Consider the Possibilities (cont.11-)

By: Heidi



Part Eleven

"JD!  Vin!"  Buck bellowed from the front seat.  He ripped his seat belt off, his body twisting to check the children.

"Vin?  JD?"  Chris asked at the same time while parking the truck on the shoulder.

"I'm okay.  JD unbuckled again.  He's on the floor.  JD?"  Vin questioned.  The older child reached over to touch JD's shoulder.  "He's not awake."

Chris and Buck leapt out of the truck before Vin finished his announcement.  The back door nearly flew off the hinges when Larabee opened it.  "Buck, he's wedged. 
 I don't want to move him."

"She-ugar," Buck muttered with a quick glance at Vin.  He whipped out his cell phone and called 911.  "This is Agent Wilmington of the ATF.  We were driven 
off the road by a possibly intoxicated driver operating a navy four door Jeep Laredo SUV, yes, a SUV – the new model – Colorado vanity plates MY TOY.  My son
was thrown from his child seat and is now wedged between the back seat of the truck and the floorboard.  We're at, Chris, where the hell are we?"  He glared at 
Larabee when the answer wasn't immediately forthcoming.

Ezra, coming up at a swift jog, snatched the phone from Buck, talked quickly into it, provided location, their vehicle description, and listened to questions.  He looked 
over at the others.  "Is he conscious?"

"No!"  Chris bellowed.

"Is he breathing?"  Standish called out, leaning half-in the truck where Chris and Buck were studying JD without moving him.

"YES!"  Both men snapped.

"Let me in there," Nathan commanded.  "Ezra, tell them no rescue.  If we move the seat forward, he'll be clear.  I don't want to do that without immobilizing him first."

Ezra nodded.  "We have a paramedic on scene advising no rescue.  He wants to immobilize JD before we move the seat forward and free him."  Standish walked a 
few steps away, answering more questions.

"Ezra!"  Nathan yelled.  "Give me the phone."

The Southerner half-jogged to Nathan, handed him the phone, and listened to the medical jargon spewing forth from his teammate. Nathan tossed the phone back
to Buck.

"How bad is JD hurt?"  Vin asked Josiah, the older man having moved them to the rear bumper on the passenger's side, out of the way.

With all the focus on the younger child, Josiah took it upon himself to remove Vin and his booster seat from the truck.  He used the reasoning it gave the others more
 room to get to JD.

"Well, he's breathing," Josiah answered truthfully.  "When I did a couple years as a dispatcher to put myself through college, the most important thing we looked for
was breathing.  Do you remember the first aid your dads taught you?  He's breathing and no signs of bleeding; we still need to be careful because he's not awake, and 
he did come out of his car seat?"

"Yeah," Vin allowed, giving a nervous glance to the truck.

Josiah squatted down beside the younger boy, biting back a groan from his protesting knees.  "How are you?  I know your dads asked you in the beginning, but I'm 
asking you now.  Did you get hurt?"

"Nah.  The seat belt cut into my tummy, but it's okay."

"Can I see?"

"I'm fine."  Vin shook his head no.

"Vin," Josiah said softly, using his most persuasive tone of voice, "you could have been hurt too if the belt went too deep.  You might not even see there's something
wrong.  Do you want to worry Chris if you suddenly fell over because you didn't tell anyone?"

The young boy chewed on his lip.  "I'll show you, okay?  JD needs Chris, Buck, and Nathan right now."

"I'll make a deal with you.  I'll do a quick check, and you tell me if it hurts.  Tell me true, now.  If it's bad, Ezra and I will take care of you, so Chris, Buck and Nathan
can take care of JD.  You have lots of uncles who want to help."

Vin considered.  "Okay."

"I'm gonna have to see under your shirt to look at your belly, okay?"

The young child carefully lifted his shirt, exposing a dark mark stretching across his abdomen.

Using soft touches, Josiah examined the area, noticing Vin only flinched when he touched the damaged area.  "I think we're okay.  You have bruises from the seat belt.
Because I'm not a doctor, Vin, I'd like for one to check you out at the hospital once we get JD settled.  And I want you to tell me if it hurts.  Okay?"

Vin lowered his shirt.  "Okay.  JD first.  Don't tell Chris or Buck or Nathan until JD's okay."

"Sure," Josiah said.  "As long as it doesn't hurt.  That's our deal."

Bobbing his head, Vin signaled his agreement.

