Disclaimer: This is a work of fanfiction. I dont own the rights to the Magnificent Seven and I dont make any money from this work.
Warnings: Some profanity and intense emotional situations.
Size: Approx. 155K
Special thanks to Nancy for giving my story a home.
He knew Chris was glaring at him again, he could feel it, but damn it, this was the last place he wanted to be. He and Chris were supposed to be on vacation, but at the last minute Travis had called an emergency budget meeting. Congress once again had cut the ATFs operating budget, so units all over the country were scrambling to figure out ways to keep their teams functional.
They had been brainstorming for two days and Buck was chomping at the bit. With a heavy sigh, he laid down the pencil he had been tapping against the table and raised his head to look at Chris.
Ah-ha! He was right! Chris was glaring at him again, and he glared right back. He knew the senior agent was just as anxious as he was to be out of there, he was just better at hiding it.
Larabee suppressed a sigh of his own. God, how he hated this. Wistfully, he allowed his thoughts to stray to the vacation they were supposed to be on. He, Buck, Vin and JD had planned this trip for months. They were going rock climbing at Devils Tower in Wyoming.
Vin was the one who had the most experience in this particular style of rock climbing, so he had made the others practice on walls and local rock formations. Both Chris and Buck had done some climbing, but JD was a newbie and Vin had worked the most with him.
The other team members were invited to join the expedition, but each had respectfully declined. All, that is, except Ezra, who had just looked at them as if they had suggested walking to the moon.
When Travis announced the mandatory meeting of all department heads, Chris told Vin and JD to go ahead and that he and Buck would catch up to them as soon as possible.
Buck tried to argue his way out of participating, but Chris liked to have other team members at these meetings just in case something happened to him, someone would know what was going on. Besides, he reasoned sadistically, why should he be the only one that had to suffer and who better to torture than his oldest friend?
Chris had to admit though; it was really hard to concentrate on the job, as important as it was, knowing that Vin and JD were climbing without them. OK, if he were pushed he would have to admit that he was just a little worried, knowing the penchant for getting into trouble that plagued the teams two youngest.
He knew that was part of what was bugging Buck. Although Vin and JD had offered to wait for them, they had balked when Buck suggested that the two needed babysitting. Then they were determined to prove him wrong. So, before an all out battle could break out, he suggested that Vin and JD go ahead, taking the Explorer they had rented and all the gear, and they would fly up as soon as they could.
Reluctantly, he forced himself to concentrate on the business at hand, knowing that the sooner they finished, the sooner they could be out of there. With a final warning look at Buck, Chris began checking off the concessions he had already made to try and figure out where he could possibly cut more. A tiny grin appeared as the thought briefly flitted through his head that he could save some money in salaries if he just shot Buck and put them both out of their misery, but then thered be all that damn paperwork.
Vin stifled a yawn, for the umpteenth time in the past hour. He was stretched out on one of the two beds in the motel room where they were staying. His back was to the headboard with a pillow behind him, and he was channel surfing with the TV remote as he half listened to JD, who was still pouring over the route maps for Devils Tower.
Tanner could understand the younger mans excitement since this was his first real climb, but he just wished he wasnt quite so verbal about it. Normally JDs banter didnt bother him, but now it was setting him on edge, contributing to the slight headache he had developed over the last couple of hours.
They had already been over the maps a dozen times, deciding on a very basic route to begin with. They had checked all the gear twice. Now, Vin was having a really hard time staying awake. Must have been all that drivin he reasoned.
JD didnt seem to notice that his companion was barely acknowledging his comments.
Hey Vin, listen to this! It says here that Devils Tower is sacred to the Native Americans. One of the legends of how it was formed says there were seven sisters playing in the woods. They encountered a bear, which started chasing them. They ran to a small rock where they stood upon it and prayed, Please take pity on us Rock, save us from the bear.
The rock, touched by their faith, took pity on them and started to grow. It grew and grew. As it grew, the bear tried to climb it, digging its claws into the sides, carving them as he slid down. All of his claws broke off and he crashed to the ground. The rock continued to grow, taking the sisters into the sky. The Great Spirit changed them into stars. We know them as the Pleiades. The Lakota call Devils Tower, Mato Tapila, Bears Lodge.
Cool, huh? exclaimed JD.
When Vin failed to respond, JD looked over at the other bed. Vins head lolled to one side and he was snoring softly, the remote still loosely held in his lap.
Chuckling to himself, JD put up the maps and reference materials. He would have to make sure and tease Vin about getting old, although in reality, he was only a couple of years older than himself. He went into the bathroom to get ready for bed and when he came back, Vin had undressed, turned off the TV and was fast asleep, snuggled up in the blankets.
The alarm sounded and Vin groggily rolled over to turn it off. Sitting on the side of the bed, he scrubbed at his face with both hands, Damn, he still felt tired, must be gettin old, he chided himself as he watched JD bound enthusiastically out of bed.
It was still dark out and would be for a couple of hours, yet. They had decided to get to Devils Tower as the sun was rising. Although it was early in the season and the crowds would be light, there would still be climbers and the wanted to beat the rush.
