by Niteowl

Buck had been sitting at the yacht’s controls for more than two hours. His muscles were tight and sore from the constant balancing act with the rocking motion of the waves, and his head felt like it was ready to explode. But with Hale standing over him and the gun never leaving his hand, he endured it in silence.

Even in the dark and rain, the beam from the lighthouse became visible from several miles away.

“Bishop Rock?” Spencer asked Buck, who nodded grimly. Spencer looked back down at the chart, then nodded slightly at Hale.

“Let’s go, Wilmington,” Hale said, making a motion with the pistol in his hand.

“Bobby,” Spencer called down the hallway. “Come back and take the wheel. Our guest needs a break.”

Thaxton came into the cabin and stood next to the controls. He looked out the window through the heavy drizzle and saw the beam of light cutting through the dismal night sky. “How close do we need to be before we turn east?” he asked, looking to Buck as the tall man stood and stretched his aching muscles.

Buck just shrugged in reply until Hale jabbed him in the kidney with the barrel of the pistol. “Keep it steady until you’re less than a mile from the lighthouse,” he replied tensely.

Thaxton nodded as he took the seat Buck vacated.

“Let’s go,” Hale said, stepping back to give Buck room to move past him. He pointed Buck in the direction of the door leading outside. When Buck grasped the knob and opened the door, Thaxton looked up at him in surprise. Hale just looked over to Spencer before following Buck outside.

“Mister Wilmington needs some air,” Spencer explained before the younger man could speak. “His headache has him feeling unwell.”

Thaxton nodded apprehensively, but he was unwilling to confront his friends.

Buck walked ahead of Hale in the storm, picking his steps carefully as the boat pitched back and forth. As they walked toward the front of the boat, Buck kept his head bent, partly because of the spraying mist and partly to keep an eye on Hale. Even while part of his attention was elsewhere, he couldn’t help but breathe in deep gulps of the salty air.

“Hold up,” Hale called out as they reached the bow, just starboard of the main cabin.

Buck knew what was coming and closed his eyes for a moment, trying to gather his thoughts along with his courage. When he opened them again, his gaze held Thaxton’s for a second through the glass. He thought he saw the younger man open his mouth, but he suddenly spun around to face Hale. “Now what’re you going to do?” he demanded angrily. “Shoot me in the back first?”

“I could,” Hale replied with a shrug. “But why waste a perfectly good bullet.” With his free hand, he gave Buck a shove toward the railing.

But Buck wasn’t ready to give up just yet, and he shoved Hale back, sending him crashing into the wall of the cabin. Seeing the gun waving wildly, Buck wrapped both hands around it, trying to keep it pointed away from him. Then Hale regained his balance enough to make a fist with his free hand and start pounding the injured side of Buck’s head. The battering, combined with his already weakened state from the earlier blood loss, finally took it’s toll and Buck lost both his balance and his grip on the gun in Hale’s hand. As his world went gray around him, somewhere in the back of his mind Buck registered the engines shutting down. Then the cabin door slammed open followed by voices shouting to be heard over each other. Then there were more hands taking a hold of him and he found himself propelled into – then tumbling over – the railing, falling with a loud splash into the roiling sea.

When he hit the water, it was all he could do to keep his head above the water. But Buck was a naturally gifted swimmer, and his instinct for survival gave him strength even he didn’t know he possessed. Even in his half-conscious state, he managed to start treading water. And from the very depths of his soul he silently prayed, “Hurry, Chris.”

Back on the boat, Spencer had his hands full with a near-panicked Bobby Thaxton. “What the hell have you done?” Thaxton cried, watching helplessly as Buck drifted farther and farther away from the boat.

“What does it look like?” Hale shot back. “We know where we’re going now. We don’t need him anymore.”

“This was never part of the plan,” Thaxton protested, looking to Spencer for support.

“It’s too late now,” Spencer said with an indifferent shrug before he turned to go back inside. “We would have had to get rid of him sooner or later.” He ignored the look of disbelief on the other man’s face.

“Hey, just be glad it wasn’t your old pal, Tanner,” Hale said with a sneer, clapping Thaxton on the back so hard he almost lost his balance on the slippery deck. Then he followed Spencer back inside to the comfort of the cabin.

Thaxton let out a long sigh as he rubbed his shoulder unconsciously, his eyes darting between the cabin and where he imagined Buck was floundering in the high seas. His face suddenly took on a determined look and he walked away from the cabin door to a storage locker against the back wall. He opened it and struggled to get a large bulky plastic package out. He looked at the inflatable life raft with satisfaction, then went to the stern of the yacht. He used the flashlight he had also picked up from the cabinet to scan the surface of the water and was finally able to make out Buck’s struggling form.

