Disclaimer: Not mine, never were, never will be.
Note: I don't live in the desert, I don't live any were near a desert, I've only visited a desert once. Betaed by Phyllis.
"Ezra we do want to get there before it gets dark - you know?" Buck turned around and, hands on hips, waited for Standish to catch up.
"I am walking at a perfectly reasonable pace, I see no reason to hurry, just because your abnormal legs can cover the ground faster then I." Ezra continued to walk at his own pace.
"What do you mean, abnormal?" Buck looked down at his legs. "Ain't nothing wrong with my legs, they're just like anyone else's, not much longer than yours."
"I beg to disagree, your legs appear to begin somewhere under you ribcage, that is not normal."
It took Buck a moment to decipher this comment, then he grinned. "Well now Hoss, is it my fault Mother Nature gifted me with more than the average guy?" He waggled an eyebrow suggestively.
By now Ezra had caught up. Buck was taking a long pull on his current bottle of water. "You better take some, looks like we're gonna be climbing for a bit."
Ezra pulled out his own water from his pack and drank, while Buck studied his map.
The ATF, in its infinite wisdom had decided that it's Midwestern agents had to undergo desert training. While Ezra admitted there was considerable desert terrain in the huge area of the country they were responsible for, he could see no real need to experience it - at least not until he had too. Spending five days learning about the desert and how to track in it and survive in it, seemed pointless in the age of the helicopter, thermal imaging cameras, personal GPS units and cell phones. After all that was the point of having a team made up of people with different skills- right? If they needed people tracked, they had Vin to track them, if he needed help Buck was quite competent, why did he need to know how to do it?
After three days of instruction they were split up into three pairs, told to choose their own equipment and given the co-ordinates of an overnight shelter. They had to hike to these co-ordinates, spend the night, prove they had made it by copying down a code number left there and hike back before six in the evening the next day. Vin wasn't included in this.
"Why not?" Ezra had asked.
"'Cause he's gonna be teaching one of the other groups taking the course," Chris explained.
"Need t' keep m' instructors qualifications up t' date," Vin drawled lazily.
"Whom will you be instructing?"
"Bunch of feebs."
An evil smile had spread over Ezra's face. "Really?"
"I aim t' make sure they're fully prepared f' every eventuality." Vin grinned back at Ezra.
Team Seven, minus Vin, pretty much knew how they were going to pair up. Josiah and Nathan, Buck and JD and that left Ezra and Chris. Which was fine by Ezra, he had no intention of spending twenty four hours listening to JD prattling on or Buck describing his every sexual conquest, come to that he wasn't in the mood for Josiah's philosophy or Nathan setting the world to rights. Chris would be happy to walk in relative silence. Unfortunately their training officer had other ideas. JD was paired with Josiah, Nathan with Chris, leaving Ezra with Buck.
Buck hadn't been such bad company, and he was very competent when it came to map reading and plotting their route. Not that Ezra couldn't read a map or use a compass, he could, but Buck was quicker at it and had a better feel for the land; which led Ezra back to the futility of this mission. He was an urbanite, he admitted it, he was proud of it. If you wanted someone tracked in the city he was your man, so he was happy to let Buck lead - if only he'd slow down!
"Climbing?" Ezra asked Buck dubiously.
"Yup, see here." Buck pointed to the bluff behind. "We can take a short cut if we climb here cut across the top of this bluff, instead of going around it through the canyon."
A shortcut sounded appealing, but Ezra wasn't sure about climbing. "Climb how?" he looked up at the bluff. The slope behind him wasn't too steep; he could see how they could make it up, but higher up it looked to be all but vertical.
"Look." Buck pulled out the map. "It looks sheer, but between this slope and the cliff, there's a ledge, we follow it around for about four hundred yards then it all evens out and we can cut across the top, looks like half a mile and come down here." His finger was tracing the contour lines on the map. "Where the slope is gentle. I swear it's shorter than the canyon by a good four miles."