"I do believe I hear the cavalry," Ezra remarked.

Vin looked down the highway.  "I don't see cav'ry, Mister Ezra, but I see a fire truck and an ambulance."

Josiah and Ezra exchanged a glance; they could only hear the approaching emergency equipment, but did not see it.

"Good eyes," Josiah mouthed.

"Cavalry, Master Vin, is defined, for our purposes today, as those who come charging to the rescue of others.  Now, we are going to step back here out of the way to
 let them work."  He put a comforting hand on Vin's shoulder, gently guiding him a few feet away from the rear of the pickup, well on the shoulder away from traffic.

Josiah reached up and used the pickup to help him stand, doing his best to ignore the aches in his knees and protests of his muscles for being in a squat so long.  The
hell of it was he was in great shape; problem was his knee joints did not like that particular position for any length of time, and protested violently.  Probably too many
years spent on his knees in prayer, or perhaps his propensity for expressing his opinion in the military, to the displeasure of his commanding officer, earning him the 
duck walk in place of pushups. Either way, it didn't matter now; the kids were more important.

He heard voices everywhere, all around him, and felt people touching him.  Touching was bad, he remembered, starting to fight.  He kicked, he swung his arms, he
even tried to bite when he realized he couldn't move.

"Little bit!" one voice yelled louder than the others.  "Little Bit, it's Buck, son.  Stop fighting us, we're trying to help you."

JD recognized that voice; it was the voice of safety.  "No touch!" he yelled.  "No touch! No touch! No touch!"

"Uh-oh," Vin said.  He started running for the truck.

"Vin!  You need to keep back!"  Josiah ran after him.

"He don't underst'd," Vin yelled.

Chris swung Vin up into his arms.  "Vin, let them work."

"Da, they don't underst'd.  Buck, stop 'em from touchin' him."

"What don't we understand?"  Buck asked from his position on the back seat on the passenger's side, waving off the medical crew.

The field providers looked on with interest.  The older man wearing the jumpsuit saying "Paramedic" on the back and front breast pocket looked at Vin.  "Hi, we're 
trying to help him.  Now, did someone ever hurt him?  Someone who touched him wrong?"

Buck glared, obviously controlling his temper.  "Not by us," he snapped.

"Buck, Da, it's okay.  At the orphanage, some of the older boys like ta beat up the littler boys.  Or hurt them.  He's 'memberin'.  He might let me talk ta him."

Chris put Vin in the front seat of the truck, letting the small boy crawl between the seats.

"JD, it's Vin."

"Vin!  Make 'em stop.  No touch!"

"JD, ya 'member slidin' off the road?"  He couldn't see JD's face mashed near the floorboard, so he talked to his back.

JD sniffled.  "No."

"We slidded off the road, and ya undone yer harness."

"I'm sorry," JD whimpered.  "I's hurt."

"I know, JD.  There's some nice people tryin' ta help ya.  But ya gotta let them."


"It's okay, JD."

There were more muffled sniffles as JD began to cry, "I want Buck."

"I'm right here, JD," Buck soothed.  "Let these nice fellows get you out so you can see me, okay?"

"Ya sure?"

"Of course, Little Bit, I'll be right here, we all will."

After a few more sniffles, JD finally agreed.  "Okay."

"We're right here, Little Bit," Buck continued to sooth JD as he backed out and let the medics back in to continue working.

With slow care, the paramedic and his people began extracting JD from the truck, telling the child each step so he understood.  His adoptive parents and uncles 
watched, but not as focused as Vin. Chris came around the truck slid into the shotgun seat, pulling Vin onto his lap to see and not interfere.

He woke in near-darkness.  Biting back a scream, he looked around.  "I'm not a baby," he whispered.  "I'm not a baby."

Da was here; he heard familiar snoring, even though Da always said he never snored.  Turning his head, he found him sprawled in a chair near the foot of the bed. 
It wasn't his bed, either; it was the weird kind at the hospital.

"I don't like hospitals," he said.  One hand covered his mouth because he didn't want to wake Buck, Da, up.  Da might yell because he wasn't buckled in the truck.

"I gotta go," he said.  He liked hearing his voice; it made him feel better.  Beds are too high, he thought, while dropping off the bed. His bare feet hit the floor.  "Cold."