The two dressed, gathered their gear, grabbed some protein bars and bottles of water, which would serve as their breakfast and they headed out.
They drove to the monuments visitor center to register and pay their fees, then packed up their gear and hiked to the base of the Tower. The sun was just rising and they needed their flashlights to help guide them.
Waiting for the sun to get high enough so they could see the rock face, they once again, went over the details of the climb. They were under the south face. They were going to tackle the Durrance route.
Over the years, thousands of climbers had established the various routes up the Tower and they were all marked on the maps available for the climbers. At various stages of the climbs, the Park Service had placed permanent protection, bolts into the rock that climbers could hook onto. Because of damage to the Monument, the climbers could no longer use anything but temporary protection devices, like the cams JD and Vin would carry. Vin would place the cams into the cracks, run the safety rope through them and then JD would remove them when he followed.
This was JDs first serious rock climb and while offering some interesting challenges, Durrance was one of the easier routes. Vin sat resting and eyed the way up the first pitch. Then his gaze traveled the rest of the way up, all 867 feet of it.
Sighing, he turned his mind to the climb, trying to forget his fatigue. Damn, he was tired. But they had been planning this trip for a long time and he wasnt going to disappoint JD. He just hoped he would start feeling less tired as the day progressed.
He stood and prepared himself for the climb. He was wearing his climbing shoes and helmet. He took his harness from his pack, stepped into it and fastened the buckles. He attached various other pieces of equipment to his belt: rope, carbiners, cams, chalk-bag, etc. His knapsack contained things, such as water, snacks, and a first aid kit. He slipped it on his back and approached the first pitch.
To JD, standing at the base, Devils Tower was awe-inspiring, an almost vertical column of igneous rock. He could well understand why the Native Americans believed the place was sacred and he could understand the legend of the Seven Sisters. The columns very much resembled claw marks.
Vin started up, feeling his way slowly for hand and foot holds. JD admired the sure grace of his partner as he ascended the near straight-up rock face. Hopefully, one day he would have the skill Vin has.
The sun had not fully risen, so Vin was mainly using his sense of feel to guide him. Skilled fingers reached for the small cracks and fissures that could be used to lever himself up. Periodically, he would stop to jam a cam into a crack, hook a carbiner onto it and then loop the rope through the biner. This was the safety rope. If he fell the rope and the cams would stop his fall.
JD watched the older man carefully, trying to memorize his moves. Gracefully, Vin climbed the almost 75 feet to the first belay. There was a rest area where he could wait for JD. He signaled the kid to start his ascent.
Vin kept a keen eye on his young companion as he took advantage of the rest period. He was breathing hard. He took a deep slow breath, trying to calm his racing heart. This brought on a coughing fit that threatened his precarious perch. He grabbed hold of the cam to keep from losing his balance.
JD heard the wracking cough and cautiously looked up. Vin was bent over with an arm wrapped around his middle. The young man waited, trying to brace himself in case Vin lost his balance. If he fell, JD would be jerked upward. His rope was attached to Vins harness.
Finally the episode passed, leaving Vin breathless and lightheaded. Still holding on to the cam, he closed his eyes until the dizziness passed. Once he could open his eyes, he glanced down to see his partner staring up at him. He raised his hand to signal that he was OK, afraid that if he tried to yell it would bring on another coughing fit.
Reassured, JD continued his ascent. He suppressed his desire to hurry. Vin had hammered into him, slow and easy. Haste could cause a fall.
Vin saw JD resume his climb and pressed wearily back against the mountain. Cautiously he looked up to the summit. It was a long way to the top. He sighed. It was going to be a helluva long day. He took out a clean rag and wiped his perspiring face, then turned his attention back to JD.
Critically, he assessed his partners technique. Vin had spent the winter giving the young man instructions and so far he was very pleased with the progress he was making. JD was a natural athlete.
JDs ascent was slow but steady. He stopped only long enough to remove the cams Vin had placed and clip them to his own belt.
Finally he reached the ledge, grinning broadly. Vin couldnt help but smile in return. JDs enthusiasm was infectious.
Man, that was great! He exclaimed.
Hope ya feel tha way by th time we get all th way t th top, Vin teased.
No problem! the young man proclaimed.
Vin grinned back then turned toward the face of the cliff. He sighed. He wasnt looking forward to the rest of the climb. The way he felt, the top of the mountain might as well be a mile high.
As Vin started up the second pitch, JD frowned slightly. He had noticed that Vin was a little pale and was sweating. Vin had awakened him a couple of times during the night coughing. It had the younger man a little concerned. However, if the kid had learned one thing since joining this outfit, it was to mind his own business, especially when it came to his friends' health. Even if he did ask Vin if he was OK, he was sure the sharpshooter would just say, 'I'm fine'.
But that didn't stop him from worrying a little. Sure, he knew Vin was a grown man, but he also knew that the man would have to be half dead before he would admit it. So, he would keep his eyes open, his mouth shut and watch his partner's back.
The second pitch or the Durrance Crack, was about seventy feet. It was a little more difficult because he could only jam about a third of the way up.
