A Long Winter's Hike

by Patricia

ATF Universe

Part 18

Without the illuminating glow that extended upwards, reaching for the clouds, JD would have driven right past the ranch entrance. Peaking through the snowy haze sat the ranch house, shining brightly with Christmas lights, a beacon to safety on this stormy night.

The dog leaped off the sled as they pulled up to the front porch, barking excitedly and running circles around them. The men unfortunately did not have the same energy level, so dismounted the snowmobile at a much more sedate pace. JD got under Buck's arm and helped him hobble up the stairs into the house. The house was much warmer this time, as JD had turned up the thermostat before leaving, plus the fire he had burning earlier had taken much of the chill out of the air. The wondrous scents of the season assaulted their senses as they made their way into the living room, which was softly lit up by the Christmas tree lights, that JD had forgotten to unplug before he had left earlier.

Buck scanned the room, taking in its quiet comfort, as JD had earlier in the day. It truly felt like a safe port in the storm, Buck never doubted they would survive this excursion, but here at this place, he felt that fate was finally sealed.

JD went back outside and helped unwrap a very shaky Josiah. It was a battle just getting the preacher to his feet, the slightest movement making his head want to explode. JD got under his arm, just like he had for Buck and angled him towards the railing that ran up to the top of the porch. Josiah almost had his hand on the railing when his feet gave out beneath him; dragging both him and JD down on to the snow covered stairs.

JD did all he could to break the older man's fall, but to no avail. Arms and legs were intertwined as they hit the steps, JD on the bottom under Josiah greater weight.

"I don't know about you, but I think divine intervention would be greatly appreciated right about now." Josiah puffed in JDs ear, as he tried to remove his mass off the smaller man.

"Intervention of any kind would be appreciated by me right now Josiah, divine, or other wise. Stop moving for a moment and let me just get out from under you, then we will get you back up onto your feet."

Once off JD, Josiah managed to pull himself up using the railing and get into the house without a further incident. Weaving down the hallway, the two men struggled into the master bedroom, where Josiah collapsed on the bed. "I'll be back in a few minutes Josiah, I just have some things to do outside first." JD said pulling off Josiah's boots and then covering the man with the large quilt that had been on the bed.

"You okay for a few minutes Buck, I have stuff to do yet?" JD asked his best friend, has he reached the front door to go back outside? Not waiting for an answer he took a deep breath and headed into the blizzard. The dog sat on the porch looking at him and then scratched at the door that JD had just closed behind him "Come on boy, we have to check on the horses in the barn yet, lets go." JD called the dog to follow him, but he just whined and stayed where he was. With a resigned sigh, JD opened the door allowing the dog to enter the house. "Traitor." He cursed at him, as the dog waded past him and into the home's warm interior.

JD really did not want to do this right now, but if he sat down he didn't think he would be able to get up again tonight. He trudged back out to the dark barn, the lights on the house guiding his path. Opening the barn doors and fumbling for the light switch, JD was met with the insistent whinnies from the two horses, looking for their feed, and the frenzied meowing of barn cats. "Yeah, yeah, I'm going as fast as I can." He muttered as the demanding chorus continued, until the hay was finally tossed into feed mangers and cat food dispensed from a bag in the tack room. The sound of contented munching echoed through the barn as JD sat on a bale of hay and just soaked in the peaceful ambience, before having to tackle the hike back to the house.

On the back porch, JD stepped out of the boots and gloves he had borrowed, placing them over heat vents to dry. The snowmobile suit had kept him relatively dry, but his feet were wet and freezing, so he went back into the master bedroom to grab another pair of socks. Josiah was sleeping soundly in the middle of the large bed, JD knew with a head injury he needed to be woken at least every couple of hours, but right now he also needed some rest. JD quietly removed some socks from the dresser drawer and snuck out of the room, leaving Josiah asleep.

Buck still sat in the lazy-boy recliner, with his leg up, a grumpy look on his face. The big dog lay on the floor beside him, Buck's hand resting on top of his head absently rubbing his ears.

"Oh kid, before you get involved in anything else I need a hand here." Buck said pointing towards the bathroom door. "I hate this, a man should be able to go to the bathroom by himself."

"Well Buck, I have news for you." JD said smiling at his friend, "I'll get you down the hall, but you will be going in by yourself. Your sore leg is far from your heart, so my job ends at the door."

"Smart ass, just help me up."