“Wilimington!” he shouted, hoping they weren’t too far away for him to hear. When he thought he saw Buck’s head move in his direction, he pulled the inflating pin and tossed the raft high in the air, watching it sail away from the yacht in Buck’s general direction. He smiled in grim satisfaction as he thought he saw Buck begin a swimming motion toward it. Thaxton finally lost sight of him and turned to join the others. He knew he had done all he could. He was certain Buck would never survive the violent sea caused by the storm. At least if he did make it to the raft, he’d have a chance.

Bobby Thaxton had finally come to the realization that even if he did owe John Hale his life, this was the end of the road for him. As soon as he had his share of the money they were expecting, he’d have enough to get away from Matthew Spencer and his associates and just disappear.

In between one wave and another, Buck made his way slowly to the small raft. He heard the engines on the yacht re-start and the big boat pulled away from him and was soon out of sight. After what seemed like an eternity, his hand found the side of the rubber craft. It was all he could do to pull himself over the shallow side and fall exhausted into center of the raft.

* * * * * * *

JD leaned on the railing, his chin resting on his fists. He scanned the dark water intently while Ezra played the big spotlight back and forth across the water’s surface. The rain had finally slacked and the wind had died down, but the sea itself was still pitching the Lifeboat back and forth. The longer they went without finding Buck, the more JD began to doubt his own confidence, and he was beginning to despair. He was startled to feel a hand rest on his back, not having heard Vin approach over the sounds of the boat’s engines.

“Chris at the wheel again?” the youngest crewmember asked, knowing what the answer would be.

“Yeah,” Vin replied with a nod, looking out over the water with JD as the spotlight moved from side to side in front of the boat. “You okay, kid?”

“Oh, I’m just fine,” JD answered, a little more harshly than he meant to sound. Then he waved at the dark horizon. “My best friend in the world is out there somewhere, lost and hurt and expecting me to know where he is, and I’m scared, Vin. I’m really scared we won’t find him in time. And all I can think of is the last thing I said to him…” JD took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “All he was doing was trying to help and I told him to quit butting in to my life. He wouldn’t have been out there at all if it wasn’t for me.”

“You don’t know that,” Vin offered gently. “Buck takes those walks along the water all the time. I’m the one who knew them, the one they were looking for. I should have known they were up to something. Especially that son of a bitch Hale.”

“It’s not your fault either,” JD finally said. With a sigh, he turned back to scanning the water.

Vin suddenly let a short chuckle. “Can you imagine what Bucklin would say, listening to the two us, both trying to take the blame for something neither one of us did?”

JD turned to Vin with a small smile of his own. “Yeah, he’d have a field day with both of us,” he admitted, then something caught his attention. “Look, there’s the lighthouse on Bishop Rock.”

At the sound of the engines throttling down to idle, Vin draped an arm across the younger man’s shoulder. “Well, let’s go see what Chris has in mind.”

The rest of the crew of the St Nicholas was gathered around the galley table. Chris was studying the chart again.

“Okay, we know Buck wanted JD to know where they were going, and we know he knows how to navigate from the lighthouse, so we start there,” he began. “Any ideas?”

“Well, to start with, surely he has enough sense to stay away from the Rocks and the Ledges,” Ezra directed at Chris.

Chris nodded curtly in reply.

“Even with a gun pointed to his head?” Nathan asked.

“Even if,” Chris insisted.

Josiah spoke up. “We need to try and figure out where Spencer would be meeting someone in the middle of the night to do something he was willing to kidnap and maybe even kill for.”

“Well, there’s not much out this way,” Vin said, pointing to the west on the map, “Bryher is too populated, and these are too close to the Ledges. If I had to guess, they’re probably going to one of the smaller isles between the lighthouse and Saint Agnes.”

“Somewhere both parties could find in the dark,” Ezra commented, understanding where Vin was going.

“And Buck would know how to get there,” Nathan added.

“Okay,” Chris agreed. “How about we start for the lighthouse and then swing northwest, keeping south of Samson, make the turn back and keep it this side of Annet?” Chris paused and frowned as he studied the chart. “If we haven’t found them by daylight, we’ll have to pull into Saint Mary’s for fuel.”

JD was unusually quiet, not joining in the discussion at all. When Chris looked over at him, he just shrugged and nodded.

“Let’s go,” Chris ordered, the others resuming their duties. He went back to the wheelhouse and throttled the engines back to life, sending the Lifeboat toward the beacon in the night sky. “Hang on, Buck,” he whispered to the stars visible through the window of the wheelhouse. “We’re coming.”