JD started to hop from foot to foot.  "Not fair."  He pulled the back of the little gown closed, too, because it made his butt cold, too. Seeing the bathroom from the
hallway's meager light, he half-ran inside.  He knew he was a big boy now because he didn't have to jump to turn on the light.

He closed and locked the door, too.  No peeking.  Ever.  Vin taught him There; said he was an easy target when he was going potty.  Said to lock the door 'cuz it
was safer when Vin wasn't with him to guard him.  Da was here, but Da was sleeping.  Da slept hard.

Once he finished, he opened the door and left the light on to see. He heard something down the hall.

"Spongebob Squarepants!" bellowed from somewhere away from the room.

He looked at Da, still snoring in the chair.  I'm going a little while, he thought.  He won't wake up.  But my butt's cold.  He found Da's jacket on the other chair, 
shrugging into the big jacket.  "Big Da," he said.  The sleeves hung way past his hands, and he flapped them around, laughing to himself.  The hem of the jacket 
dragged on the floor.  He started to feel warm.

JD saw the floor had a neat pattern in it, and played hopscotch down the hall.  There were lots of rooms with lots of kids in them.  And plenty of big people, too.  He
kept hearing Spongebob, but couldn't find where.  He reached the end of the hallway and turned around.

"Not here," he said.  "Should go back."

A big man walked out of one of the rooms, stretching like he saw Unca Josiah do when Unca Josiah had been sitting too long.  "Hi," the man smiled.

"Um, hi," JD said.  Now he was in trouble; the man was gonna tell Da he wasn't in the room.

"Where's your mom or dad?" he asked.

Chris and Da always said never to say they weren't there.  "Here," he replied. 

"Where here?" the man asked, dropping down to be at his eye level without getting too close.

"Why?"  The man made him nervous.  Whenever he was nervous, he asked why.

"Well, I don't think they know you left your room.  You want to go back before they get worried you're not there?"

"Da's sleeping," he blurted.  His hand flew over his mouth and he took a couple steps back.  He wasn't supposed to tell.

The man chuckled.  "Well, if your Da's sleeping, he's been worried about you.  Do you think it will help him feel better to wake up and you're not there?"

"Is that your son?" a male voice interrupted.

"No," the man said.  "Just trying to get him back to his room."

"Come here, kid," the new guy ordered.

JD saw he wore a white shirt with a badge and black pants like a police officer.  There was no gun, only the stick thing, and the spray stuff.  No bullets, either.  This
wasn't a real police officer.  Vin warned him about people who dressed like cops and weren't cops who did bad things to little boys.  "No," he told the man.

"You're scaring him," the nice man said.  "I was getting through to him.  Why don't you let me try a little longer?"

"Go back to your child, sir.  I'll handle this."  The fake cop came toward him.

He needed help.  "DDDDAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA," he screamed, backing away from the fake cop.

"What's going on?"  A nurse ran up.  "Hi, sweetie.  I bet you want to see your dad, don't you?  Why don't you let Mikey and I help you find your dad?"

"No," he said.  Seeing his chance, he ran to the door marked stairs and pulled it open.  He shoved it closed before they got there and went up.

He knew that scream.  Buck woke ready for battle, his fist clenched, one hand reaching for the gun in the holster on his belt.  "JD?"

A quick glance showed the room empty, the bathroom as well.  He was still shaking sleep from his head when he hit the corridor, looking for his adopted son.  "JD?"

"Mr. Wilmington."  A nurse waved him over to the end of the hallway.

He joined her there, staring at the security guard and another man.  "Where's JD?"

"He ran into the stairwell," the nurse explained.  "Something about Mike scared him."  She indicated the security guard.  "We thought it would be worse if Mike went
after him,"

"What's your involvement?"  Buck stared at the other man suspiciously.

"Dave Wilmons.  I was talking to him, almost had him convinced to go back to his room.  Then he got scared and bolted."

"He couldn't have gotten far," Mike said.  "You want me to help?  I have other people I can call."

"No, if you scared him, that'll make him even harder to find.  More people dressed like you, if he's afraid, will make him fight.  No offense."  Buck sighed.  "Let me try.
 Did you see if he went up or down?"

"Up," the nurse said.  "I can't leave the floor, or I'd help you." She grimaced.

"What's up there?"

"Billing and the roof," Mike answered.

"Billing?"  Buck ran a hand over his face.  "Why's Billing on the top floor?"

"Because last year the ground floor flooded, and Billing took most of the damage.  They moved it to the top floor while they are renovating."