JD helped his friend down the hall then returned to the living room to see if the phone had been connected yet. Silence was all that came from the other end, so he hung up and went out the back door to bring in firewood. The heat from the house seemed to just accent how cold he was, as shivers continued to rack his body. His hands were shaking so badly, it took three attempts to light a match and get the fire going. He was wondering if he would warm up even if he just climbed into the flames, when Buck called him needing help again.

Once Buck was settled back on the recliner, covered with blankets from the hall closet, JD set his sites on the kitchen. He heated up more soup and made sandwiches for himself and Buck. Josiah would probably have trouble just eating the soup. At least they didn't have to worry about running out of food, as the pantry had been stuffed full, whether for the holidays, or just because of the ranch's isolation.

Josiah complained about JD waking him out of a great dream, but ate the soup anyway before drifting off again, hopefully returning to the same dream.

JD forced his meal down; he couldn't believe he was not hungry after all he had been through the last few days. The sink held all the dirty dishes, waiting to be washed, Buck and the dog lay snoring in the living room, their stomachs both full. JD stood in the kitchen debating cleaning up, when his world started to spin, dots flashing in front of his eyes and his ears ringing. He clutched the edge of the counter to keep from going down to his knees and closed his eyes tight until the dizziness retreated. He lifted his head to focus on the clock hanging on the wall beside him; it was three-thirty in the morning. He had been up for the last fifty-nine hours, except for the couple of hours he had managed to sleep at the cabin. The dishes would wait, his body was screaming at him to sleep.

He limbs feeling like lead, he made the painfully long trek back into the living room, all his aches and pain were shrouded in a cloud of numbness, for which he was grateful. He felt so heavy and his feet were having a heck of a time moving, he looked down to see if they were amassed in concrete. He finally made it to the closest couch, shutting his eyes as soon as he sat down. He patted the back of the couch searching for a throw rug and before he could cover more than his upper torso, was asleep.

The insistent droning noise finally penetrated the exhausted young man's brain. Waking up in confusion, he bolted up to a sitting position. The dog leaped to his feet and came to stand by the couch JD had been sleeping on, Buck still slept peacefully on his chair. What had woken him up? Then he felt the rumble, as well as heard the increase in the sound level.

A snowplow!!!

JD leaped off the couch and ran to the window; he could just make out the snowplow in the early morning gray dawn, as it drove past the driveway heading back down the mountain. He must have slept through the first pass the snowplow had made on the way up. Grabbing Bucks boots from beside the front door he raced outside, the Ski-Doo was still parked in front of the porch from last night. Dusting off a good foot and a half of snow from the seat, which had fallen overnight, JD turned the key and yanked on the starter rope.

"Oh damn, not again!!" JD spat in disgust as it snapped off in his hand for the second time. Chucking it to the ground, he took off down the driveway yelling and waving his arms, hoping to get the drivers attention. He made it two thirds of the way to the main road before admitting defeat, the ride to freedom long gone around the bend in the road.

Turning he almost tripped over the silly dog, which thought this was a neat new game to play and kept jumping at him as he struggled to make it back to the house. Buck's boots were full of snow and JDs pants soaked by the time he fought his way through the several feet of snow.

It took him four tries to get the door to open with his red, stiff hands that were now stinging from the cold. JD pulled off the snow filled boots and soaked jeans, leaving the snowy pile melting by the doormat. Making his way to the bathroom, he turned on the taps, then stripped off the rest of his clothes and sank his quivering body into the tub full of hot water.

JD just stepped out of the tub, when the door opened and Josiah entered, both men startling at the sight of the other. "Sorry JD thought you were still asleep." Josiah said turning to leave the room, when he caught sight of the bruises covering the younger agents body.

"Sweet god, what have you done to yourself?" He asked as he moved closer to examine the damage.

"I'm fine Josiah, my wrists were pretty sore, but getting better, it's the one on my leg that's giving me the most trouble." JD answered pointing to the grapefruit size mound on the inside of his thigh. "I won't be playing hockey, or lacrosse for awhile and I hope Vin doesn't mind exercising my horse. Speaking of exercise, get your butt back to bed; all I need is for you to pass out in here. Nathan will have my hide if I don't look after you properly."

"Nathan's going to be too concerned about how your feeling, to waste time worrying about how you babysat Buck and me. That Buck is not an easy man to look after; I found that out just spending one day with him in that cabin. I for one, don't know how you do it everyday, now get out of here, it's my turn to shower." Josiah shooed JD out of the bathroom, throwing his remaining clothes after him.