The slope was hard work; the rock was soft and crumbling, shale and dirt slipped out from under their boots with every step. But by zigzagging they made it up in less than an hour. Just as the map showed there was a ledge. It was close to noon, since the far side of the bluff was facing north, they planned to round it before stopping to eat their lunch, hoping to find some shade. In the meantime, after they caught their breath, they took time to take a long drink, both nearing the end of the first of their two half gallon bottles of water. As Ezra tipped his head back to drain the last of the water from his bottle his hat all but fell from his head.
"Watch it there Hoss, you're gonna lose that thing," Buck warned him good naturally.
Ezra just glared at him and pushed his hat back on. He had heeded the advice to wear sturdy boots, long pants and a long sleeved shirt, as well as a wide brimmed hat. What he was not prepared to do was become a cowboy. So, in contrast to Buck's old, much loved, much stained but very serviceable Stetson, Ezra wore a brand new, straw plantation hat, complete with decorative band.
"You done?" Buck asked.
"Well, lets get going."
As predicted there was a flat ledge between the steep slope they had just ascended and the sheer cliff that rose up to the top of the bluff above them. They rounded the first bend to find their ledge had narrowed from about four yards wide to about two, it was a little unnerving, but it was flat, stable under foot and widened out again after about ten yards.
Nathan and Chris were making good progress; their route was basically a straight line across the desert, with only a slight climb to their overnight stop. They had mostly walked in silence, drinking from time to time; the only thing they had talked about was - oddly - Buck. Nathan had admitted he didn't understand Wilmington.
Chris shrugged. "Buck's not that complicated, what's to understand?"
"He acts like well the way he acts, you know, loud, crude, dumb - but he's not."
"Dumb or crude, not really. He sure as hell isn't dumb and he can be the most sensitive person "
"But he is loud," Chris conceded with a smile. "I dont know what to say, Buck is what he is, what you see is what you get. We are what our past and our upbringing has made us, I guess. Buck's upbringing was different."
Their conversation was suddenly interrupted by the sudden and unmistakable sound of a rattlesnake, an angry rattlesnake. Chris had never been good with snakes, given warning he could handle them, but his initial reaction was to get away - fast. He stepped back and to the side without looking and promptly tripped over something and fell on his ass in the dust. Nathan stepped back as well, grabbed the sprawling Chris under the armpit he pulled him up and back, away from the snake, which they gave a wide birth.
Josiah and JD were descending a slope, the ground underfoot was loose and treacherous and they had been working their way slowly. As a defence against JD's constant talking, Josiah had been telling JD various Native American legends associated with the landscape. Their descent had silenced all conversation as they concentrated on keeping upright. Suddenly Josiah's foot found a particularly unstable patch of ground, as one foot then two went flying out from under him and he slammed down onto the ground, landing on one of the larger rocks.
JD suddenly found himself alone. The next thing he was aware of was a strange sound, like a bellowing ox. It wasn't hard to locate Josiah; he was on his hands and knees, the strange bellowing noises issuing from him, as he tried to get his breath.
JD scrambled over to him. "You okay?" he asked anxiously.
"Will be," Josiah gasped out. "Winded."
One minute Buck and Ezra were walking along the ledge and the next the land beneath them fell away beneath them, as the ledge broke away and tumbled down into the canyon below.
Buck was, as usual, about three or four yards ahead of Ezra. He fell with the rock and was knocked onto his backside and then skidded and rolled all the way down the near sheer slope. When he finally came to a stop, he found himself in a crumpled heap on top of a new landform that now blocked the canyon. As he squinted up into the sky above him the new scar on the landscape was plain to see, the canyon wall above him was no longer a steep slope, but sheer drop, no vegetation clung to it, it was clean, and pristine and new. Forcing himself to stand, he winced and grunted in pain as his battered body protested the action, especially his left leg, when he tried to put weight on it, but he made it.