"Great.  Lots of places to hide."

"Not really; everything should be locked tight," Mike said.  "If you need keys, dial 9-0-5 on any of the phones.  That'll go through to me."  He patted the radio on his
side.  "Tell me anyway if you find something unlocked; one of my people isn't doing their job if you do."

"Thanks."  Buck headed up the stairs.  He called out first, "Little Bit?  It's Ol' Buck.  It's your Da."  He felt his throat close whenever he said the word Da, strong
emotions he never believed possible before the two boys came along.  They had just started using it recently, and it was still new to him to be someone's father.

His words echoed in the confines of the stairwell, letting him hear each little sound.  He did not hear the pitter-pat of little feet climbing; telling him either JD was already
in the hallway of the floor above, or he went down when no one noticed.  Knowing JD, he went up and hid somewhere good, meaning it would take awhile to find
him.  Buck went all the way to the top of the stairs, finding the door to the roof alarmed.  JD would see the big red signs Buck told him repeatedly set off loud noises
and he got in trouble for opening.  The sign read, "Fire Alarm will sound when door is opened."

He smiled, remembering one of the first times they went out to eat with the boys.  At a major chain restaurant, they did not understand why they had to walk the wrong
direction through the tables to the front door, then around the side of the building when there was a door with their truck right there.  Chris and Buck tried their best
to explain that door was for emergencies only, it would make a loud noise to call the fire department and warn everything, and was not to be used to go in and out.  
They added people might try to leave without paying.  Thinking they explained everything sufficiently, Buck went to the facilities while Chris got their jackets on. 
Before Buck came back, Vin and JD decided to "try" the alarm to see if it worked, running past Chris when he picked up JD's discarded jacket. The fire department
and the restaurant manager were not appreciative, but understanding, and the experience went a long way in proving a point that when Chris and Buck tell them no, 
don't do it.

Seeing the fire alarmed door, he knew JD wouldn't even think of pushing that door open, because he was sure his boy would know he'd get in trouble.  Going back
down one flight, he opened the door.  "Little Bit?  Where are you?"

He listened, not hearing anything other than the sounds of an empty building.  Looking down the hallway, he noticed multiple corridors, numerous doors, and many 
appeared to be open.  "Way to go, Mike. Your people are top-notch."

"JD!"  Buck bellowed, cupping his hands around his mouth.  "Come here, you're not in trouble!"

He waited in vain.  After a minute, his head drooped.  "The hard way it is, then."  Starting at the door immediately in front of him on the right side, he tried the knob. 
Locked.  "One down, too many to go."

Continuing on to the next door on the right, it was locked also.  On the left, the first doorway past the stairs was locked.  "Making progress."  He raised his voice, 

His steps carried him to the first unlocked door on the left. Stepping in, he found it a patient's room filled to the brim with boxes, their labels facing out for easy label 
reading.  The white cardboard wall left no room, even with the bed removed, for anyone to hide in here.  A quick check of the bathroom, and he moved on to the
next room on the left.  Same thing.

"JD!" he yelled.  He waited, trying the door on the right. Locked.  "Small favors."

Checking the restrooms, the next pair of doors on the left, only found him wasting more time.  No JD, and he knew time was starting to get away from him.  The longer
JD was gone, the more likely he would get bored.  A bored JD could be a destructive, curious JD, or it could mean JD would find another stairwell and go down to try 
and sneak back into his room.

Long strides brought him to the nurse's station, now a modified reception area.  He reached over the counter and dialed Mike's extension, reminding himself to be nice.
"Yeah, Mike, you've got a large number of unlocked doors up here, and I haven't found him yet. I'd like to bring his cousin up here and see if his older cousin can
figure out where he would hide.  He's not answering me."

"I'll send someone up."

"No, I don't want your people up here."  Buck rolled his eyes.  Mike was in a bad position, but he knew if Mike spooked JD, anyone who dressed like Mike would
scare him too.  Mentally, he cursed the conditions of the orphanage that taught horrible life lessons to ones so young.  Taking a deep breath, he knew he needed to
make Mike understand.  "Mike, JD's adopted, okay?  He was at a place where the staff, security especially, ignored what older kids and employees did to the little 
kids.  I'm guessing he thinks you're like them."

"What?  I'm not gonna hurt the boy, and no one on my staff will, either."