Vin looped his safety rope around a chockstone and rested a bit while sizing up the next part of the ascent. From here on up, he would have to use a technique called off-widthing. He would have to use the vertical crack itself to climb. It was a matter of standing sideways to the crack and using one side of his body to move inside the crevice, bracing against one side and levering himself up while grasping whatever he could on the outside with the other hand and foot. The problem was the crack wasn't wide enough for his whole body, only his arm and leg would fit. That puts a lot of strain on one side.
Vin decided to use his right side to off-width, since it was his stronger side. Wiping the sweat off his brow, he took a drink of water, reached behind him for the bag hanging from his belt. With his hands chalked to prevent slipping, Tanner started up.
The first part of the part of the off-width wasn't too bad. The crack was narrow enough that he could still balance himself fairly equally between the right and left side.
About fifteen feet from the ledge that marked the top of the second pitch, Vin paused. He was breathing hard and he was vaguely aware of a tightness in his chest. It hurt a little to breathe. Damn, he didnt remember this climb being so difficult.
When the ache eased, Vin shifted more to his right. The crack widened and was now totally off-width, he no longer could use his left hand on the outside. However, the Park Service had placed permanent protection devices periodically since there was no place to put cams, so all Vin had to do was attach a carbiner to it and loop his rope through it. This eased the strain of the climb somewhat.
Finally, he hauled himself up and over the ledge. It was wide enough that he could lay on it. Turning to his back, he lay there easing the ache in his muscles.
Once his breathing had slowed down, he turned back over and pushed himself up to his hands and knees. He looked over the side and signaled for JD to start up.
The younger man watched his friends careful ascent. Even though this part was more difficult, it seemed to JD that Vins movements were more deliberate. Like he was thinking about each step before he took it. That made him a little nervous. It could be that he was just being extra careful for JDs benefit, but somehow the young man didnt think that was it.
When he finally joined his friend on the ledge, he rationalized that now that he had made the climb himself, he could understand Vins caution and that he was just imagining that the sharpshooter was having trouble.
Good job! Vin commented with a grin and a slap on the shoulder for his companion. JD ducked his head and shrugged. His face hid a grin, pleased at the older mans praise.
Both men took a little break with a power bar and some water. The sun had risen fully by now and even though they were only a little less than half-way up, the view was breath-taking.
Ya ready? Vin asked his youthful partner.
Yeah, JD answered grinning ear-to-ear.
The next three pitches were relatively easy and short. Vin made the climb without much trouble with JD close behind.
Now came the longest part of the ascent. The sixth pitch was one hundred and fifty feet and it involved a combination climb of off-width and chimney, going back and forth a couple of times. To chimney, they would have to fit their whole body into the crack and use their bodies as counter pressure to climb.
As Vin reached the last twenty feet, he knew his strength was waning and he was having a great deal of difficulty catching his breath. There was a persistent ache in his chest that he was unable to relieve no matter what he did.
He tried not to think too much about the difficulty of this last part. He was sorely tempted to go the easier route. They could climb back down, a little before the sixth pitch, and jump over to the meadows. Then it would be an easy climb to the summit, but knowing JD wanted as much experience as possible, he had chosen the more complicated one.
Most of the last twenty feet is off-width plus he was carrying two, one hundred and sixty five foot ropes. They would be let out as he climbed. The friction from the ropes would create a drag, pulling his body down as he tried to go up.
Well, there was no choice now, he had to keep going. Resignedly, he jammed his foot sideways into the crack, then his shoulder, bracing his forearm against the opposite side and started up.
One step at a time, inch by inch, he forced himself up the column. Soon, he would be at the top and he could really rest.
About ten feet from the top he hammered in a last cam, attached the carbiner and looped the rope through it. He wiped his face with his sleeve. His feet felt like lead as he raised the left one to jam into the crack. After bracing himself with his left shoulder, he raised his right hand, searching for a handhold. He groped the face of the column, looking for something to hang onto.
Finally, he found a slight outcropping. He stretched his right leg up to a little ledge. Normally, he would have tested the step before shifting his weight, but his body was beginning to betray him and all he could think of was just getting to the top.
He pulled himself up and sideways, placing his weight on the ledge. Only his experience kept him from falling right then as the outcropping gave way. Desperately he threw himself to the left, but he already had started to move that foot and didnt have it set well. His left foot slid down the crack.
He wrenched his foot sideways attempting to jam it into the crevice, sending a shooting pain through his knee and up the front of his leg. He still had the fingers of his right hand clinging to a rock; that seemed to be holding. He jammed his left shoulder into the crack. The awkward movement caused his lower back to spasm.
Gasping in pain that threatened his precarious perch, he wedged himself as tightly as he could in to the crack, trying to stop his slide. He came to a scraping halt.
He froze, panting heavily, which brought on another coughing attack. He hung on desperately as the spasm wracked his body. Tears streamed down his face as he fought for breath.
Small rocks rained down on JD. He ducked his head and pushed himself as close to the cliff face as possible. A few seconds passed while the young man braced himself, fearing that at any moment he would feel the jerk on the safety line, signaling that his friend had fallen.