JD wandered back into the living room, the couch he had vacated so quickly this morning was calling at him. "JD look how cozy and comfortable I am, just lay down and curl up in my soft cushions."

"JD…JD, hey JD! Earth to JD, the mother ship's trying to communicate with you, boy. You plan on standing there all day, can you at least do me a favor and find some sweats to put on, that towels slipping?" Buck tossed a magazine at JD to get his attention "Josiah says he wants to sit in here for awhile with us, you think you could whip us up some breakfast? After you put pants on."

JD pulled his eyes away from the couch, to find both older gentlemen watching him. "What? Sorry guys, did you say something to me?"

"You think you could handle whipping us up some breakfast, we're starving here?" Buck repeated himself.

"Oh sure, there's lots of food here, I'll see what I can throw together."

"I'll have waffles in you can find all the fixings JD, you know how I like them cooked. Beat the egg whites first and then fold them in gently just before they are ready to go in the waffle iron." Buck said, the juices in his mouth watering at just the thought.

"If you are taking requests JD, I could really go for French toast right now. Three eggs to a quarter cup milk, a dash of salt, and this is the important part, one and a half teaspoons of vanilla." Josiah closed his eyes, the savoring image so close he could almost taste them, after going without food for two days.

JD hitched the towel tighter around his hips and moved stiffly into the kitchen, mumbling under his breath. "Did he say two eggs, beat the egg whites for what and vanilla supposed to go where? I can tell him where the vanilla can go!"

"Here you go guys, coffee first. Buck cream and lots of sugar, Josiah, black and here are your plates and napkins. Buck don't spill, remember this is not our house."

"Uh JD?"

"Yes Buck."

"This is scrambled eggs on toast, where's the waffles and French toast?"

"They're there Buck, eggs, salt, vanilla, bread. Its all in there, maybe even some egg shells for calcium."

"We getting on your nerves a little bit, son?"

"Oh yeah."



"The eggs taste just right, I don't think I could have done any better myself."

"Thank you Buck."

Part 19

JD checked the phone again, but it was still dead. "You think the guys figured out the message on the computer Buck and were able to put all the pieces together?" He asked for the tenth time that morning. "We've been gone three days, you think they will find us soon?" It was his turn to get on the others nerves.

"JD, you did all you could do, we just have to be patient. The guys will come for us, or another snowplow will go by, or the phone lines will be back up soon. We have food and we're warm, I bet Chris has the rest of them in a frenzy right about now trying to find us." Buck could understand how his roommate was feeling; he also was starting to feel restless. JD seemed to be bursting with nervous energy after his breakfast and driving the other two men crazy. Josiah finally went back to bed to escape the pacing, finger tapping and frequent picking up of the phone.

"I'm going outside to do the chores Buck." JD said heading to the back porch for his borrowed winter gear.

A relieved Buck waved at him, as he headed out the door. Buck knew the kid should be taking it easy after the last few days, but that's not how JD dealt with stress. He would go, and go again until he dropped, rest briefly, then start all over again. If he were the same age Buck would probably do the same thing, but now that the kid wasn't yapping his ear off, he was content to sit in the recliner, drinking coffee and stare at the tree.

The snow had finally stopped falling and a whiff of blue sky tried to break through the clouds. JD led the two horses out of their stalls and fed them in the largest corral that stood behind the barn. They seemed happy to get out, and stretch their muscles.

He then went to check on the tractor that was torn apart in the shop. The starter mechanism was laid out on the workbench ready to be put back together, the necessary tools hanging neatly on the wall above the bench.

"Its awfully quiet in here, where's JD?" Josiah asked as he emerged from the master bedroom. "You didn't kill him and bury him in a snow bank did you Buck?"

"Well the thought crossed my mind, but he went outside first and saved me from having to go to all the trouble. He's been gone for over two hours, I was just thinking I should get up and try looking for him, lord knows what kind of trouble he's found himself in by now."

The rumbling sound of machinery broke up their conversation and brought them to the kitchen window. There was JD sitting on an older model tractor, with the bucket down pushing snow off the driveway.

"Good, I didn't want to have to go and look for him anyway. Coffee? Being a nice guy I'll even make extra for when JD comes in." A generous Buck said, hopping towards the coffee maker.