"Now, easy, easy, now we both know you and your staff won't, but to a scared kid with a bad bump to his head, coming from a place like that, he's gonna be gunshy. 
How many stairwells are there down from here?"

"Three, and the elevators.  What if I put one of my people at each of them to keep an eye out, make sure he doesn't come down?"

"Yeah, Mike, that's a great idea."

"Don't take this wrong, Mr. Wilmington, but there is the issue of patient confidentiality.  With you searching up there, you might come across patient records.  I'd really
feel better if someone was up there with you."

"I won't look, Mike.  I'll be careful for patient privacy if I see anything.  How about this?  Give his cousin a chance to find him, and if he doesn't, you can send whoever
you want up here to babysit us."

"I can live with that.  How about one of the nurses on break to accompany you?"

"He might get scared if it's anyone but family and not call out.  I'm an ATF Agent, okay?  I can keep my mouth shut." 

"How long will it take for his cousin to get here?"

"Maybe twenty minutes."  Knowing his friend's driving, he'd shave the forty minute drive in half.  "Expect a Chris Larabee bringing Vin Tanner.  Send them up.  To dial
out, is it a 9?"


"Great.  Thanks for your understanding, Mike."  He hung up, dialing the ranch quickly.

"What's wrong?"  Chris asked immediately, only the huskiness in the voice giving away he had been sleeping.

"Knew it was me, didn't you?"

"If not you, one of the others. Too many late-night calls.  JD?"

"JD took a walk while I was sleeping.  Saw one of the security people and got spooked.  Ran upstairs to the top floor of the hospital and is now hiding from me.  I 
need you to bring Vin to help me search for him."

"What about their security?  Are they helping?"

"Yes, they're making sure he doesn't come down from here.  They're cooperating and staying out for now.  If this drags on, I guarantee they'll get more actively 

"Shouldn't be too hard to find on a patient floor," Chris said.

"It's not a patient floor right now.  It's the billing and records section for the hospital.  Don't ask, but we've got a lot of floor to cover."

"We'll be there in a few."

"Thanks."  Buck hung up the phone.  It rang almost immediately. After a quick debate, he picked it up.  "Yes?"

"It's Mike.  Just wanted to let you know the hallway cameras are working.  We're playing the tapes back to find him.  Stay put, we might have a direction for you in a
couple minutes."

"Great!"  Buck felt a sense of relief.  If they had a starting point, they could go from there.

"I'll call you back."

Putting the phone back into the cradle, he looked around.  From this point, the former nurse's station turned reception area was the hub of a three-spoke wheel.  Three
corridors stretched down from this point, with more doors than he knew what to do with, many of them open, including the corridor he entered.  Across and to the
right were the elevators, something easily tracked by the security cameras.

"JD!"  Buck yelled, his usually loud voice carrying far in this rabbit warren.

His frustration level grew the longer he did not hear from his son. I have to stay calm, he told himself, or else they will decide I am more of a liability than an asset.

The phone rang, causing him to start once.

"Yes?" he snarled into the receiver.

"He went down the corridor to your left into the fifth door on the right."

"Good."  He went to hang up the phone.

"Mr. Wilmington!"

He was done with Mike; it was time to get his son.  "What?" he snapped.

"That section, well, all the rooms were interconnected.  They were renovated operating theatres, recovery rooms, and so on, but converted to cubicles and offices."

"Great, just great.  A cube farm in a hospital.  Who'da thunk it?" Buck couldn't keep the sarcasm from his voice.  "I'll give it a quick look.  Ring a phone near me when
the others get here."

"We'll be watching.  If we see him, you'll get a call."

"Thanks."  He hung up, walking away with a brisk, long-legged stride to avoid the telephone.  His nose itched, but he figured they'd be watching him, and scratching his
nose probably wouldn't look like scratching.  Note to self: don't scratch anything else, either.

He reached the door, rapped with his fists, and yelled, "JD?  It's Da Buck.  Come out here!"

No sound came from inside the room.  He flicked on the lights, figuring he didn't have to walk in the half-dark any longer.  Row after row of cubicles stretched out in
front of him, all with the walls high enough to prevent the neighbor next door from staring.

"Where's the prairie dogs to pop up at me?" he grumbled, knowing each cubicle had to be searched.  JD was quiet, too quiet, which meant he either was scared and
staying silent like Vin taught him, or he fell asleep.