The rockslide subsided as he heard Vins wracking cough. He could hear the painful hacking and grew concerned that his friend was in trouble. Afraid to test the rope, in case Vin was not all the way up and had not tied it off, he started his climb.
Finally the coughing fit started to subside. Vin leaned his head back against the rock, sweat and tears flowing down his flushed, heated face. He fought to control his painful breathing, while trying not to relax his tenuous hold on the column.
Several minutes later, he resumed his ascent with a great deal more caution, made more difficult because of the pain in his knee. The last few feet seemed like miles, but finally he dragged himself over the edge of the summit. He simply lay there, absorbing the solid feel of horizontal rock. The sun was high enough now to have started warming the surface, and it felt wonderful.
The sharpshooter started.
Vin? You OK?
He whipped his head sideways to see the concerned face of his young friend. Shit, he had fallen asleep and worse, he had forgotten about JD.
He quickly sat up but had to close his eyes briefly, as a wave of dizziness swept over him. When he opened them again, JD was sitting beside him.
Inwardly, he cringed at the look of concern on the younger mans face. He swiped a sleeve across his eyes and face.
JD offered him an open bottle of water. With a small smile, and a curt, embarrassed nod, the sharpshooter accepted the drink and took a long swig.
Feeling more in control, he glanced sideways at JD. Musta breathed in some a tha rock dust when I slipped.
Ducking his head, JD let the coughing fit pass but asked about the misstep, That what happened?
Yeah, ledge gave way. Wasnt set n I slipped.
It was a logical explanation, but JD wasnt totally convinced that it was the whole story. He had seen how flushed Vin had been and now he appeared to be a lot paler than usual, and his breathing was still faster than it should be. His gut told him that Vin wasnt telling him the whole truth, but he knew better than to make a big deal of it.
Vin was now resting with his knees drawn up, arms across his knees and the water bottle hanging loosely from one hand. He was staring out across the beautiful vista. Even as he watched, JD saw the other mans breathing slow and a serene smile settle on the handsome features.
Following Vins gaze, JD looked out from the summit of Devils Tower, Mato Tapila. There was no doubt in either of their minds why it was sacred to the Indians. The view was incredible; the plains, rolling hills and the meandering river in the distance. The first signs of spring could be seen, varying shades of green mingled with the browns of the not quite forgotten winter. Little splotches of color dotted the landscape, as some brave flowers blossomed in the life giving sun.
They sat there for some time. There was a strong feeling of camaraderie that came from meeting a challenge together and succeeding.
The normally effusive and talkative young agent sat quietly, letting his friend rest. They each ate another snack bar and drank some water. Vin also decided to take a couple of Tylenol. Although his back and knee felt better now, he knew that it was probably going to give him fits later, and he still had to get down the mountain.
Eventually, Vin said, Well, guess wed better head back.
K, JD agreed, standing up.
First though, gotta sign th log, Vin instructed.
Yeah, everyone reaches th top signs a log to say, you were here. He led the way over to a plastic case that protected a book. JD noticed that he was limping slightly.
Yeah, just twisted m knee some when I slipped. Itll be OK.
Yeah, itll be fine, Vin assured firmly, so JD let it drop.
JD grinned as he added his name to the list of adventurous souls that had preceded him. Vin signed his name then the two prepared themselves for the descent.
It took them a few minutes to find the permanent anchor. Vin ran the rope through the eye and then attached it to his harness. Then he carefully climbed over the edge, favoring his sore knee.
Descending a few feet, he stopped, grabbed the rappel rope, leaned backward until he was practically perpendicular with the rock face, and started walking down the mountain. Luckily, he found that his knee didnt bother him as much as he thought. Of course, he tried to keep as much weight off of it as possible.
He reached the second rappel, detached himself and sent the rope back up to JD. The youth mimicked Vins actions and lowered himself to stand beside his friend. Grinning, JD exclaimed, Wow! That is so cool!
Vin returned the grin as he pulled the rope down, found the anchor and prepared himself for the next rappel. He was convinced that he was feeling better, although he still a little short of breath. He figured he had just picked up a cold.
The two continued down the mountain in this manner, from one rappel to the next. Finally reaching the bottom, JD pulled the rope down and coiled it for easier carrying.
Vin clapped him on the shoulder, Good climb JD. Ya did a great job.
Thanks Vin, he beamed.
By this time, it was close to noon, so they grabbed some lunch on the way back to the motel. There they dumped their gear and drove out to a little private airport where they would meet Chris and Buck, unless, of course, they were delayed, again.
Vins head was lying back against the head rest of the Explorer. He appeared to be sleeping. JD had headphones on, listening to his Walkman. He glanced at his partner. He frowned slightly, thinking that Vin still looked a little washed out, but before he could think any more on it, he saw the private charter plane circling for its final approach.
Nudging Vin, he announced, Theyre here, and got out of the car to wait for the plane to land.
Vin groggily sat up. His head felt like it was stuffed with marshmallows and there was a heaviness in his chest. He also had the beginning of a headache. He coughed a couple of times and noticed a sharp pain lance through his upper body.