Ezra! His eyes darted around, searching for his friend, the first thing he found was his own hat, which he snatched up and pushed back on then he continued to search for his friend's distinctive red shirt. Finally he spotted a slash of red against the dull desert hues. Those few yards that Buck had been ahead of Ezra had made all the difference, he'd skidded and rolled down a steep slope on top of the landslide, Ezra was lying on a newly created ledge protruding from a brand new cliff, that now rose, in Buck's estimation, some eighty feet. Ezra appeared to be just under half way down.
"Ezra!" he bellowed, his voice echoing in the narrow canyon. There was no response. "Ez, I'm coming! Don't move, if you can hear me - DONT MOVE!"
Panic rising as he realised how close Ezra was to the edge, Buck set off to reach him. He had to climb, slide and skid his way over the landslide debris in the bottom of the canyon. With adrenaline pumping through him, perception of his own injures disappeared. Scrambling down the last pile of rubble he set off at a run to find the path they had used to climb the bluff. It took him longer this time, his legs didn't seem to want to work as well, the ground underfoot seemed to be even more unstable, but he made it. The ledge they had used was now less than half as wide, and as he reached the point above Ezra, it was completely gone.
Edging as close to the precipice as he could get, he peered over. Ezra hadn't moved, he lay on his stomach, he was dusty, but at least Buck couldn't see any blood, of course with Ezra wearing that red shirt it was hard to be sure. The ledge was barely as long as Ezra, his boots hung over the end. Worse it was as narrow as it was short. One of the straps of Ezra's backpack had broken, the heavily laden pack was now precariously balanced on Ezra's shoulder, in imminent danger of falling to the bottom of the canyon.
"Ezra!" Buck tried again. "Come on man wake up, please!" Just as he was about to call again he saw Ezra's hand move. "Don't move! Whatever you do, don't move!" Buck bellowed.
"Buck?" Ezra's voice barely carried to Buck, some thirty-five or so feet above him.
"Yeah, it's me Hoss, you just stay still for me, please, trust me and don't move."
"Landslide I reckon, you're on a ledge, on a cliff. You have to stay still. Are you hurt?"
There was a long pause, Buck thought he could see Ezra moving slightly, testing his limbs. As he moved his left shoulder, the one the backpack was resting on, he froze.
"My shoulder," he called up.
"Dislocated?" Ezra had dislocated his left shoulder at least twice that Buck knew of.
"Yes." Just then the backpack slipped, causing Ezra to yelp in pain.
As Buck watched the heavy bag began to slip further and further down Ezra's arm.
"Any chance you can save it?" Buck called.
In response Ezra did his best, but as soon as he moved, more of the ledge crumbled. "Stop! It's not worth it."
"GPS!" Ezra called, but even as he did, the bag fell, and with that shoulder dislocated, there was now no way for him to stop it. Buck watched and Ezra heard the bag fall.
"We'll manage," Buck called.
He stepped back and put down his own backpack to take stock of their assets. Ezra had been carrying their GPS emergency beacon and the food. Buck had the flashlight, matches, map, compass and the first aid kit. They had both been carrying knives, warm clothing and water.
It had taken them five hours to get to the bluff, he assumed it would take him five hours to get back, it was now nearly two o'clock. Assuming it took five hours to get back and another hour for a rescue team to be flown to Ezra, Ezra needed water for six hours. He was going to be walking, but Ezra was trapped on a south facing slope, and he'd lost his brand new hat. Careful not to spill one precious drop of water, he poured a third of the water into the empty bottle and then tried to see how he could get the other two thirds to Ezra. He couldn't throw it, even if it landed where Ezra could reach it would most likely bounce and or break. Ezra also needed something to cover his head. In the first aid kit was a support bandage and traditional rolled lint bandage this gave him fifteen feet, in addition there were two large dressings with long bandages, by unravelling them he had another six feet or near enough. It still wasn't enough. Finally he painstakingly unrolled the adhesive tape and, after rubbing the sticky side in the dirt, used it to extend his 'rope' it was just long enough, he kept the last bit sticky so it could be attached to the bottle. He then used a band-aid to attach a triangular bandage to the side of the bottle.
"Okay, I'm ready, you with me Pal?" he called down to Ezra.
