At Least Until
by Mary Ann

Patience was a talent Vin had learned in order to survive. Yet as he stared into the flames, his stomach did a slow roll. This time, he didn't think he could wait.

Time stood still as Vin decided what needed to be done. A low moan grabbed his attention, and he turned to his companion, not sure what more he could do for him or even himself. He placed his hand on Chris's hot shoulder, then lifted the blond's sweat-soaked head and held it against his chest as he dribbled the last of their water into Chris's mouth.

Chris turned his head from the now dry canteen and looked up at Vin. "We go together," he muttered.

"You can't," Vin said, looking into his friend's pain-filled eyes. "I don't want to move you. I can go faster."

"No. Not alone. You're hurting too. How far?"

Vin sighed. "Three miles, as the crow flies. We can't stay on the trail; they'll find us."

"Help me up. The sooner we leave, the better it will be for us."

Vin helped Chris into a sitting position. With care, he rose to his feet and with a grimace, dragged his foot through the dirt. He slowly pushed it over the small fire. It would be dawn in a little over an hour, and he wanted to be away from this area. Since he couldn't go alone, he hoped he could keep Chris on his feet and moving.

Making sure the fire was totally out and buried, Vin scattered some dry leaves and sticks around to made sure it looked like there hadn't been anyone in the cave. Vin helped Chris to his feet and held onto his arm as Chris swayed for several moments while Vin held onto him.

Chris gathered himself, fighting to ignore the pain that raced through his leg. He gripped Vin's arm and stepped forward. They made their way into the darkness surrounding the hidden cave.

Vin gritted his teeth as he felt his side erupt in pain when he pulled Chris's arm across his shoulders. With an effort, he shook off the pain and concentrated on stepping across the slick rocks and keeping Chris from falling. He wasn't sure how far they would get, but he wouldn't stop until it was necessary. They–or he–had to get to a phone and call for help. Their cell phones didn't work anywhere in the area they were in now, surrounded by the hills and mountains. The rest of the team thought they were on a camping and fishing trip.

They had been until six men walked into their camp and without warning opened fire on them. The two agents dodged and managed to shoot back before four of them ran off. The shooters left behind two dead men and the wounded agents.

Chris had been struck in his right thigh; the bullet lodged hard against the bone. Vin took a through-and-through to his left side, just under his ribs. He figured it hadn't hit anything vital as he was still moving, and nothing grated to indicate a broken bone. There was also no belly swelling. He'd managed to get their wounds wrapped, then grab the canteen of water, a backpack with bandages, and snack bars before they rushed away from the camp. They'd stayed ahead of the four men for 1 1/2 days. Both of them were running a fever, and they were out of bandages. The snack bars were gone, not that either one felt like eating anything. Now they were out of water. Vin knew there was a stream between where they were and the little store he was aiming for. If they could manage to get to it before the men found them.

The dawn came, and light flooded the forest as they walked and stumbled through the trees. Neither man talked, other than to emit a groan or cuss word when they tripped or stumbled over something. Every hour, they would rest several minutes before continuing.

Around noon, they spotted two men carrying rifles crossing a small meadow a quarter mile away. Since they were in the trees, the men hadn't seen them and disappeared into trees going to the south.

It was late afternoon when they finally reached the swift-moving stream. They were exhausted and dropped to the ground next to it, wanting to rest and sleep for a while. After a few minutes, Vin moved to the water's edge and filled the canteen. Edging close to Chris, he helped him sit up so he could drink.

Vin could feel fresh blood on his side but knew there wasn't anything he could do about it. He had to get to the store and make the phone call. Chris's thigh bled slowly for the last two hours, and he seemed to be getting weaker. Vin had been watching their back rail closely and thought he'd kept their trail pretty well covered. Now they needed to cross the stream and get over the next two low hills, and they'd be at the store. Glancing at the sky he realized the sun was gone and it was getting dark. Rain clouds were rolling in above them, and lightning flashed to the east. As he watched he heard the first clap of distant thunder.



"We've got to get goin', Cowboy; the storm's coming in fast. The stream'll be gettin' deeper by the minute. Come on." Vin pushed himself up and then helped Chris to stand. Clinging together, they stepped off the bank into the cold, thigh-deep, swiftly moving water.

Vin grunted in pain when Chris went to his knees in the water as a rock slid from under his foot. Vin pulled Chris back up as fast as he could. By the time they stumbled the last twenty feet without any mishaps and climbed out of the water, they were both soaked. Vin kept them moving, not wanting to stop as long as they were still on their feet. Both of them were shivering.

Darkness fell. The rain came and hammered down on their bowed heads. Then Chris slipped and collapsed, unable to catch himself. He fell to the ground with a sharp cry. Vin was dragged down with him, and his cry of pain echoed with Chris's in the rain. They both lay still as the rain pounded down on them. Vin lay there for a few minutes, cursing the heavy rain, the shooters, the wounds, everything. Then with a groan, he rolled onto his side, lifted his head, and looked around. Fifty yards from where they lay, there were lights. His head dropped to the wet ground for a moment. They were there, relief flooded through him.

He pushed himself to his knees slowly and looked at Chris. "Hey, Cowboy, we're almost there. Can you make it?" He asked hoarsely as shivers ran through him.