Grimacing, he watched as the plane landed then taxi to a halt not far from them. He dragged himself out of the vehicle to stand by JD.
The younger agent was grinning broadly as the craft came to a stop to discharge its two passengers. Tanner and Dunne approached the plane. The door opened and the two senior agents disembarked.
Returning the welcoming smiles, the friends and colleagues greeted each other warmly.
Man, I didnt think I was ever gonna pry Larabees ass outta that meeting. Buck announced loudly as they gathered their gear.
Chris glared at his oldest friend, I dont recall you doing a whole lot to expedite matters.
Expedite? See, told ya, ya needed a vacation. Youre startin t sound like Ezra, Buck countered, clapping his boss soundly on the shoulder.
Grinning despite himself, Chris gazed intently at his best friend. He couldnt help but notice the pallor and the dark circles under his eyes. Deciding to wait until they were alone before he said anything to Vin, he grabbed a bag and they all headed to the rented Explorer.
Vin drove with Chris sitting in front beside him. Buck and JD sat in the back. JD was excitedly telling them about their climb that morning. Buck grinned as his young friend expounded on his adventure.
Chris looked over at Vin, who was smiling as he listened to the youths version of their adventure. To Chris, Vin looked tired, but he knew Vin wouldnt say anything to dampen JDs enthusiasm.
but when Vin slipped and all those rocks started falling on me
Whoa kid, Buck interrupted.
JD stopped talking and a second passed before he realized what he had said, but Buck jumped in, Whata ya mean Vin slipped? Hes our expert climber, the one who has been riding our asses all winter about being careful.
The words sounded harsh, but Vin could see that he was smiling and was just giving him a hard time.
JD looked at the back of Vins head, not sure if he should explain or leave it up to Vin.
Chriss expression tightened as he looked at his friend. When climbing, as with anything, accidents happened, but Buck was right, Vin had drilled them over and over just to prevent that. Not only was he an expert climber, he was very cautious, especially where his friends are concerned.
Continuing to tease the younger man, Buck leaned over the front seat, What happen, teach?
Vins pose remained relaxed. He shrugged, No big deal Buck. Rock broke off under my foot and I slid a little.
Something in his gut told Larabee that this wasnt the whole story, especially given the physical appearance of his friend. Again he decided to leave it for later, not wishing to embarrass him in front of everyone. Instead he casually asked, You OK?
Vin looked sideways at Chris, Yeah, just a couple of scrapes.
Buck, however, wasnt as diplomatic, That why youre limpin?
Just twisted my knee a little, its really nothing, Buck.
Hearing the finality in Vins voice, Buck also decided to drop it. He leaned back in the seat and reached over to ruffle JDs hair.
Well, dont worry kid. Tomorrow youll be getting some tips from a pro.
You invited someone else to come along? JD retorted.
The men laughed as Buck thumped his roommate on the head.
They decided to call it an early night since they wanted to be at the Tower before sunrise. Their climb tomorrow was going to be a little more difficult than the one Vin and JD had made today.
When they reached the motel, Vin and Chris went to the room they were now sharing. Vin took his turn in the bathroom as soon as they got back and by the time Chris came out, the younger man was fast asleep.
Chris frowned slightly as he watched his companion a moment. Hed never gotten the chance to ask Vin about the incident on the mountain, nor about how tired he looked. Maybe all he needed was a good nights sleep, but Larabee was determined to keep an eye on his friend tomorrow.
Groggily Chris hit the off button on the alarm. It was such a temptation just to say fuck it, turn over and go back to sleep. He was exhausted. Vin had awakened him several times during the night, coughing. He guessed he now understood why Vin looked so tired. His friend was sick.
He had drifted into a light doze when he was rudely reawakened.
Larbee, ya gonna sleep all day? Git your ass outta bed. We got a mountain ta climb.
The irritating sharpshooter harangued as he stripped Larabee of his covers.
Chris squinted up at him, Youre lucky I left my gun at home, Tanner.
Awww, is tha any way t talk? Ya know ya love me.
Vin was already dressed and as far as Chris could see not any worse for the restless night he had spent. Although there were still dark circles under his eyes, his color appeared better.
Come on ol man. Were burnin daylight!
In case you hadnt noticed, the suns not up yet, Chris mumbled as he stumbled to the bathroom.
Vin just grinned as the grumbling Larabee closed the bathroom door. Then the smile faded as he sat down heavily on the bed. He just felt so damn tired. His head felt achy and when he took a deep breath, besides the danger of starting a coughing fit, it felt like a steel band was wrapped around his chest. The one good thing was that his knee didnt seem to be bothering him much.
He knew he was probably getting sick and part of him knew he shouldnt be climbing a mountain, but he just couldnt let the others down. They had planned this vacation for months, working hard to wrap things up to the point that all four could get time off together.
He was the most experienced climber and had actually climbed the Tower a few times before. This was the first time for the others. He felt it was his responsibility.
The one big problem about todays climb, as far as Vin could see, was that on yesterdays route there were several rest stops, belays. Today, the planned route didnt have but one, about half-way up and that was a semi-hanging belay. They would have to attach a harness to the permanent protection there, to rest.