* * * * * * *

The raft Buck was in bobbed up and down in the sea like a cork, rising and falling with each trough of water. The sky was as dark as the water, making it impossible to distinguish the horizon. Not that it would have done any good. He could be five miles from land or five hundred. He had no idea how long he had been unconscious before waking up in the cold Atlantic Ocean. How had he gotten here, wherever here was? Better still, how was he ever going to get home?

He put his hand up to his aching head, leaning heavily into his palm and trying to piece together his jumbled memory. He slowly sorted things out – the storm, Vin’s friends in the pub, being shot and taken to their yacht, piloting them to the lighthouse, being thrown overboard by Hale and Spencer; and someone, probably the kid Thaxton, he thought, throwing him the life raft.

It was still dark, but the clouds had thinned out so that there was just enough moonlight to see by. He looked around his small craft and took an inventory of anything that might be able to help him survive. Strapped to the sides, he found a small first aid kit, several foil containers of water and emergency food bars, but more importantly a flare gun – with what looked like two usable flares!

He sat up a little straighter and strained to see beyond the darkness, listening for any sound above the splash of the waves as the troughs collided into each other. Then he fell back into the raft weakly, his head spinning dizzily. He could feel the cold ocean spray wash over him again and again as his raft rocked back and forth with the waves. He was wet and half-frozen and had begun shivering. He knew he was probably suffering from hypothermia or going into shock, not to mention the concussion he probably had from the gunshot.

‘Well, Buck old boy,’ he thought to himself, ‘looks like you’ve gone and got in over your head this time.’ Then he called out loud, “JD! Where the hell are you, kid?”

* * * * * * *

The closer they got to the lighthouse, the more nervous JD got. They were less than a mile now, and they’d soon be past it and into Broad Sound. There still wasn’t any sign of the yacht. Nathan had been in touch with the Navy again; no luck there, either. The few ships they had been in contact with by radio hadn’t seen anything of a yacht.

JD was looking out across the dark water, chewing on his bottom lip. ‘This isn’t right!’ he suddenly thought. His heart clenched and he gripped the railing tight when he could’ve sworn he heard Buck’s voice in his head. ‘Where are you, kid?’

Finally he couldn’t stand it anymore and he bolted for the wheelhouse. “Chris! You’ve got to turn around,” he cried out as soon as he was inside. “We’re going the wrong way!”

“What are you talking about, kid?” Vin asked, looking over at the younger man from where he stood next to Chris.

“I can’t explain it,” JD answered, not looking at Vin but keeping his gaze locked with Chris’s. “I just know we’re going the wrong way – we’re getting further away from him. And he doesn’t have much time.”

“Are you sure, JD?” Chris asked.

“I’m positive,” he declared. “We’ve got to go back!”

There had been other times in his life when Chris had acted on faith, and he wasn’t about to dismiss the connection between JD and Buck any more than he would deny the bond between himself and Vin. One look at JD’s face and Chris knew this was one of those times. The doubt and indecision were gone, replaced by sheer desperation.

“All right, we’ll head back,” Chris said with a nod, as he spun the wheel to turn the St Nicholas around.

* * * * * * *

Buck raised himself over to the side of the small raft, his stomach rebelling again. After he threw up what little water he’d drank, he suffered through another bout of the dry heaves, then collapsed back onto the floor of the raft. ‘Well, this is just embarrassing,’ he thought. ‘I have never been seasick in my entire life. Hell of way to die.’

It was getting harder and harder to move, and even the effort of sitting up left him exhausted. The constant shivering and chattering of his teeth were taking their toll as well. He looked up at the sky and could see the brighter stars through the clouds. He began to wonder if anybody would miss him when he was gone.

Well, there was Chris – he was pretty sure his oldest friend would miss him, but it wouldn’t be so bad this time – he’d have Vin there to help him get through it. Of course, Chris would have to find someone else to take his place on the boat and the cricket team.

He couldn’t help but smile at the thought that he was pretty irreplaceable after all. Then he let his mind wander to the rest of the Lifeboat crew, trying desperately to stay conscious.

There was the Welshman himself. For someone he hadn’t known that long, Vin certainly did get under his skin. He supposed he should have been jealous of the way Vin just stepped into the place as Chris’s best friend, but he just couldn’t find it in his heart. Maybe it was God’s way of taking care of Chris after all.

He looked at one of the particularly brilliant stars and couldn’t help but think of Ezra – Ezra P. Standish, to be exact. He wished he could’ve had longer to get to know him. Under that cool exterior, Buck was sure there was a true heart of gold just yearning to be free. He certainly hoped Ezra would stay with the crew – they were good men all and could teach him a thing or two.

Thinking of good men, his thoughts turned to Josiah. Buck may have been the son of what some might consider a woman of ill repute, but the local parish priest had never looked down on him for it. Buck might not have been a religious man, but he admired Josiah for his convictions and the honorable way he lived his life. Not to mention the big man was a just a joy to be around.