"I was planning a coffee run to Starbucks, but since you are ready, I'll stay - what is your plan?"
Buck smiled, it was somehow good to hear that barbed tongue of Ezra's. "I'm gonna lower you some water and a sling "
"I can't put it on my arm like this, I'll fall "
"For your head not your arm, you have to cover your head."
"Oh, right, sorry."
Taking great care, Buck began to lower the bottle, he needed it to land just beside Ezra's good right hand. He succeeded in getting it close to Ezra and by swinging it a few times, got it into place.
"You okay? Nathan asked once they were safely past the snake.
"I'm okay." Chris dusted himself off, he was all but done when he released a strangled yelp.
"What?" Nathan was already swinging his backpack off his shoulder.
"I'm okay," Chris protested, then shifted his hip and winced.
"Chris?" Nathan challenged, while looking back to the spot where Larabee had fallen, trying to see what he might have landed on and spying a crushed cactus. "Where are they?" he asked.
"Where are what?"
"Just show me, the faster I get them out the better."
Chris tried glaring at the team's medic, but it wasn't working. "I can't show you out here."
Chris huffed in exasperation. "I fell on my ass, where do you think they are."
"Well I can't show you out here, in public."
"What public? There's no one here," Nathan reminded him.
Chris looked around them at the miles upon miles of empty desert. "I guess." With that he began to undo his dark green combat pants as Nathan pulled out the first aid kit and pulled on his examining gloves with an ominous snap.
Josiah climbed slowly to his feet, he grimaced as he stood up straight.
"Josiah?" JD asked tentatively.
"I'll be fine, I was just winded I think."
JD was unconvinced by this, it was clear to him that as the two of them walked on, Josiah was moving more slowly and seemed to be in pain. As the afternoon wore on however, Josiah began to move more freely, so JD stopped worrying.
Buck made his slow way back down to the canyon, hoping beyond hope that he could find the backpack and the precious GPS unit. He did find it, lodged twenty feet up in a crevice.
"Ez?" he shouted up.
"I'm gonna go for help, should be back at base by nightfall. You just lay still, do not go to sleep, and listen out to for the chopper."
"I'll be here."
"Remember, don't go to sleep, I don't want you rolling off."
"Trust me as much as you don't want it, I want that less."
Smiling to himself, Buck turned and left, he was limping on his left leg, but he hardly noticed. It was easy enough he told himself, just retrace their route back across the desert, even if it got dark, the first part of their journey had been on a track, he'd reach that by dark, then he'd be able to follow it back. Besides the terrain there was flat, he'd see the lights for miles, like a beacon.
Easy, no problem, he told himself.
Buck had set out well, but as time went on, his progress slowed. It was unbearably hot, mirages shimmered and the heat was visible in the air. The pain in his leg he'd hardly been aware of in the drama after the quake, became more and more intense, he became aware that this trouser leg was damp, it couldn't be water so it had to be blood. But since he'd used all the large wound dressings to make a rope, he decided there was little to be gained from finding out where the blood was coming from. Reading the compass was getting more and more difficult, he didn't seem to be able to focus, sweat kept running into his eyes and his head throbbed. He tried to ration the water he had, but as the sun began to set, the temperatures began to plummet; he drained the last of it, confident that he was close to safety and help for Ezra.
Ezra managed, with some difficulty and no little pain, to get the sling Buck has sent down opened up and over his head, by turning it diagonally he managed to tuck one point into his collar and draped the rest over his head. It was no less precarious and painful to get the lid off the water and take a drink. Worried about dropping it, he tied the makeshift rope around his wrist. There was nothing else he could do but lie still and await rescue. Even with his clothing and the makeshift head covering, he was aware of the sun sucking the moisture out of him and burning his skin. He'd been using factor thirty sunscreen, but he hadn't had the chance to put more on since they started out and it had worn off. His leg, where his trousers were pushed up and ripped, was burning, he could feel it, the same was true of the back of his left hand, which he couldn't move under cover. Sweat seemed to leach out of every pour, making his clothing stick to him.