He supposed he could ask them to change the climb, but then they would most certainly figure out why. From the looks hed been getting from the other three, he guessed they suspected, especially since he had almost fallen into his dinner the evening before when he dozed off.
He grinned wryly as he recalled the teasing his friends had given him. Blushing self-consciously, he had glanced at Larabee and seen the concern behind the laughter. He had shook his head and winked at his best friend, hoping to reassure him.
Chris glared at him a moment, shook his head and resumed eating. Behind the glare, Vin saw the promise of later, so he made sure that Chris hadnt had the chance to grill him, but he wasnt sure how much longer he could keep dodging the question he knew his friend was wanting to ask.
He reckoned if he wasnt asked, he wouldnt have to lie. Because truth be told, he was starting to feel like shit. But the only way he was going to get away with it was to stay out of Larabees direct line of sight.
Chris came out of the shower to find the room empty. He noticed that the climbing gear was gone and realized what his friend was doing. Smiling grimly and giving his head a little shake, he knew that Vin was avoiding him. This simply confirmed what he suspected, his friend wasnt feeling well.
About the time he finished dressing, his wayward partner stuck his head in the door. Ya gonna primp all day?
Chris glared at him and Tanner just grinned and ducked back outside. The older man grabbed a jacket and joined the other three who were already waiting in the Explorer.
As he climbed in next to Vin, the sharpshooter handed him a steaming cup of coffee and a breakfast bar. Vin winked at his mumbled thanks. Know how grumpy ya are till yave had your coffee.
Chris didnt dignify the remark with an answer. Instead, he drank the coffee, ate the breakfast bar and plotted how to approach the touchy subject of his best friends health.
At the base of the Tower, they made the final preparations just as the sun was rising. It was going to be another glorious spring day.
Finally, Larabee found his opening while helping Vin attach extra cams and carbiners to his belt.
You up for this?
Whatta ya mean? Vin asked innocently, concentrating on making sure the weight on his hips was evenly balanced.
With some exasperation, Chris said, Come on Vin, you coughed all night and youve got dark circles under your eyes. Are you sure you feel well enough to do this?
Straightening and meeting Chriss direct gaze with his own, he replied, Im OK. Chris. I may have a little cold, but Im fine.
Searching the expressive blue eyes and realizing that any argument would only cause Tanner to dig in his heels, he nodded.
Actually, Vin was feeling better. He had taken a couple of Tylenol before leaving the motel and now was convinced he really did have just a cold and he certainly had climbed before with a cold. It wasnt like they were climbing so high there would be pressure changes to affect his balance.
Like the day before, Vin led the way. Chris would be second, JD third and Buck bringing up the rear. The route they were taking was called TAD and was rated slightly harder than the Durrance route JD and Vin had taken the day before.
The first part of the climb lead them to the actual route and wasnt that different but by the time they reached the first pitch of TAD, Vin was sweating and short of breath.
He quickly wiped his face and took a drink, fighting to get his breathing under control before Chris and the others joined him. It was getting harder and harder to pretend he was OK, even to himself. He looked up the cliff face. It was almost straight up with the only permanent protection about half-way up, where the semi-hanging belay was.
Under normal circumstance, the route would have been a cake walk for the experienced climber, but now the 300 feet seemed more like 300 miles.
Startled, Vin scowled at his friend, Im fine!
And as if to prove his point, Vin started his ascent without giving Larabee a chance to question him further.
Chris shook his head as his determined friend started up. He had seen the pallor and the perspiration. It also bothered him that the normally unflappable sharpshooter had not heard his approach.
Not taking his eyes off Tanner, he acknowledged JDs arrival by demanding, Exactly what happened yesterday?
The young man followed his bosss gaze and knew what was being asked, but he tried to hedge. Whatta ya mean?
Chris leveled his glare at him, not even bothering to rephrase the question.
JD began to fidget. Well, hes been coughing some.
Chriss eyes never wavered. JD squirmed. Finally, he quit vacillating. Chris I honestly dont know for sure, but I think hes sick.
JD paused while Chris waited impatiently. He was torn. He hated to rat on Vin, but he couldnt lie to Chris.
Sighing deeply, he looked up at his friend. Yesterday, I think the climb was almost too much for him. Twice on the way up he had coughing fits. The last one was near the top, right after he slipped. When I got to the top he was just laying there and he didnt hear me.
Chriss jaw clenched and he glowered at the young agent. JD knew that he probably should have said something earlier, but after the climb Vin had seemed so much better, maybe just a little tired. He also knew that it wouldnt have stopped Vin and he might have made the situation worse. Vin was a grown man and he had been taking care of himself for a long time. So, he met Chriss glare honestly.
Chris read all this in his eyes and realized the truth. It wouldnt have made any difference. All they could hope for was that Vin knew himself well enough to not endanger himself.
Shit! Was all he said aloud and returned to watching Vin making slow but steady progress up the cliff face.
Almost there, had become a litany in Vins exhausted mind. His hands were shaking so badly he was having trouble placing the cams. The strain of the climb was also starting to tell on the knee he had twisted the day before. He had reached his limit and when he finally got to the belay, he was going to have to tell Chris. The band around his chest was getting so tight; his respirations were coming as short, rapid gasps.