Nathan came to mind next, the gentle-hearted doctor would do anything for anybody if they asked. Buck still hadn’t found the words to thank him for saving his life on the shout last year. He had been trying to come up with something just right, but hadn’t found it yet.

Watching the clouds drift by, he found himself wondering if there was any particular woman out there that would truly mourn his passing. Oh sure, he had lots of girl friends and most had parted on good terms. He considered Mary Travis a dear friend, so he was pretty sure she’d miss him. Then there was the fiery beauty that worked for him. Would Inez miss him as more than just her boss? He suddenly found himself feeling incredibly sad that he would never see her face again.

He blinked away the tears that stung his eyes and brought his wandering mind back to the last man on the crew – and JD was just that now, a man. Had he remembered to tell JD lately just how proud he was of him? Or how much he appreciated the way JD had filled a void in his life? Being born an only child, Buck really didn’t know what it was like to have a brother. He thought he knew what it was like with Chris, but as the years went by that had changed. But this last year sharing his home and his life with JD, he was sure he knew what it was like now. He wondered how JD would feel when he learned Buck had left the pub, his car and most of his earthly possessions to the lad. Keeping it in the family, he smiled to himself.

He looked up at the stars again and let the tears roll unchecked down his cheeks. God, he was going to miss them all!

As he took a shuddering breath to try and contain his runaway emotions, he began to cough again. Pulling himself up to the edge of the raft again, the spasms wracked his body until his breath was almost completely taken from him. Finally it passed and he remained where he was, waiting for enough strength to return so he could push himself back down to the floor of the raft.

But in the absence of his coughing, he heard a noise. His muddled brain tried to put a name to it, but he just couldn’t get it.

Suddenly his eyes widened and with his last burst of energy, he pushed himself up into a sitting position. His hands searched the floor of the raft. He heard a boat! He heard an engine, and not just any engine. They were here! He would have known the sound of the St Nicholas’s engine anywhere, even in his sleep. They were looking for him!

Buck’s hand finally brushed against the object of his frantic search. He had the flare gun in his hand. He pointed it toward the sky and using both hands, he fired. The bright flash of magnesium lit the sky and he could actually see the silhouette of his beloved Lifeboat. He wasn’t sure if he was imagining it or not, but he thought he could hear the sounds of the boat getting closer, along with his crewmates’s voices. He could feel his strength fading fast as got up on his knees to find the second flare. He picked it up and put into the gun and fired again. The recoil sent him off-balance and he didn’t have the strength to keep himself from falling out of the raft into the cold, dark water.

And this time he didn’t have the strength to keep his head above water.

* * * * * * *

The mood on the St Nicholas was somber to say the least. Not that they doubted JD’s instincts or the possibility of divine intervention, but his belief that Buck was running out of time was putting a strain on all their nerves.

So the appearance of the flare took them by surprise. All six men turned their attention to the glowing arc, trying to track it back to the location of its source. Chris steered the boat over while Ezra swung the spotlight in the general direction they thought it had come from, but that still left a lot of water to cover. Then the second flare came and he was able to track the arc right back to the water. His light played across a small rubber raft, but they couldn’t see anyone in it.

Vin exchanged a confused look with Chris. Had they inadvertently found someone else in distress? Chris shrugged in silent reply, turning his attention back to the light moving in a sweeping motion across the water.

It only took a matter of seconds for Ezra to find what he was searching for. Just yards from the small raft they spotted something in the water; they all recognized what it was. A body floating face down in the water - and it didn’t appear to be moving. Ezra kept the spotlight focused on the inert form even as the Lifeboat made it’s way closer.

Nathan turned to Josiah. “Someone had to fire that flare,” he speculated. “If that’s him, he hasn’t been in the water long. Hurry, Chris,” he called to their captain, even though he knew Chris was doing the best he could.

As the boat drew closer, they were able to distinguish short, dark hair – probably that of a man. Then even in the dark, Chris recognized the color and design of the waterlogged jacket. “Oh, God,” he groaned involuntarily. It was said quietly, but it was loud enough for them all to hear.

JD locked eyes with Chris, then looked back down at the body in the water. He shook his head slowly, unwilling to accept the recognition in Chris’s eyes. “NO!” he cried, vaulting the railing and diving into the dark water.

“JD!” called Chris, throttling down the engines and turning the boat about in an effort to keep from running over their youngest crewman.

Josiah shook his head at the younger man’s impetuous action. It took him only a moment to reach for Buck’s lifejacket before he too was in the water, his powerful strokes taking him toward his stricken friend.