"So this is what it must be like to be a thanksgiving turkey in the oven," he commented out loud. "All I need now is Josiah to baste me."
The moment the sun dropped below the canyon rim and he was plunged into shade was a moment of blessed relief. The relief from the unremitting heat was blissful, the cooling of his skin delicious. His relief and bliss were short lived, dusk was followed by darkness, the heat of the day evaporated away into a cloudless night all too quickly. The sweat his body had produced to cool him, now chilled him to the bone. As the night drew on he began to worry that help wasn't going to come. Buck had been confident rescue would be with him by night, yet night time was hours old and still no help came. Had Buck abandoned him? It was a nagging fear, something he'd always carried, something sown into his childhood very early in life. In the past years he'd learned to suppress those fears, to place his trust in his friends.
No he has not abandoned you, he's not like that, they're not like that, he'll come. You hold on Ezra P Standish, do your part, don't fall, don't fall asleep.
Buck's progress had slowed to little more than a shuffle, his left leg didn't seem to want to respond to his commands any more, there was little moonlight and his flashlight only illuminated a narrow pool of land ahead of him. He was on the track, he could see the clear parallel indentations stretching out ahead of him. So he'd put away his compass, confident he was on the right path, sure it would bring him to salvation; unaware he was now on the wrong track, unaware that this track was leading him away from help, unaware it lead out into the desert - to nothing and no one.
Vin woke to a pounding on his door. "Hey Tanner, you up?" Terry shouted.
"Yeah, kinda. What's up?"
"One of your pal's just called for help. Thought you'd want in. We can be there in an hour so I "
Vin opened the door, fully dressed, ready to go.
" 'd grab a doughnut and we can go."
"Who is it?" Vin asked as he ran toward the car.
"Sanchez and Dunne."
They headed out on the same track Buck and Ezra had started out on. It wasn't the direct route to Josiah and JD's location, but it was the only way to access it in a vehicle.
"Err what?" JD struggled awake, in response to Josiah calling his name.
"I think we need to call for help," Josiah admitted as he sat - grey with pain - on the edge of his bed.
Now JD was awake. "What's happened?
During the night, Josiah's back had seized up, the pain he had been in after he fell, and as they walked on, was nothing to the excruciating pain he was in now, he couldn't stand up straight, he could barely move.
Vin and Terry were making good time, when Terry suddenly slammed on the brakes.
"What the hell?" he exclaimed.
"What?" Vin asked.
"The track, it's moved."
Vin leaned forward to peer out of the windscreen. "Well, I'll be." Vin opened the door and got out. The track had moved about six feet to the side.
Terry stood and stared "There are dozens of faults around here, we had a quake, not much of one, broke a few windows and took out the phones and power for a while, not long ago. It must have shifted the track. Reckon we're standing right over the fault line."
"Must be," Vin agreed.
"I'll take some photos for the USGS later, we better get on to your friends."
Vin was about to get back in to the car when something caught his eye. "Hang on a sec."
With that he darted off toward the second track, which should have joined the track they were on, and was now six feet to the side of it. First he stood and stared at the dusty ground, then he squatted down and studied it more closely.
"What ya got?" Terry asked.
"Blood. See here and here." He pointed to two small dark spots.
"How the hell did you see those?"
Vin shrugged. "It's my job. Seem to be going that way." He pointed off to his right. "Where does that track go?"
"Nowhere, army used to have a camp site up that way, survival training, but that was back in the seventies, we use it to drop people off sometimes, there's nothing out there."
"Well someone is headed that way, look." Vin stood up and moved down the track a little way. "Man, big, wearing hiking boots and draggin' his left leg, must be where the blood's from."
Terry could just about make out one or two footprints, it didn't say that much to him.
Vin moved on to the next visible print, bending lower to examine it. "Ah hell, Bucklin."
"Buck Wilmington, these are his boots, see here." He pointed to the particularly clear footprint in some soft, sandy soil. "Timberlands with a crescent scar through the tread on the right heel. He left them on a hay bale in the barn, m one of the horses took a chunk out of it."