At last he reached the belay. One handed, he pulled a sling from his belt. With the other, he held onto the permanent bolt that the Park Service had placed in the rock face.
He managed to fasten one side of the sling to the hook. Belatedly, his sluggish brain realized he should have fastened his own harness to the bolt first. Even though his hands were chalked frequently, he was sweating so profusely, it was doing little good. He felt his hand slipping off the bolt. Desperately he tried to grab on with the other hand, but it threw him off balance. Then he was falling.
Chris frowned as he watched Vin reach for the bolt with his right hand. He could tell that the left was already holding on to it. He didnt remember seeing Vin hook onto the protection device.
Oh, God! he exclaimed as he watched his best friend lose his grip and start to fall.
Buck had joined them by this time and all three watched in horror as Vin bounced off the face of the cliff. Instinctively, the men grabbed hold of the rope Vin was attached to. The carbiners used on each of the cams had a one way stop on them. Thats how they protected the climber and why they were placed periodically during a climb, but there was always the chance one of them would fail. So, the three prepared to take the weight of their friend in case that happened.
It seemed like forever before Vin came to a stop, hanging limply and showing no sign of movement. It took a few seconds for them to process what happened; then Chris sprang into action.
He placed a cam firmly into a crack and tied off the rope to hold Vin in place. Taking the extra rope JD was carrying, he started up after his friend while giving instructions to their youngest to climb back down, very carefully, and notify the Rangers that theyd need Medivac.
Chris willed himself to go cautiously, no matter how anxious he was to get to Vin. It wouldnt do his friend any good if he fell, too. Every few feet he would pause and look up. Vin appeared to be unconscious. He clinched his jaw and continued the never ending ascent.
Finally he was level with his unmoving friend. He placed a cam and hooked himself off to it. His movements jostled Vin slightly and he moaned. Even though he wore a protective helmet, as they all did, Chris could see a gash on his left temple.
Reaching across Vins chest, Chris put a hand behind Vins head, to give him some support. The younger man was starting to move a little. Chris tried to give him some reassurance. Easy Vin, Ive got you. Vin? Can you hear me?
Vins eyes blinked open. Confused, not remembering where he was and feeling no support under his arms and legs, he began to flail around.
Shit! Chris exclaimed, trying to keep his balance and Vin from hurting himself.
Vin! Hold still!
Desperate to stop the thrashing, Chris held onto the cam that was supporting him with one hand and drew Vin to him with the other, pressing him firmly against his own body so that he would feel safer.
Vin! Listen to me!
He pulled the sharpshooter tightly to his chest, trying to stop the frantic movements.
Vin wake up! Ya gotta hold still! Youre gonna kill both of us!
Chris was desperate now. Vins thrashing could shake loose the cams.
Please, Vin, for Gods sake, hold still! Chris pleaded.
Whether he was just more alert or if it was Chriss voice that finally penetrated the fog in Vins head, his struggles slowed and finally stopped.
Chris looked down at the blood smeared face. Vin was looking back at him with confused eyes.
Its OK Vin, its OK, Chris assured.
Im here Cowboy, Ive got ya.
Wh ha pin? Vin asked as his eyes started to close again.
Vin, come on buddy, stay with me, Chris urged.
Myopically, Vin blinked his eyes open in response to his friends voice.
Vin, can you hear me?
Slowly, the confusion lifted from the pain clouded eyes. He carefully swallowed and licked his lips. He became aware that he was suspended from his safety rope and that Chris was holding him.
Chris couldnt help but smile a little, despite their precarious position, as Vins eyes crossed, trying to focus on his friends face.
Vin, listen to me. You fell and hit your head.
K, came the barely audible response.
Now, we are halfway up a mountain and we need to get you down.
Are you hurt anywhere else?
Vin blinked at him as his muddled brain tried to process the question. Not sure,..kinda..hurt..all..oer.
Chris chuckled, recalling how Vin had bounce off the rock. I bet.
He really didnt think Vin was going to be able to help much, so theyd have to go to Plan B, which had been hastily hatched as Chris started his climb.
OK Vin, heres what we are going to do. The rope you are attached to is hooked through a carbiner, so we cant lower you from that. Im going to loop a rope through this cam, tie it to your harness and untie the other one. Ill throw the end down to Buck and then well slowly lower you. We need for you to help us by trying to keep yourself from bouncing against the rock. You understand?
Vin scrunched his face, trying to make sense of the words, but finally gave up and closed his eyes. Trust ya, he whispered.
That statement caused Chriss heart to skip a beat. He knew that Vin felt comfortable with him, more so than the other members of the team. From the first there seemed to be a special connection between the two of them. And he knew that Vin trusted him to watch his back on the job, but this this from a man who had very little reason to trust anyone, ever. Now, he was telling him that he trusted him with everything, with his life.
All this flashed through Chriss mind in a second. OK Cowboy, stay with me now.
With one hand, Chris took the rope that was looped over his shoulder and ran one end through a cam.