"JD!  You're not in trouble, and I'm not gonna yell at you.  I just want to see you!"  His voice carried through the room, and on the other walls, looking over the chest-
high cubicles, he could see the outlines of other rooms.  "Interconnected, my ass."

The telephone rang at the front desk near him.  "Yeah?"

"Our cameras caught sight of him in the third row about twenty-five minutes ago.  After that, he disappeared in the dark.  The cameras are blind without the overheads
except around the emergency lighting and the doors."

"How far down, Mike?"

"About the fifth or six, best as we can figure.  The one with the teddy bear and balloons."

"Thanks."  He hung up the phone, stomping to the third row.  "JD, come on out now.  Da's not mad."

JD didn't answer him.

Passing the third cubicle, an itch formed directly behind his right ear.  His hand slid back toward his gun, but not too much because he didn't want to get security up 
here, or scare off JD if he was hiding nearby.  After a short argument with himself over the wisdom of calling out, he said, "JD?"

Buck approached with care, checking every cubicle for anyone or anything out of place.  Nothing could be heard outside of the normal creaks and groans of a building
and its air handlers.  He looked over the cubicle wall into the one with the teddy bear and balloons, surprised to see papers scattered everywhere, the computer
booted up but the brightness turned down to almost nothing.

He read the screen, the operational box reading "Deleting Selected Files.  15 Minutes Remaining."

Dark blue eyes searched the well-lit room, his knees bending to lower him into more of a crouch instead of a tall target.  He heard his own breathing, forcing it to slow 
down.  Nature blessed him with a good amount of suspicion in his fellow man, the allotment increased the longer he stayed in law enforcement.

He dialed Mike's number.  "Are you focused?"  He hoped the comment about focus sunk in to Mike about the cameras seeing what was on the computer screens,
and not the job.  Wasn't his responsibility to prevent the deletion of files right now; his son mattered more.

There was a pause.  "Yeah."

Buck heard a click on the line.  The stakes went up, changing the scenario.  He needed Chris and probably more backup than that to search up here, especially if JD 
was now a hostage.  "I'd hold off for a minute.  I still haven't found my boy JD yet, and you might scare him off if he sees you.  Remember, he ran from you the last
time."  He put stronger emphasis on certain syllables, hoping Mike understood.

"Okay, but your friend's just arrived.  I'll send him up on the elevator."

"I'll go meet him.  Thanks, Mike."  Buck pushed the hold button, putting the handset in place.  The red light stayed constant, then went out.  Someone listened to his
call, thinking he hung up.  He knew this phone system; he could tap it with a hangover and bleary eyes without even having to look.  If he put his end on hold, and
someone else was listening, when they hung up, the line would disconnect.  If there was no one there, the little red light would blink.  No blinking light; ergo, someone
was here and listening.  He picked up the line again, activated a line, and checked the cubicles around him.  All of them showed a red light for his line being in use.

"Stupid phone system.  Don't understand the damn thing," he muttered loud enough for anyone to hear.  Slamming the phone, he called out, "JD!  Answer me!"

He slipped on one of the papers strewn on the floor, nearly losing his balance.  "Hell."  Bending over to pick it up, he saw it was an itemized bill for the hospital's 

"What a joke.  Love doctors, love what they do, but hate their bills and the crap that goes with it.  Whoever heard of $1500 for a series of blood tests?  Or $400 for
a knee wrap the clinic gets wholesale for $50, and charges $75?"  He gathered the papers by the edges, careful not to smudge any fingerprints, and set them back on 
the desk.

Heaving a sigh, he started for the elevator.  "JD!  Come out here!" He continued to play the concerned parent, a role he deeply felt right now, and walked out to the
elevator to see Chris come off.


"With Mike," Larabee answered.  "Worst-case?"

"Next to; I'm thinking we're back with Charlie in Hotel Lima."  Buck used the code words they developed a long time ago for the words Captured (Charlie) Hostage
 (Hotel) Living (Lima).  "Remember all those rooms when Charlie hid from us down there?"

The blond nodded.  He stared right into Buck's eyes, a silent question.

"He won't come out, or he's fallen asleep.  He's wearing a hospital gown and my leather jacket."  Buck let his guard drop enough for Chris to see the fear in his eyes.  
He saw it reflected back at him.

Chris reached over to squeeze his shoulder right by his neck once.  "We'll find him, big dog.  His uncles won't let us live if we don't.  Mike's watching Vin for right
now, keeping him safe." Larabee's eyes shifted downward before shooting back up.