Chris turned the wheel over to Vin and joined Nathan at the railing, ready to help lift Buck into the boat. Ezra kept the light trained on their injured friend, desperately wanting to be in the water helping them. Those left behind waited in silence, watching the others in the bright glare of the Lifeboat’s spotlight.

It was only a matter of moments that seemed like an eternity to JD before he reached his friend’s side. Reaching under, he gently tipped Buck’s head up and lifted his face out of the water. Tears stung his eyes as strongly as the salt water around him. “No,” he whispered softly, when he took in the pale skin with the darker tinged lips. He carefully rolled the rest of Buck’s large but buoyant frame over until his head was resting on JD’s shoulder. After he wrapped an arm securely across Buck’s shoulder, he closed his eyes for a moment and leaned his own head down until it was touching his ‘brother’s’. Taking a deep breath, JD stretched his other arm as far as it would reach and began pulling himself and his precious burden slowly through the water.

He had only taken two or three strong strokes before his arm crashed against Josiah’s large bulk.

“Let me take him, JD,” Josiah said, treading water in front of the two friends. He began trying to maneuver Buck’s life jacket into position under him.

“No!” came JD’s harsh cry, “I’ve got him. I can do it myself.”

“JD, we’ve got to get him to Nathan,” Josiah insisted gently. “Now let me have him.”

“Nathan?” JD said, hitching his hand lower on Buck’s torso to get a better grip. “What can…?”

Buck suddenly jerked in JD’s grip, his body convulsing in an effort to rid itself of the water he’d swallowed. It was all JD could do to keep him from slipping under the surface of the water again, then Josiah was at his side. Between the two of them, they got Buck’s arms into his lifejacket and together they swam the coughing and heaving man toward the waiting St Nicholas.

Once they reached the boat, Chris and Nathan leaned over and took hold of the unconscious man’s arms. They were joined by Ezra, who was able to get a tenuous hold on the collar of Buck’s water-laden jacket. With JD and Josiah pushing from underneath and the others pulling from above, they were finally able to pull him onto the deck, where they laid him down. Nathan took hold of Buck’s head, gently turning it to the side to allow the choking stream of water to flow freely out of his mouth. Ezra and Chris helped JD and Josiah scramble back on board. Then Chris looked to where Vin was watching the goings on, standing half-in and half-out of the wheelhouse.

“Get us to Saint Mary’s, NOW!” Chris directed.

Vin nodded in reply before disappearing back inside, then the engines came to life with a roar. The boat leaned heavily as he brought it about and headed toward the largest of the Scilly Islands, the only one with a real hospital.

By now the rest of the crew was standing close, watching Nathan who was trying to keep Buck’s airway clear. Buck was still unresponsive and his breathing was coming in ragged gasps. Nathan began to assess and prioritize his injuries. He looked up and around at his crew mates, then over to Chris. “Look, I know you all want to help, but give us a little room here, okay?”

Chris looked over at his men. “Josiah, go get some dry clothes on.” He started to add JD to that order, but one look at the pleading hazel eyes and he nodded his permission for JD to stay. “Ezra, get on the radio to the Navy, let them know we found Buck but not the boat or those bastards.” Looking down to Nathan, he asked, “What can we do to help?”

“We need to get him warm and dry first,” Nathan explained. “JD, run inside and get me a couple of towels and a blanket.”

The younger man nodded and was gone. “Chris, help me out here.” Between the two of them, they got Buck’s waterlogged jacket off, followed by his shirt then his jeans. Somewhere in the ordeal, Buck had lost his shoes, so Nathan quickly stripped off his socks. JD reappeared with the towels and blankets, and Nathan made quick work of drying and wrapping the big man. “Okay, let’s get him inside,” Nathan said.

About the time Nathan took hold of his shoulders and Chris had both legs, Josiah appeared in the doorway. “Let me,” he said, gently lifting Buck out of their hold and carrying him easily into the cabin.

Nathan ran ahead to let the bunk down from the wall, where it was secured when not needed. Josiah laid Buck down and stood back to let Nathan do his job.

Once they had him on the bunk, Nathan placed a reflective thermal blanket next to his skin, then covered him with two more blankets on top. “JD, start some water to heating. When it’s good and hot, but not boiling, fill the hot water bottles we have in the first aid cupboard. Josiah, take some towels and lay them over the heater. I want them warmed but not too hot.” As the others left to follow his instructions, he noticed Chris’s eyes never left Buck’s face for more than a few seconds at a time.

Nathan checked Buck for broken bones and was relieved not to find any; the only traumatic injury seemed to be the head wound from the bullet. Nathan noticed Buck’s breathing was already leveling out and his lips were losing their blue tinge. He was still very pale and hadn’t responded to Nathan’s attempts to rouse him, but that was to be expected.

