiting helicopter.

JD snapped a salute in place as his brain registered “BODIES”. He stood mesmerized as the five aluminum cases draped in flags were bourne slowly into the aircraft and out of sight.

Bodies. his brain screamed at him again, Men died last night! Or yesterday! He swallowed convulsively. WHEN? Oh God when?

It took some minutes to complete the solemn task. It seemed to pass quickly for JD. His mind was racing with jumbled thoughts.

After the doors slid shut Ingram dropped his salute and resumed walking back toward check-in.

Caught off guard JD and stood for a moment before realizing the Sergeant was moving off. He ran to catch up to Ingram. Grabbing him by the arm to get his attention a wide-eyed JD blurted out, “Sarge, when?”

“Night before last,” he growled as he kept on walking, eyes focused dead ahead.

“I, I, I never heard anything about…” stammered JD walking quickly beside him to keep up.

“No shit.”

Sergeant Ingram stopped suddenly. His eyes bore down on the young man. JD saw Ingram’s disdain for him. “Do you have any idea what you’re into here Dunne?” the Sergeant snarled in his face. “These two men died in a mortar attack. This isn’t a game of weekend soldier we’re playing. Men die here. They get shot, blown up, mortared, sometimes we can’t find all the pieces and that’s just the way it is.”

Ingram turned on his heel leaving a shaken Private Dunne riveted to his spot.