"Why would a horse try to eat a boot?"
"He's an individual," Vin defended, well used to making excuses for Peso's anti-social and sometimes eccentric behaviour. "Can you call the base from here?"
"Nope, but I can usually reach them from the top of that ridge." He pointed to the crescent shaped ridge to the side of the track, some six hundred yards further on.
"Can you call them and have them go and pick up Chris and Nathan?"
"I guess, but I "
"Josiah and JD need help, Buck's hurtin' and lost in the desert and Ezra is missing, you wanna explain to Larabee why he wasn't told?"
Terry had a sudden vision of Chris Larabee, ex Navy SEAL and understood Vin's point of view.
"You drive on, I'll take a survival pack and the radio and follow these." Vin stood up and pointed down the track.
"What choice do we have, how far will the radio work?"
"Depends where you are. If I don't hear from you I'll come looking for you on my way back. If you leave the track, make sure you leave me signs - big ones."
Vin pushed his rifle - which he insisted on taking everywhere - into the top of the pack and swung it on to his back.
"I will, you make sure you take good care of my friends."
Despite everything, Ezra had dozed off, he awoke just before dawn, when the night was at its coldest, shivering. The desert night seemed to have penetrated to his very core. He began to shiver so violently he was in danger of falling. The cold invaded his dislocated shoulder, intensifying the pain to the degree that the movement of every breath was agony. The desire to pull his arm in, to cradle his elbow, to take the pressure off the torn muscles and tendons that were being forced to support the weight of his arm in a way nature never intended, was becoming irresistible. Every time he thought about it he told himself not to risk it, help was coming, he'd make it if he just hung on a little longer.
The sky began to pale, the first hint of warmth crept back across the rocks. As he lay there he watched the fingers of sun creep closer and closer to him. Logically he knew that within an hour or two the sun would begin to bake him, but at that moment all he cared about was being warm. Finally the warmth-giving light reached his head, slowly spreading over the rest of him like a blanket that warmed him in minutes.
As the minutes became an hour, then two hours, the heat rose, he craved water but there was none left. He'd drunk it all the day before, believing Buck would return with help before the end of the day, or at best no more than a few hours after dark. He licked his dry lips one more time, he knew that just made it worse, but it was just too easy, the desire too strong. He was vaguely aware he wasn't sweating. The day before he'd sweated profusely, now his skin was tinder dry, without a drink for ten hours and no more water available, he would dehydrate rapidly now that the sun was on him. The limited head covering the sling had given him had been lost in the night, though how he wasn't sure. Now his head was throbbing making him feel nauseous.
Don't throw up, don't throw up, he chanted to himself, terrified that the if he did he'd lose his balance. Please Buck, come soon.
Buck kept walking; his own water had run out long ago, the pain in his leg had diminished; now it was just numb. He had to get help for Ezra, that was all he understood, keep going, get help, don't give up, just keep going. His flashlight was still on, even though the sun had been up for several hours.
Vin had set out at a jog, the way Buck was moving he didn't think he could be that far ahead of him, but after half an hour he'd had to slow to a walk. Buck wasn't in sight, but the heat was rising rapidly. Walking as fast as he could, drinking frequently, he continued, lifting his field glasses every now and again to scan ahead of him. He'd been searching for almost two hours, when through the heat shimmer he spotted something while scanning the horizon through the glasses. The heat was distorting things so badly it was hard to say what it was, but there was definitely something there. Who, or whatever it was, were too far away to hear him if he shouted, so he pulled the rifle from his back and fired into the air. There was no response from the dark blob in the distance, so he set out at a jog to find out what it was. Distance can be deceiving in the desert, even if you were used to it, and it took Vin a lot longer to get close to his quarry than he had expected. When he did get to within shouting distance he was too dry mouthed and out of breath to shout, but it was Buck, his old hat unmistakable. So with hands that were still trembling as his body gulped in the oxygen it needed, Vin pulled his gun out again and fired.