“Chris, can you have Ezra radio ahead to the hospital on Saint Mary’s?” Nathan finally asked. “I want them to know we’re bringing him in – have him advise the hospital the patient is suffering from severe hypothermia, shock and probably a concussion.”

JD came back into the cabin just in time to hear Nathan’s assessment of Buck’s condition. “Is he going to be okay?” JD asked, his eyes begging for the answer he wanted to hear.

Nathan looked down at the pale form next to him, then smiled up at the worried youth. “He’s in a bad way, but he’s been in worse. I’ll do everything I can.”

“Thanks, Nathan,” JD said. He took hold of one of the chairs from the galley and brought it over close to Buck.

“Why don’t you sit down before you fall down,” Nathan said with a knowing smile. “I’ll go check on the water.”

JD sat down and rested his hand on Buck’s chest. He hated seeing Buck so pale and still, but took comfort in the steady rise and fall. After a minute, he leaned in close. “If you think this is going to get you out of showing me the beach, think again, big brother. You just better be planning on getting better.”

Then Nathan came back in with the filled hot water bottles, followed by Josiah with several towels in his hands. JD watched as Nathan placed the warm towels across Buck’s torso under the blanket and placed the rubber bottles on either side close to Buck’s cold form. Then he pulled the blankets back up around the unconscious man’s chin. It didn’t take long for Nathan to see the reaction he was waiting for. Buck began shivering, his teeth chattering uncontrollably.

“Nathan?!” JD looked to the doctor in concern.

“No – it’s okay, JD,” Nathan assured him. “That’s normal.” Nathan took his wrist and checked his pulse, smiling when he found it stronger.

The trip to Saint Mary’s would take about an hour. Chris took over the wheel and gave Vin a chance to go in and see Buck for himself. Ezra wandered in and out of the cabin as well, wanting to stay close to Buck but not wanting to be in Nathan’s way. Josiah took up a quiet corner to offer his thanks for their friends – both JD’s insight and Buck’s survival. Nathan was finally able to convince JD to leave his friend’s side long enough to change into dry clothes.

* * * * * * *

When JD came back in the main cabin, Chris had returned to the cabin and taken his place in the chair at Buck’s side. Nathan was nursing a cup of tea at the galley table and Josiah was still quietly meditating. The crew’s youngest member took a minute to stretch his legs and wandered into the wheel house where Vin was keeping the St Nicholas moving at a fast clip.

“How’s he doing?” Vin asked.

“Okay, I guess,” JD replied. “He still hasn’t woke up. How much longer ‘til we get there?”

“We’re almost there,” Vin assured him, then he added seriously. “You did good, kid. But don’t be surprised if Chris lets you have it for that stunt you pulled, jumping off the boat before the captain said it was clear.”

JD just stared at Vin with a mixture of embarrassment and astonishment – of all the nerve! Like Vin had any room to talk, ‘Mister let’s bring an AK-47 along just in case’. But he knew Vin was right, what he did went against everything he’d been trained to do, but it was Buck in the water this time. Then he saw the grin slowly spread across Vin’s face and couldn’t help but return it.

“Yeah, well it was worth it to me,” JD finally said. Then he turned and went back into the cabin, where Ezra had joined Nathan at the table.

He picked up another chair from the galley and took it with him, setting it next to Buck at the other end of the bunk. He had to admit to himself that Buck was looking a lot better. He’d stopped shivering and his breathing was better and his face had lost all trace of the blue tinge that had scared JD so badly. He was curled up comfortably on his side with the blanket still tucked up around his chin. The only outward sign of his injury was the angry red crease above his left eye.

Nathan came up behind him and laid a hand gently on JD’s shoulder. “He’s going to be fine, JD. He’s as stubborn as he is strong, you know that.”

“I know, Nate,” JD replied, meeting Chris’s gaze and sharing a nod before he looked back up at Nathan. He looked over to Ezra. “Have you heard anything from the Navy? Have they found them yet?”

“No, I’m sorry Mister Dunne,” Ezra replied. “They haven’t any luck in their search. They say it might be morning before anyone sights the yacht, if at all. Now that the storm has died down, they might be able to find their way back to the mainland without ever being seen.”

At JD’s frown, Josiah spoke up. “That’s still a lot of water to cover, son. And it won’t be daylight for an hour or so. Until Brother Buck wakes up, they don’t know where exactly to look. And if it hadn’t been for you, we wouldn’t have either.”

JD dipped his head to hide his blush. “Just lucky, I guess.”

“No, it was more than luck, JD,” Chris finally spoke up. “If we hadn’t listened to you…” He left the thought unfinished.

“I just wish he’d wake up,” JD said with a sigh.

“Well, I guess we can’t have everything we want, now can we?” Nathan said.