JD had just plowed around the barn area when he realized his gas was getting low, so pulled up to the shop refill when he heard the vehicles coming up the road fast. Leaping off the tractor JD raced around the side of the shop just in time to see two pick-ups blow past the driveway. Fishtailing sideways on the icy roads, both trucks were nonetheless flying up the road, snow and gravel spraying off the back tires, the peddle to the metal. JD let out a whoop of joy as he recognized Chris's Chevy, and Nathan Suburban.

JD ran back to the house, with boots still on he ransacked the drawers of the desk, looking for paper and pens. Grabbing the crayons and construction paper he found in the bottom drawer, he sat at the kitchen table scribbling away madly.

"What the heck you up to now, boy? Hell, you dragged in shovel full of snow on your boots, now my socks are all wet!" Buck limped over to a chair, and started pulling his socks off his feet.

"Better put on the coffee Buck, didn't you hear them go by? Chris and the guys just drove by, when they can't find us at the cabin, they will have to head back this way. Yahoo!" JD pounded on Bucks back. "I'm going back out, it'll take them awhile to drive back here; I'm too excited to stay inside."

JD picked up the construction paper and yelled at Josiah that they were going home. Outside, the dog added his excited barking voice to the mix, leaping at JD, who was making his way to the end of the driveway.

Buck and Josiah waited patiently in the living room, playing poker to pass the time. JD had finished plowing the driveway and shoveling the walkways, before disappearing into the barn again.

The two men were just finishing a hand when they heard the sound of the approaching trucks. "JDs flagging the guys down I hope, they sound like they're coming awfully fast, they might just blow right by here." Buck made a move to stand when they heard the breaks on both vehicles lock up, reverse and come up the driveway towards the house.

The sound of slamming truck doors and running feet were heard, as four anxious men flew up the porch stairs, rushing into the house without even knocking.

Buck and Josiah calmly looked up at their associates from the couch they were lounging on.

"You took your sweet time getting here, boys, you find something better to be doing the last few days then come looking for us?" Buck laughed, his eyes crinkling up at the corners.

"No, but you already are making me regret finding you, Buck." Chris answered before shaking both his friends hands. "You both okay, you had us worried I don't mind telling you."

"Where's JD?" Vin asked, looking around and not seeing the team's youngest member.

"He's fine Vin, just banged up some, but you can't keep him down, he was at the barn awhile ago doing chores." Buck looked over at Nathan, "Josiah took a blow to the head, you probably should check him out." Buck laughed as Josiah shot him a dirty look, now Nathan would be too busy with Josiah to poke at his knee for a while.

"If JD didn't flag you down, how did you know we were here?" Josiah asked as Nathan examined the bump on his head. They were all so tired the night JD came back on the snowmobile, they didn't think to leave any messages at the cabin. Josiah acknowledged they messed up on that important step.

" There are posters nailed to the fence at the entrance into here, we missed them on the way up, drove all the way to that damn cabin. Chris really lost it when we got there and found no trace of you. With all the snow this week, search and rescue were inundated with calls for help looking for lost hikers and skiers. I don't know what we would have done if we hadn't found you here?" Nathan finished checking Josiah head wound; relieved the injury didn't appear too serious. "A few days rest Josiah and you'll be fine, it was a good thing it was your hard head that got hit, another part of your anatomy and you might have been hurt." He jokingly told his closest friend.

"What posters?" asked Buck, deciding to join in the conversation?

"The ones that said ATF OLD-TIMERS REUNION 2000, and had arrows pointing this way." Ezra laughed. "The crayons were a great artistic touch, we all admired the use of color. They are some of JDs finest works!"

"Ezra, what the heck happened to you?" Buck asked, suddenly noticing the usually immaculate agents split lip and bloodstained torn jacket.

"Let's just say I used my face to break a certain thugs hand and leave it at that."

"Ez, let's leave Chris and Nathan to watch over these two, and see if we can find the kid." Vin said as he pulled his gloves and headband on.

"I'm not really dressed for this weather Mr. Tanner, how about I watch out for him from the living room window."

" And how about I tell Chris why you were late for work last Tuesday or would you like to come for a walk with me now?"

"When you put it in those terms Mr. Tanner, of course I want to come help look for that poor boy, out in this abominably cold abyss."

"What ever you said let just go."

"Remind me not to share any more secrets with you Mr. Tanner. How fast you turn on a guy."

JD had shoveled off the walks so Ezra didn't get any snow in his expensive boots until they got closer to the barn. Where he found out, while his expensive custom made, ankle high, leather boots looked marvelous, they were not made for actual use in snow. "Mr. Tanner do you have any idea of the damage that has just occurred to my footwear?" Ezra asked as he stopped and emptied the snow out of them a second time.