Buck blinked; message received about the others coming to help them search without announcing it aloud, covered through the message about Vin.  "Yeah, Uncle 
Josiah can't take all this excitement anymore.  JD would say he's too old."  He reached behind his neck as if to rub the tension away, snatched the earpiece/
microphone combination secreted by Chris in his collar during the squeeze, and made a show of rubbing his head, starting around his ears and finishing at his temples
to put his earpiece in.

"Let's find him," he said.

"When this is done, Wilmington, I'll show you old.  You'll be doddering around on a walker when I finish having you cough out your feet," Josiah threatened.

Buck made a face, while Chris hid a smirk.

Side by side, the two men returned to the one area where JD was reported to have been seen last.

JD was scared.  The big man grabbed him when he was walking through the really neat room with all the hiding-holes.  He hadn't found one he liked yet.  That's when
 the bad man found him and pulled him into the darkness.

He fought, kicked, and bit, but the man hit him in the head and it hurt.  It hurt so bad everything got really dark for a few minutes. When it got light again, he was in a
room by himself in the mostly dark.  He smelled the really strong stuff Mrs. Potter used to clean the potty, and it made him wrinkle his nose.

When he tried to move, his feet wouldn't work.  They were tied together because it hurt to try and pull them apart.  The bad man wasn't here, but he couldn't scream.
There was some tape across his mouth.  It tasted and felt like some of that shiny silver tape Da used to hold broken things together until he could fix them right.
He knew what it tasted like because he tasted it on a dare from Vin.

He missed Vin.  He missed Da.  Why didn't Da wake up and save him from the scary fake cop?  Da would save him from this.  He knew it.

His nose itched almost more than his head hurt.  He wrinkled it, causing the tape to pull on his face.  Ow.  He tried lifting his hands but they were behind his back. 
That was easy to fix.  He twisted his body up like he and Vin used to when they would play Cowboys and Indians and brought his hands up in front of him.  The
little light right by the door showed more of the silver tape.

Come on, Da, hurry up.  It smells bad in here and I'm scart.

The men started at the cubicle where JD was last seen, working forward to the doors, checking every cubicle.  They spread out quietly, peering in every spot a child
could hide or be hidden. Finding nothing, they widened their search, creating loud noises on cue to cover the entrance of their teammates from different doors.

Approaching each closet, they searched carefully, looking for any trace of a small boy.

Their search was rewarded when they opened one of the closets.

"I got him," Buck yelled.  He bent down, pulling his son from the mops, brooms, and supplies in the closet.  "JD, honey, don't move, okay?  We don't want to hurt you.
Son, I know you want the tape off, but we're gonna let the doctors do that so they don't hurt you worse."

He felt JD nod in his shoulder.

"Hiya, JD."  Chris reached over to ruffle his hair.  "You're having a bad day."

JD nodded.

"Federal Agent!  Get on the ground!"  Josiah bellowed from nearby.

Buck whirled, JD still in his arms.

"Get him out of here," Chris snapped, taking off toward the others.

Wilmington sprinted to the stairwell, taken them two at a time, handing off his son to the waiting team of a doctor and three nurses.  He kept one hand on his son at all
times, reassuring him while they worked on removing the duct tape without injuring him further.

When it was over, he held his son in his embrace and thanked all he held dear for the safe return of his boy.

Josiah saw the shadows, crediting some of them to the poor lighting in this part of the wing.  But something felt wrong, and he often trusted his gut.  Staring hard, he 
approached, seeing it move when there was nothing to cause the shadow to move.

Giving Nathan and Ezra a signal, he indicated the spot without words or easily interpreted gestures.  Nathan and Ezra stilled, moving into positions of concealment.

"Federal Agent!  Get on the ground!"  he yelled.

"No!" the man screamed back, charging toward the other end of the room.

Ezra extended a foot, tripping the man.  When he went flat, Standish put his foot in the back of the man's neck.  "Please resist.  It will make my day so much more

Cursing, the man's hands opened and spread flat on the ground.

"Wise choice, yet I do feel a measure of disappointment."

Nathan quickly searched the man, finding several CD's in his pocket.  "Not music."

"Virus," Josiah said.  "They said their system was attacked by a virus downstairs."

"You have the right to remain silent," Ezra started.  "Please do so. You have the right to an attorney.  If you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you.  Do you 
understand these rights?"