“Says who?” came a familiar voice. Even as weak as it was, it was still the most welcome sound JD had heard in a long time.

While Chris leaned in from his chair, JD stood and moved closer to be in Buck’s line of sight.

“Hey, Buck,” JD greeted quietly as soon as he saw blue in the slits that were trying to open.

“Hey yourself,” he replied, grimacing when the return to consciousness meant a return of the killer headache.

“How do you feel?” Nathan asked, stepping between Chris and JD and taking Buck’s wrist in between his fingers to gauge his pulse.

“Like I’ve been run over by an bull elephant,” Buck admitted, shifting so he was lying flat on his back.

“That good, huh?” Chris asked.

“Hey, Chris,” he said, gracing his oldest friend with a weak imitation of his usual grin. “Yeah, that good.”

“Buck, I hate to ask, but where did Spencer and his gang get to?” JD finally piped up. “Where did they want you to take them?”

Buck looked over at JD in confusion for a moment, then took a deep breath while he tried to remember. He closed his eyes for a minute, and about the time Nathan was about to move back toward him, he opened them again. “Jolly Rock,” he finally said. “They wanted me to show them how to find Jolly Rock.”

At Chris’s nod, Ezra left the cabin to make contact with the Royal Navy and pass on the message.

“Do you remember anything else?” Chris asked, glaring at Nathan when it looked like the doctor was going to object. He didn’t know if Buck was up to it yet or not, but he knew it was important to learn all they could about the men that did this to their friend.

“Yeah, I remember,” Buck replied, licking his dry lips.

“Joisah, could you bring up a mug of that tea I have warm on the stove already?” Nathan called across the room. He almost laughed out loud at the same cross looks he received from both Buck and JD.

“It’s just tea, with a little sugar,” Nathan promised. “I don’t imagine you’ve had anything to eat or drink all night?”

Buck started to shake his head ‘no’, but the movement sent a wave of dizziness through the dark-haired man and he closed his eyes as he lay back heavily into the pillow.

When Josiah brought the mug toward them, Chris reached his hand out and took it from him. He knelt beside his oldest friend and held the mug up to his lips. Tipping it up slightly until the liquid touched Buck’s lips, he held it steady while the scoundrel took a few small sips. When Buck looked up at Chris with a nod, he moved the mug away and handed it to JD, who set it on the shelf above the bunk.

Finally Buck looked up at Chris, his eyes reflecting the fire beginning to build in his soul. “They wanted me to show them how to get to Jolly Rock. Said if I didn’t, they’d go back and burn the pub down – with JD in it.” He smiled in spite of his anger at the softly spoken curses he heard coming from the young man in question. “I got them to the lighthouse, showed them where they were going. I guess they decided they didn’t need me any more, so Hale and Spencer tossed me overboard. The other one, Thaxton?” he looked to Chris for confirmation. “He wasn’t real happy about it, and I’m pretty sure it was him that threw me the raft.”

“Damn lucky he did,” Chris declared.

“Yeah, damn lucky,” Buck said, trying to stifle a yawn. “That’s me.” Then his eyes began to close again. He forced them open one last time. “Chris,” he called softly. When his oldest friend leaned in close, Buck raised his eyes to Chris’s. “Thanks,” he said simply, “I owe you one.”

Chris smiled and shook his head as the dark blue eyes lost their fight to stay open. “Just returning the favor,” he replied softly.

* * * * * * *

It was just starting to get light as they approached the harbor on the largest of the Scilly Isles. They kept in touch with Saint Mary’s by radio, and by the time they reached the dock, an ambulance was waiting. The medical personnel quickly loaded Buck into the vehicle and allowed Nathan to accompany him. One of the paramedics assured them that once they had Buck safely at the hospital, they’d send a vehicle back to pick up the others. Chris was almost as upset as JD at the idea of staying behind, but it couldn’t be helped. But they made good use of the time to refuel and service the St Nicholas.

Finally a car was sent to bring the others to the small hospital. When the rest of the crew arrived, Buck was still in the Emergency Room and Nathan was with him. The crew’s doctor came out shortly and explained that Buck was going to be just fine. They wanted to keep him twenty-four hours, until they were sure there wouldn’t be any complications from the head injury. They were transfusing Buck with whole blood to make up for what was lost when he was shot, and they were running an IV with warm saline to help bring his body’s temperature back to normal. Other than that, with a few days rest he’d be right as rain.

It was agreed JD and Nathan would stay with Buck while the rest of the crew went back to Four Corners with the Lifeboat. It wasn’t good to have them gone so long, even though one of the neighboring Lifeboats was covering their territory for the time being. They’d come back the next day to bring them home.