"Oh hell Ezra, they're boots for crying out loud, they will dry. Get over it!" Now that his missing friends had been located safe, if not quite sound, Vin was starting to appreciate the dramatic beauty surrounding them. The gray skies were parting to let the sun poke through and in the distance snow-capped mountain could be seen rising majestically up above them. In the coming summer he and JD would have to see if the owners would allow them to come explore around here on their own two horses. He loved riding out at Chris's ranch, but was always on the lookout for new areas to discover.

Opening the double doors to the barn the two men found it deserted, except for a couple of lazy tomcats asleep on the hay. Walking to the back they exited out of a single Dutch door into the sunlight again.

JD sat dozing on the rail fence of a corral. His feet dangling off to the outside, his right arm draped around the neck of a massive brown horse, who seemed content to lean his big head over the fence and rest up against JDs side. A young black, and white pony bit playfully at the larger horse's side and legs, trying to conjure up a response from him. When no response was forth coming, he grabbed the back of JDs coat and almost pulled him backwards off the fence.

"Hey dang it horse…" JD got out before noticing his two friends leaning against some posts, watching the pony's antics, wide grins on their handsome faces. "Hey guys, I see you found the place." A grin spread slowly across his face as well, only it seemed to take a whole lot more effort.

The two agents noticed JDs eyes kept blinking, like they were full of sawdust and while his cheeks had a healthy red glow to them from being out in the cold fresh air, there was a white pallor to the skin underneath and large dark circles extended down to his cheek bones. On closer inspection they realized most of it was bruising. Renewed anger burned at them, as they realized again how hard the last few days had actually been on their three buddies.

Sympathy pored over Ezra. He hated seeing any of his friends hurt, but after being at the receiving end of a couple of punches thrown by that Rock guy he had great empathy for what their youngest and smallest must have gone through. Not that JD would have taken kindly to having that sympathy pushed down his throat, he held his own in most battles and wasn't too likely to ask them to hold his hand now. "Well Mr. Dunne its good to see you again, but why don't we all go inside now, my feet are wet and freezing. I didn't have the good sense to dress as warmly as you have."

Vin smiled inwardly as he listened to Ezra, understanding exactly what the suave undercover man was trying to do. JD had to think he was doing Ezra the favor by going in, not that they were trying to baby him. Of course JD did exactly what Vin figured he would do. "Yeah it is really cold out here Ez, why don't you go in before you catch frost bite in those fancy boots of yours, I bet my runners are warmer then those things you wear. I still have a few chores I would like to get done around here. We don't know when the owners will get back and I would like to do something for them, I hate to think what would have happened to us if this place hadn't been here."

Ezra threw the still grinning Vin a look of exasperation. "Well Mr. Dunne, if you insist on staying out here, I guess Mr. Tanner and I must insist on staying with you. Point us in the direction of the jobs needing immediate dispersal, the faster we are done the faster we all get to put up our feet and thaw out."

"I just finished cleaning the stalls out in the barn and feeding these horses, now I was going to haul some more round bales up to the pasture for the cattle. You want to help me load up the wagon, I got the tractor fixed this morning, so we can use that to load with." With that JD gave the big gelding and spotted pony a final pat and climbed off the fence. "Ezra you mind going back into the barn, hanging up on a nail by the haystack is a pair of wire cutters, I can use them to cut the baler twine off these round bales? Vin and I can get started on the hay."

JD drove the tractor up to the large hay shed, dropping the front-end bucket down to the ground and then he and Vin rolled the half-ton bale onto it. They were just in the process of taking the bale off the bucket and putting it onto the back of the hay wagon when a blood-curdling scream rang out from the barn. Vin and JD looked at each other. Ezra?

Vin jumped off the wagon and took off like a shot, JD climbed down slower because of his leg and limped as fast as he could after his friend.

JD rushed into the dark barn and ran right into Vin, who was standing in the alleyway his knife drawn in his hand, watching the wrestling match taking place on the barn floor. Or to be more exact, in the manure pile from the stalls JD had just cleaned. The large gray dog leaped and bounded all over Ezra. Every time he made it part way to his feet, the dog was upon him and down he would go. The dog's tongue and tail waved furiously at his newfound playmate.

"Stop standing around laughing and get this beast off me!! Yelled a perturbed and now very dirty, Ezra.

Vin leaned up against a stall, his body quaking with laughter "Who's your new friend, Ezra I think he likes you."