"If I can get up again."

"I'll help you."

They struggled to their feet once more. Both men fought the pain and blackness that lurked at the edge of their consciousness as they shivered uncontrollably. Limping badly, they held each other up and slowly made their way to the beckoning light of the little store. When they stepped onto the front porch, Chris fell to his knees with a groan, unable to go a step farther. Vin eased him to the floorboards and then pushed the screen door open. An old man looked up from the magazine he was reading, then rose and hurried around the counter to grab Vin as Vin's knees gave out.

"Vin, what happened? Are you alright? You're soaked and there's blood all over your side and pants!" The man said as Vin landed on his knees. Aged hands tried to hold Vin upright.

"Oscar, call Buck for me… Number two," Vin fumbled then pulled out his cell phone. "Chris is outside; needs help too." With a groan, he folded and dropped to the floor unconscious before Oscar could stop him.

Oscar pressed the number; while it was dialing and then ringing he snatched a blanket and rushed outside, almost tripping over Chris. Throwing the blanket over Chris he hurried back inside, and grabbing another blanket, he tossed it over Vin.

"This better be important Tanner, because I'm in the middle of something," Buck's voice said in Oscar's ear.

"This is Oscar from the Old General Store, Mr. Wilmington..." Oscar spoke up and quickly explained about Vin and Chris.

After a short conversation, they hung up, and Oscar went out to Chris and dragged him inside the store because he was too frail to lift him. He got bandages from the back room and cut Chris's pant leg and old bandage off before wrapping his leg. He wrapped another blanket around Chris and then went to Vin. He pulled off Vin's wet and bloody jacket before cutting off his bloody shirt, then checked the wound. Skillfully, he wrapped a bandage around Vin's side and then re-covered him. He added another blanket like he'd done for Chris. Closing and locking the door he flipped the "CLOSED" sign on, dimmed the lights, and turned the heat up. He finally settled back to wait for Buck and the rest of the men to get there. He held his loaded shotgun across his lap in case it was needed.

Oscar knew Buck would bring help. He just hoped they got to the store soon. He liked the two men who lay bleeding and cold on his floor, having seen and visited with them many times in the last year and a half, when they headed into the mountains from the trailhead less than a half mile from his little store. The men always made a stop to visit him and buy something. He always figured they really didn't need what they bought. The other men were just as kind, and he enjoyed their visits.

As he waited, he wondered how the two men received the gunshot wounds.

Half an hour later, Oscar heard the sound of a helicopter and saw a spotlight light up the area. "Troops have arrived," he thought and headed out the door to greet the newcomers.

Nathan and an EMT had both men on stretchers with IV's and wrapped in more blankets within fifteen minutes. Within minutes, they were loaded onto the helicopter. Oscar waved as the helicopter took off and banked barely above the treetops as it headed back to Denver. Wilmington and young Dunne, who arrived in a car, thanked him over and over for taking the two in and caring for them.

After another twenty minutes, the wounded men were in the ER at Denver General. Chris was sent to surgery within minutes. Vin, in a cubicle, had a doctor stitching him up, with IV's of antibiotics and blood being given to him.


Three days later Chris and Vin were relaxing on Chris's covered deck watching horses play in the field. Chris's upper thigh was wrapped, and his leg rested on a low bench. Vin's side sported a bandage, and he sat deeply in a comfortable chair. Having been released from the hospital earlier that day, they both came home with orders, painkillers, and antibiotic pills from their doctors. Buck and Josiah won the coin toss and transported them to the ranch. After getting the two settled in, they served them a hardy lunch with plenty of hot coffee at hand. The other team members would be joining them in a couple of hours; someone needed to do some work at the office, they insisted when Chris asked where the others were.

Once they finished eating, Buck and Josiah cleaned the kitchen and, with cups of coffee, joined them on the deck. Buck began to fill the two in on what the team found out about the men who had attacked them earlier in the week.

Mike, Mark, and Bruce Coleman, along with George, Brent, and Chuck Jones, had been terrorizing everyone who came to that area of the forest for almost a year and a half. Beating and robbing people at gunpoint. Several times people went missing for weeks before they wandered out of the woods badly injured. The forest rangers tried to caution everyone, warning people not to camp in the same place more than one night. Somehow Chris and Vin missed the warnings when they decided to go camping and fishing.

The team found out there hadn't been any attacks for two months before the one on Chris and Vin. The Rangers thought the attackers had moved on and everything was alright. The robbers moved around often enough no one had any idea where they lived or who they were at the time. The men were so surprised by someone shooting back at them that they left two dead men behind. One of the dead men had several names and addresses in his wallet. The other man only had one ID but several stolen credit cards from the last people they'd attacked, though they were no longer good. The Rangers figured he used them for an ID.

Two days earlier; the sheriff's and rangers found the rest of the robbers together at one of the addressed found on the dead man, and arrested the remaining men without any problem. Even though the men tried to say two men shot at them for no reason and killed their brothers. There would be a trial. With all the witnesses over the past year and a half and having attacked ATF agents, there was plenty of solid and incriminating evidence against the four remaining men. They'd be in prison for a long time.

"Givin' up camping for awhile," Vin stated and Chris nodded in agreement.

"At least until we're healed." Chris grinned at Vin.


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