Vin? Can you hear me?
Vin opened his eyes, half-mast. Yeah, he whispered.
I need to let go of you so that I can tie you off to this other rope. Can you hold on to my belt? Just to keep yourself from bouncing against the rock?
Vin blinked a couple of times then tried to bring up his left arm. Ahhh .
Larabee gently grabbed the arm and brought it up and over, onto the injured mans chest. It was black and blue, so Chris figured that at the least it was badly bruised, possibly broken.
Chris thought for a moment then remembered that Vin always carried some first aid supplies in his back pack.
OK Vin, listen. Im going to try and get your back pack off. First lets carefully get this off the left side. Im just going to unbuckle it so you dont have to move your arm. Get ready because itll swing to your right.
Although Vins eyes were closed, he seemed to hear what Chris was saying because as the older man struggled to unfasten the buckle without hurting Vin, the younger man slowly brought his right hand across to grasp Larabees belt, to steady himself.
Chris gently let the pack fall off the left shoulder and then grabbed the right strap. He moved it slowly around so that he had a good grip on it, then undid the buckle on that side. He carefully rummaged in the pack and found a roll of gauze. He tucked it under his chin, quickly refastened the straps and slipped the pack onto his own back.
Vin, Im going to wrap this gauze around your chest and arm to keep it from moving, OK?
It took several seconds and Chris had already started winding the thin material around his friend, before he heard a feeble, K.
Vin emitted a sharp hiss when Chris repositioned the arm to make it more secure. Once the wrapping was accomplished, Chris drove a cam into another crack so that just one would not be supporting both of them. He tied one end to Vins harness and looped the other through the cam and threw it down to Buck.
The big man had been making himself dizzy trying to keep track of what was happening with Vin and Chris above and JD below. Luckily, all JD had to do was rappel down. From what he could see, the kid was making good progress and was being careful. He would be down the mountain shortly.
It was a good thing because from the looks of things above, they were going to need help. Buck couldnt hear what was being said but he could see that after the initial frantic movements, there had been little on Vins part. He ached to be up there, but knew that he would be needed more, here.
Wilmington was watching as JD reached the trail leading away from the monument, but jerked his head up when Chris yelled.
Buck, heads up!
Then the rope came down. Buck grabbed it and wrapped it once around his waist then braced himself.
Ready! He yelled back.
Chris the prepared himself to rappel as soon as he unhooked Vin from the safety line.
Vin, Im going to let go of you. You may feel a little jerk as we transfer lines, but Buck is holding you, OK?
Im going down to help Buck so we can lower you real slow, understand?
Through the pounding in his head, Vin was only hearing about every other word but he thought he caught the gist of it. K, he repeated.
Chris waved his arm to signal Buck that he was releasing Vin. The big man was able to keep Vin fairly steady, but Chris knew that the sharpshooter was dead weight. He needed to get down as fast as possible to help, even though he hated leaving Vin here by himself.
With a quick reassuring squeeze to Vins shoulder, Chris rappelled down. Joining Buck, they both started the slow, tedious process of lowering their injured friend. It had to be extremely slow to keep from bouncing Vin off the rock face. They knew Vin would be little to no help. Luckily, the winds around the monument were mild and wouldnt cause a great deal of sway.
It seemed like hours, but in reality only about twenty minutes before Vin was at last on the narrow ledge with his teammates.
They laid him flat. Once again, he seemed to have lost consciousness. Being as careful as possible, they eased the helmet off. Chris took a bottle of water and some gauze pads and cleaned Vins face. He noticed that his friend was breathing a little fast and his face was flushed. He seemed warm to the touch, so Chris was positive the younger man was running a fever.
Once most of the blood was removed, the senior agent found some alcohol packets in Vins make-shift first aid kit. He opened them and squeezed the liquid on the gash over Vins eye. The sting of the antiseptic caused the sharpshooter to flinch and try to move away.
Whoa there, Junior! Buck said as he put his big hands firmly, but gently on the slighter mans shoulders.
You go rollin off this here ledge and itll be more than a scratch on your head we hav ta worry about.
Vin squinted up at the smiling, mustached face directly above him.
Yeah Junior, its ol Buck. Welcome back.
Chris now moved into his line of vision. We are still on the Tower, Vin. Weve sent for help to get you down.
Vin started trying to sit up.
Vin! What the hell are you doing? Chris exclaimed as he moved to help Buck hold their friend still.
Cn get down myself. But he stopped struggling, out of breath and panting.
Then he started coughing, the spasms wracking his slender frame and threatening to send all three of them over the side. Vin tried to roll on to his right side, so the other two helped him and pulled him back against the rock face. He curled up as much as possible.
Chris and Buck felt helpless. Finally, the painful hacking subsided and left their young friend drenched in sweat. Buck sat down on the ledge and placed Vins head on to his lap. He took the bottle of water Chris handed him and offered it to the injured man.
Vin took several sips before laying his head back down, exhausted.
Chris and Buck exchanged looks over his now lax form. Chris checked down the mountain, but didnt see anyone. He prayed that theyd hurry and that they would have a plan for getting Vin down.