"Very funny, Tanner. JD can you please help me out here?" Ezra huffed as he was knocked down yet again, forgetting his usual manners.

Taking pity on the other man, JD squeezed past Vin to grab the big dogs collar. He could still remember that split second of fear when he first saw that massive body get up off the porch and launch itself at him. He had thought he was a goner for sure, before finding out what a large exuberant marshmallow the dog really was.

"Wow… lord you stink Ezra! Exclaimed Vin, pinching his nostrils together and looking at the green spots on Ezra's Gore Tex ski jacket. "You are riding on the back with the hay, I'm not sharing the tractor with you… ahh!" Down went Vin on to his butt through the barn door, his legs taken out from behind at his knees as the dog picked a new victim to play with.

"Hey guys... HELP!" He yelled as the dog made a snowball out of him.

Ezra agilely stepped over the struggling white mass and gray furry mass to continue up the path towards the hayshed. "You hear someone calling for help Mr. Dunne?"

"Nope, you?" JD answered following Ez up the path.

"I thought I heard something, but it's gone now." Smirked Ezra, revenge was sweet.

Behind them a lot of growling could be heard, though they couldn't tell whether it came from the dog or Vin.

JD laughed and shook his head. He was starting to wonder just who was rescuing who, as he turned back to save his other friend from the dog.

Part 20

The last time Chris Larabee had sat staring out a frosty window his thoughts, and concerns had been for his three missing friends. Now he was enjoying the antics of Vin and Ezra, as the two agents attempted to roll bales of hay off a wagon for some cattle fenced in a pasture just above the house. One of them was going to end up on the ground with the cows, as they did more shoving on each other then on the hay.

JD sat motionless on the driver seat of the tractor, just listening to his rowdy friends having fun behind him.

"Any of you guys seen a movie camera around here?" asked Buck, who snuck up behind Chris to see what he was watching so intensely. "I want to get a picture Ezra ‘Dignified' Standish landing in a pile of wet cow dung."

"JD hasn't moved since I looked out at them, you sure he is okay?" Chris asked ignoring Buck's question, a serious look passing over his face.

"Yeah, he will be okay. He did real well the last few days Chris. He hasn't told us much about what happened between the time he left Josiah and me at the cabin and when he got back, but I get the feeling it was rougher then he wants to let on."

Loud voices and doors banging interrupted the rest of their conversation as Vin, Ezra and JD entered the back porch. Chris moved into the kitchen to watch his men traipse past him into the living room. JD taking longer on the porch as he took time to hang up his borrowed clothing.

"You're a little aromatic Ezra, you find a manure pile to roll in out there did ya?"

"It is impossible to display any class or decorum when I am encircled by peasant stock and constantly being dragged down into the mire with the likes of you."

Chris only partly listened to the parting shots his men were taking at each other in the living room. He just had one more man to check on, to make sure his team was intact still.

"Hey Chris."

"Hey yourself JD." Chris looked at his youngest agent, who seemed to be sagging with fatigue right before his eyes. The yellow and purple patches stood out against the paleness of his skin on both his face and wrists. By the slow methodical way he moved, Chris could tell he was also hurting in places hidden by clothes. Chris reached out a hand as if to touch JD, then retracted it back to his side. He had an emotional side that he felt he had to protect from JD. His maternal feelings for the son he had lost were so great he didn't think he could emotionally spare any for the young man standing in front of him now. Still he know he had to offer him something.

"You did real good, tipping us off with the computer the other night, and looking after Buck and Josiah. We're all proud of you JD."

JD lifted his chin up from where it had been drooping towards his chest and searched Chris's eyes. He knew he would not find anything else but professional concern, but he was grateful for at least that much from this man. He nodded his head, a faint hint of a smile touching his lips, then lowering his eyes again he walked past Chris to join the others.

Nathan moved over to make room on the couch for JD, who sank down gratefully onto its cushioned softness and rested his head on the high sidearm. "You got some nice bruises JD, any of them giving you any particular problems?" Nathan asked and then waited for the usual answer.

"Nope I'm fine Nathan, but thanks for asking."

Nathan just shrugged his shoulders "I had to ask!" He said to the other smirking men, as they had heard this same conversation over and over every time JD got hurt.

"So Chris, you going to tell us how come it took so long to find us, it was a might chilly out here, you know?" Buck questioned Chris who had now joined his men.

"JD!" Chris handed the youngest a cup of hot chocolate and a sandwich before answering.