Buck had heard the first shot, but his brain hadn't been able to process it's significance, so ignored it. This second shot was so close and so loud the primeval, self-preservation, part of his brain over rode everything else and he instinctively ducked and turned to see where the danger was. The sudden turn was too much for his left leg and it gave out, sending him tumbling to the desert floor in a crumpled heap. Almost as soon as he went down he was trying to get up, even as Vin was shouting his name and sprinting to reach him.
"Whoa there big guy, just take it easy," he coached as he finally made it to the struggling Wilmington.
"E z er," Buck gasped out, even as Vin was holding a bottle of water to his parched lips. Acting on instinct alone, Buck began to gulp down the water. "Slowly, or you'll make yer self sick."
Vin let Buck drink as much as he thought he could handle, before trying to find out what had happened.
"Ezra? What about Ezra, where is he?" he asked.
At the mention of Ezra's name Buck once more tried to get up.
"Come on Buck, stay down and tell me where Ezra is!" Vin commanded in his best US Ranger tone, but still Buck struggled. "Chief I'm ordering you to say down!"
Admittedly he had never more than a corporal, so ordering a Chief Petty Officer of the US Navy Reserve around, was pushing his luck, but it worked. Puffy blue eyes, blinked up at him from under the old Stetson. "Vin?"
"Yeah, it's me. Ezra, where's Ezra?"
Buck blinked again, trying to work out if Vin was real or a mirage. "It's really you?"
"Yeah it's really me, who else is gonna find your scrawny ass all the way out here? Come on think man, where is Ezra?"
"Ledge the canyon, there was landslide. Hurry he could fall."
Vin didn't bother to respond, he just pulled out his radio and sent out a general call for help. Nothing greeted this plea but the hiss of static, not that this surprised him.
The whole of Buck's left trouser leg was caked in dry blood, the material torn and ragged. Vin had a first aid kit and he considered cutting the fabric and taking a look at whatever injuries were under it, but thought better of it. Buck had apparently walked for miles, the blood was all dry, the material no doubt stuck fast to what ever wounds he had, 'if it ain't broke, dont fix it' was an adage he had always tried to obey.
"Reckon if I help you, you can walk?"
Buck nodded slowly, pride was one thing, dumb pride could get you killed, so he held his hand up, seeking help to get back onto his feet.
Vin grunted with the effort as he hauled Buck back to his feet. "Shit, you're heavy!" he gasped out.
"Teach ya t' calling m' ass skinny!" Buck muttered as he tried to get his head to stop swimming.
They hadnt travelled more than twenty yards, before Vin was questioning his decision, Buck was moving painfully slowly, he wasn't talking, a sure sign he was in a lot of pain. Vin was on the point of telling him to sit down and wait while he got help, when he spotted the SUV heading for them in a cloud of dust. It took almost half an hour to reach a point where they could get a radio message out, but at least Terry knew the spot Buck was describing, and rescue units were being despatched, even as they headed back.
With water and the cooling effect of the car's air conditioning, Buck was becoming more aware. "You gotta send a chopper or something. The landslide's blocked the canyon, can't get anything on wheels down it," he told Terry.
"No sweat, they're sending the copper from Fort Montgomery, he'll be in the hospital before you are.
By the time the helicopter was dropping the rescue team into the canyon, Ezra was drifting, he'd lost the battle to hold onto his stomach contents and nearly fallen in the process. More than once he'd believed himself to be lying beside in a meadow beside a cool stream. Only the pain in his shoulder, an ever-present reminder of his predicament, persuaded him these visions were just illusions. As strong, firm hands strapped him into a rescue stretcher, he made no protest, unfocused eyes tried to work out what was happening, but his heat be-fuddled brain could no longer process the blurry images, so he gave up trying and let his eyes close.
Santa Maria Regional Medical Centre, hospital was too grand a title for it, could only really offer triage care for serious injuries, stabilising patients before sending them on to the city hospital, which was three hours by road or half an hour by chopper, away. However as limited as their resources were, they did and could treat heat exhaustion and sun stroke, they had to be able to, tourists were forever getting into trouble, even locals could get caught out.