Before they left, they waited until Buck was moved to his own room. Once he was settled, they made their way quietly inside. They took turns wishing their injured friend well, to the point that Buck was getting embarrassed by all the attention.

Vin finally detached himself from the doorway and came all the way into the room. He made a big deal of looking under the bed and on both sides of Buck before stopping at the ladies man’s bedside.

“What are you looking for?” Buck asked, eyeing him suspiciously.

“The little black cloud that seems to be following you around,” replied the younger man.

Buck chuckled then grimaced as it caused a wave of pain to radiate from his head.

“That’s not very funny, Vin,” JD protested, coming to his friend’s defense.

Chris couldn’t help but smile. “It may not be funny, JD, but it sure seems true enough.”

Josiah was smiling too. “Well, if you ask me, it just goes to prove the old adage – To whom much is given, much is expected.”

“Or how about, the Lord will never give us more than we have the strength to bear,” Ezra offered.

Buck just rolled his eyes. It was bad enough to have Father Sanchez preaching at him, but now Ezra too!

“You have to admit, you do have the reputation for having broad shoulders,” Nathan chimed in.

“Yeah, well if it’s all the same, I think I’ll pass next time. By the way, did the Navy ever find that bunch?” Buck asked.

“Yeah, they radioed us just before we came over,” Vin answered.

“What was so bloody important that they were willing to die for?” Buck asked, stifling a yawn.

“Drugs,” Chris replied. “A Navy cutter got there just in time to intercept them with a speedboat that made it over from France unloading several crates of cocaine.”

“What about Thaxton?” Buck asked. “I really need to put in a good word for him. If it hadn’t been for him tossing me that raft, I wouldn’t have made it.”

“Orrin says the Navy wants to send someone over in the next couple of days to talk to you anyway,” Josiah answered. “They were saying something about a letter of commendation or something. They say it’s one of the biggest operations they’ve ever taken down, thanks to you.”

Buck shook his head slightly. “Not me, thanks to Inez. She’s the one who called them in, I was only along for the ride.”

“And I’ll bet it was some ride,” Vin put in.

“That is was, Taffy, that is was.”

Before Vin could come up with a reply to the irritating nickname, Buck yawned and his eyes finally closed as he surrendered to the exhaustion overtaking him.

Several days later –

JD couldn’t help feeling restless. He found himself climbing out of bed and going toward his roommate’s door again. His mind told him he could trust Nathan that Buck would be all right, but his heart still demanded he see for himself. He crept into the room, not wanting to wake his recovering friend. He quietly swung the door closed again, blocking out the moonlight streaming in from the big window at the end of the hallway. Nathan said it was important that Buck get lots of rest.

“Shhh,” he admonished Mac as the big greyhound raised his head at JD’s entrance. He gave him a quick pat on the head to keep him still. When they first brought Buck home, the dog had climbed up on the bed with Buck and refused to be moved. But now he was ready to get down and find something to eat, and he jumped off the bed so lightly he didn't disturb his slumbering master. JD let him out the door silently, then walked back over to Buck's bedside.

JD rested his hand on the bigger man’s chest, sighing in relief at the rhythmic rise and fall. After a moment, he stepped away from the bed and over to the window. Moving the curtains aside, he stood looking out over the moonlit water, marveling how peaceful everything looked now.

A noise from outside the room froze him where he was; it was the sound of someone coming up the stairs. Who could be in their apartment this time of night? Any of their friends would have called first or at least knocked at the door. And Mac should've raised some kind of ruckus at an intruder. He let the curtain fall back, making the room almost pitch black. He leaned back against the wall, making himself almost disappear into the fabric of the curtains as he held himself still. His eyes darted around the room, looking for anything to use as a weapon.

To his surprise, the door opened quietly. Briefly silhouetted in the moonlight from the hall was Inez. After looking back towards the door to JD’s own room to make sure he hadn’t heard her, she brought the door back to a partly closed position, then walked over silently and knelt beside the bed. After a moment, JD could just barely hear her quiet sobs and see the tears running down her cheeks.

Concealed in the shadows the way he was, if he moved she would have seen him there. He felt bad about intruding, but he didn’t want to startle her. He watched as she whispered a quiet prayer in her native Spanish, then leaned over and planted a feather-light kiss on Buck’s lips. She froze as he stirred, but he didn’t wake up. With a small sigh of relief, she went out the door again, closing it after one more quick glance back into the room.

JD smiled to himself. ‘Well if that don’t beat all!’ He thought about it for a moment, then realized it wouldn’t be his place to reveal her secret. He adored Inez like a sister, and loved Buck like a brother. He would keep what he saw to himself, and let her tell him in her own time. Right now, what was important was that Buck was home and he was safe and the Seven were Seven again.

The End

January 2004

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