"Well we held a secret ballad to see if we should come looking for you or not, but kept getting a hung jury, so then we narrowed it down to if we should just look for you on an individual basis. Everyone wanted to look for Josiah; three out of four voted to look for JD, but this is where it got sticky. No one voted to come get you Buck, but we knew if we looked for JD chances were better then good; we would end up finding you too. And we were right, here you are!" Chris deadpanned at his oldest friend.

"Watch you don't snort that hot chocolate out your nose JD, trying not to laugh." Said Buck, as he bounced a pocketbook off his roommate's head.

"Hey, what you hit me for, Chris said it?"

"Enough fighting boys, you want to hear this or not? It took a while to decipher all the data you sent us JD, we could have used your computer knowledge in the office that night. It was real smart thinking using the computer that way and flashing your horse logo at us. Anyway, it took us awhile to make up a composite on all the characters involved. Once we did you were all ready gone from the apartment. So the guys went back to the safe house LaPierre had been stashed at and waited, and sure enough four very large men showed up for him, but found us waiting instead."

"This is where the time loss came from, those gentlemen, and I use the term loosely, were not about to give up anything, not even after Chris got through interrogating them most of the night." Ezra added into the conversation.

"So how did you find out about the cabin?" asked JD with his mouth full of sandwich.

"Thanks to the heads up on Macalister, the local authorities were on the look out for him, and who should they have found trying to board a plane heading to Costa Rica? None other than Mr. Macalister himself. When his companions found out he was bailing on them, they could not spill the beans quick enough and we came looking for all of you as fast as we could." Vin finished the explanation.

"Nathan and I sort of got this place back in order, so if I may intervene, lets get you boys home. I know I could use a week of sleep when we get back. You guys didn't have to go to this much trouble to get out of going to Montana for that symposium, you could have said you just didn't want to go." Chris stood up, hoping the rest would take the hint and headed back to the kitchen where he pinned a note on the fridge beside the one already there. He thanked the owners for inadvertently providing lifesaving shelter to his men and left his name and number so they could contact him for any compensation they deemed necessary. Plus a P.S. from JD, saying she made the worlds best cookies, he must have eaten four of the cookie tins himself that had been found stored in the root cellar.

"We are loaded and heading out Chris." Ezra yelled to Chris who was standing on the porch waiting for JD. Buck and Josiah had been assisted out to the Suburban, where they each had a seat of their own to lay down on. "JD with you two? Then we will adjourn to the hospital and meet up with you there."

"Wait… wait, I'm coming!" called JD from inside the house, as the truck pulled out of the driveway. "I can't find my runners, I must have left them back at the damn cabin."

JD flung the front door open and hobbled out; a pair of white athletic socks the only thing adorning his feet. Chris and Vin turned to look at him, both shaking their heads.

"Did my ears fail me Chris, did JD just say he lost his shoes, well that's a first?" Vin asked sending Chris a serious look.

"I believe he did, Mr. Tanner." Chris shot back equally serious.

"Very funny, okay. Hi, my name is JD and I'm a ditz."

"JD, you are a lot of things, but ditz ain't one of them. Come on lets go kid." Vin said pointing to his back.

With a whoop, JD leapt onto Vin's back and by some miracle they managed to end the slipping, sliding piggyback ride with JD landing in the truck, not in a snow bank.

JD nestled into the seat between the two other men, and turned tired eyes to the ranch house for a last look as Chris steered the Chevy down the driveway. "Was it just me or does this place have a special magically quality to it. It just seems so solid, and tranquil and not just because it is in the middle of nowhere?" JD shot embarrassed looks at his friend's profiles, like he could not believe he just said that out loud.

"It kept you guys safe JD, so it will always be special to us." Chris answered, letting JD know he had every right to feel that way.

Suddenly, a gray blur appeared running beside the truck. "Stop Chris, I didn't say bye to the dog." Vin opened the door and the dog put two paws up and tried to climb into the truck cab. JD leaned over Vin to pat the dog and ended up getting a good face wash for his troubles. "I'll miss ya, you crazy mutt, but you have to stay here." Chris put the truck in gear and proceeded down the driveway. JD swiveled around to look behind him, the dog sat in the middle of the road, and two heads peered over the corral fence, all watching the receding vehicle. These animals had given him companionship and he was sure they had saved his life; he was going to send them a life long supply of dog food and horse oats.