By the time the rest of the team arrived, Ezra was being treated; his core temperature was already beginning to drop. Cooling salve had been applied to the burnt and blistered skin on his hand, legs, face and neck. His shoulder had be manipulated back into place and his arm strapped down to keep it from popping out again while the muscles and tendons healed.
Like Vin before him, Nathan had taken one look at Buck's leg and decided to leave well enough alone until he reached the medical facility, though once there he insisted on hovering in the exam room, just to be sure they didn't miss anything. Using a lot of water, and only after several doses of local anaesthetic, the nurse removed the pants. Buck's left leg had taken the brunt of the damage as he'd been sent sliding down the canyon side. From hip to knee the side of his leg was one raw, deep, dirty, ragged laceration. More cuts, gashes and grazes marred his shin, in places they were bone deep. It took Nathan and two nurses, nearly an hour to get them all cleaned up, and then it took the doctor another two hours to put in sixty-seven stitches.
Buck and Ezra were admitted, both needed drips to help re-hydrate them, Buck needed IV antibiotics as a precaution and Ezra had to be observed regularly until his core temperature stabilised. The doctor thought Buck could be released in the morning, but Ezra would probably be there for a few more days. X-rays showed Josiah had a cracked coccyx, there was nothing the doctor could do but prescribe anti-inflammatory painkillers and tell him to rest. After much protest, Chris let the doctor check Nathan's cactus spine removal technique, which was deemed to be more than satisfactory.
As Buck and Ezra were settled into their room, Nathan told the staff that separating them was more trouble than it was worth, and after dealing with Team Seven for much of the day, the staff believed him. Chris ordered the team back to the training camp. They didn't normally leave anyone alone in the hospital on the first night, but they had each other and the medical centre really was too small to accommodate even one overnight visitor.
"I'm taking the boys back to the base," he told Buck, who, dosed up on painkillers, was barely awake.
"'Kay, I'll take care of Ez."
"I know you will."
Ezra was asleep.
"Sorry for what?"
"It was my idea, the short cut, it was my fault we were up on that ridge."
"From what the chopper crew told me, if you'd been down in the canyon, we'd still be digging for you. Guys at the base think the ridge was weakened by a quake they had a while back, that and a flash flood they had through the canyon just before we arrived. That ridge could have given way anytime. It was just bad luck. Just like it was bad luck that Josiah landed on a rock when he fell and I "
"What about you?"
"I said nothing. Go t' sleep."
"Can't now, I'm worried about you."
"How come you haven't sat down once that I've seen?"
"Chris?" Vin put his head around the door.
"Josiah's ready to go."
"Vin buddy, what's wrong with our fearless leader?" Buck asked.
Vin grinned. "Well Nate ain't talkin' but lookin' at the state of his pants' I'd say he fell on a cactus."
"Ouch," Buck sympathised.
"Yeah," Vin agreed.
"Will you two quit it?" Chris turned to Buck. "You get some sleep." Then he turned to Vin at the door, a little too quickly it turned out, as he winced. "You stop gloating, get that God damn grin off your face and round up the troops."
As the door closed, and peace returned to the room, Buck closed his eyes and could feel sleep claiming him, when a voice from the next bed pulled him back.
"Bet it was snake," Ezra corked out.
"That made him fall on the cactus."
"Yeah, how do you know about Chris and snakes?"
"I have eyes, I see how he reacts, that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, he looks away - for instance. Look at us, six of us set out, only two come back in one piece."
"Sounds about right for us."
Ezra grunted out a laugh. "Buck?"
"Thanks for saving my life."
"Well seemed only fair, it was my idea to go up on that ridge."
"I was awake just now, even if you were not. Had we not gone up onto the ridge we would have been buried alive. Painful and distressing as this experience was, I'd rather this that entombment. God I hate the outdoors."
"We didnt complete the course."
"So we have to come back and do it again."
"Oh good grief, the federal agent is out to torture me to death."
Buck yawned. "Night Ez."
"Good night Buck, and thank you, again."
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