"By the way JD, what is up with that poster you hung on the fence, whom exactly were you referring to when you wrote Old-timers reunion? Vin asked as they pulled out of the gate and on to the road.

"Well, you all are older then me, so I guess… all of you." JD said in a dry voice, trying not to laugh at Vin's expression.

"Also JD, what happened to your coat and jeans, everything your wearing's full of holes or ripped to shreds?" Chris intervened; they were just like a couple of kids. He wished he had a backseat so he could at least threaten to separate them if they didn't behave.

"These I think I got running from the bear when my foot got caught in the bush." JD pointed to the rip in his jeans.

" BEAR!"

"And, these came from falling off the cliff." He then pointed to some rips in his coat.


"And this tear I got climbing over some barb wire when I found the horses tangled in the trees." He pointed to a slit in the other pant leg.


"And the rip in my sweatshirt hood is from the Ski-Doo handle landing on my neck when I flipped, but you can't tell Buck about that one." JD said looking back and forth between the two men with trusting eyes, waiting for them to promise they wouldn't tell Buck.


"JD, get some rest, it sounds like you really deserve some, then we are going to have us quite the little chat." Chris stole a quick glance at the young man, who had a cocky little grin plastered on his face and with closed eyes rested his head back against the seat, falling asleep almost immediately.

"Bears, cliffs, horses, snowmobiles, what the hell was this kid up to? It sounds more like something you would do Vin, JD always strikes me as someone who has trouble walking and chewing gum at the same time. Guess I am going to have to revamp my image of him somewhat." Chris shook his head in confusion; just when he thought he had everyone on his team pegged, they would turn around and surprise him again.

Chris looked over at the agent sleeping beside him, the damage to his face diminishing in the darkness of dusk, his youthfulness partly hid by long bangs that hung across his forehead and into his eyes. Shifting slightly his head slowly slid down the back of the seat and came to rest against Chris's shoulder.

"You want me to shift him over this way?" Vin asked.

"No he's fine, let him rest." Chris let his hand settle on the leg beside him giving it a brief squeeze, maybe someday he would be able to do that when the kid was awake.

They finally reached the main highway, and waited for an older model pick-up to turn off in front of them, before merging in with the other traffic. The snow had been plowed off the road so driving was easy, as the three agents made their way back to Denver.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch the old pick-up made its way up the plowed driveway. Their neighbor had already apologized for not getting over to feed and plow, but with all the snow had barely managed to look after his own place. With confused looks on their faces, the young couple made there way up the plowed driveway to the shoveled sidewalk. Out in the pasture the cattle stood around hay filled feeders, and the tractor had been put back together again and stored under the overhang off the side of shop. Inside there was evidence that people had been here, but had cleaned up behind themselves. After looking at the fridge the young man turned to his wife, who stood with their newborn son bundled in her arms. "Well I found out who our elves were!"

Traffic was getting thicker as they approached Denver; so Chris had to slow down and concentrate more on driving. The first stop was going to be at the hospital to make sure Buck and Josiah were okay and under duress JD, was also getting an examination. Nathan figured Josiah's hard head would be fine in a few days and Buck would be hobbling around on crutches while the ligaments torn from his knee healed, but he wanted the professionals at the hospital to go over them. JD had some frostbite on his cheeks and finger tips that he thought needed looking after, the bruises would heal and disappear on their own. Then Chris wanted them all out at his place where he could keep an eye on his walking, or limping wounded.

The ringing of Chris's cell phone snapped JD out of his sleep, with a start he lifted his head off his bosses shoulder, momentarily looking lost until he heard Chris's familiar voice speaking into his phone. He yawned and accidentally stuck an elbow in Vin's ear while stretching.

Chris was mumbling some "your welcome and no problem and we should be thanking you," to someone on the other end of the phone. JD and Vin just shrugged at each other not bothering to try and follow the conversation.

Laughing Chris disconnected, and to everyone's surprise reached over and grabbed JD in a half headlock, while his other hand stayed on the steering wheel, his eyes on the road ahead. "You did good JD, you did real good!"

"What did I do?" He asked, more in shock because of the arm flung casually across his shoulders, then because any statement that had just been made.

"Just trust me JD, you made some people very happy. You just did real good!"

Back at the small ranch settled in amongst tall mountains, a little pig-tailed girl cantered the pinto up and down the driveway, while her parents watched from frost-tinted windowpanes. Her shouts of joy reverberating along the valley floor, her hair streaming out behind her, one arm opened wide reaching into the wind. Her spotted pony had come home.


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