"Yes," the man replied.


Nathan and Josiah helped the man to his feet while keeping him under control.

"Want to explain why you tied up a little boy?"  Sanchez asked, clicking the handcuffs.

"Ow, not so hard," the man complained.

"Did the little boy you hurt say ow too?"  Chris Larabee stared.

Jeffrey Seavers swallowed hard, looking into the hard faces of the men surrounding him.  "I want an attorney."

The blond, obviously the leader from his air of authority, clearly wanted to rend him limb from limb, procedure be damned.  The black man held the same look of hate
 in his face.  Older, but obviously highly intelligent, the one with the piercing pale blue eyes seemed to look right into his soul.  One quick glance at the man wearing the
expensive clothing and bored façade told him there was cunning there, a means to trick him.

Federal Agents?  What the hell?  Why would Federal Agents be in a hospital searching the upper floors?  He expected security, not armed to the teeth, ready to
rumble Neanderthals with attitude problems.

"You'll get your lawyer," the blond ground out through almost clenched teeth.  "Boys, get him out of here before I forget myself. Or worse, Buck sees him."

They hauled him out, a different way than he came up, and away from the blond man with menace in his tone.   He was held in the security room, and eventually taken
to a holding cell at the local police department.  The older one and the well-dressed one stayed behind, waiting for his lawyer.

Chris put a hand on his friend's shoulder, letting it rest long enough for Buck to realize he was there.  "How ya doin', JD?"

"Scart.  The man scart me," JD replied.

"Well, I think Uncle Ezra and Uncle Josiah scart the man, and Uncle Nathan helped catch him, too."  Chris smiled at the young boy, pleased to see him okay.

Vin climbed up on the bed with JD.  "Don't runs away again, okay?"

"Okay." JD's head drooped.  "But I didn't runs away, I went for a walk."

"I'll be here; if ya wanna walk, we'll go together."

JD nodded his agreement.

"Da, did you and Chris help catch the bad man?"

"No, squirt, because we found you at the same time.  You're more important than that the man.  But you shouldn't have left the room without letting me know, okay?
Next time, wake me up."

JD nodded.  "Can I throws water on you iffen you don't?"

"I'll be here too," Chris said.  "I'll make sure he wakes up, and so will Vin."

Not too much later, Chris and Buck stepped outside the room to talk to the uncles.

"They're fine," Buck said, cutting off the questions before the started.  "Hospital's moved them into the fancy room to make up for this.  I want to know why."

Ezra explained, "He faced bankruptcy from medical bills, most of which are unpaid for his daughter's care.  Because he felt embarrassment at filing for bankruptcy, and
he felt his medical insurance should have covered more, he decided to break in and delete the files.  JD caught him in the act, and instead of aborting, he tied JD up and
put him in the closet."

"No remorse," Josiah said.  "He feels no remorse for doing what he did to JD; he's more worried about the cost of his defense and filing bankruptcy to care."

"Is that our uncles?" Vin asked.

"Where's my uncles?" JD half-yelled.  "Ow, yelling hurts my head."

The uncles joined the boys in the room, bringing the boys lollipops.

JD woke with a headache, his head trying to split from his shoulders.  Bits and pieces of his dream, the accident, they all melded together into a nightmare.  Blinking 
twice, he looked up at the screen to see Spongebob Squarepants on television.  I'm dreaming, he thought in relief, the images of the lollipops and duct tape vivid
in his mind.  He turned his head to the side to see if there was a water pitcher, and if he could get some water for himself.  Next to the water pitcher was a lollipop.

Part Twelve

Timber groaned and protested, some splintering under the impact of the hostile fire.  Shards of wood flew in every direction, forcing many of the Vengeance crew to take impromptu cover from the lethal shrapnel. 

"Lovely," Ezra Standish/Morgan Ambrose Roth murmured.  He glanced down to see a rough stake quivering in his kilt between his knees and his upper thighs.  "Not nice."

"We ain't nice either," Vin Tanner/Hunter replied.


The cannon thunder shook the deck, wood creaking in warning.

Ezra watched the lead and the grapeshot help clear the decks of the Lost Maiden.

"Morgan," Vin/Hunter hissed.  "Crawl over ta hold 'er steady.  I see a shot forming."

Removing the offending stake, he dragged his body to just before the wheel.  Putting hands on it, he and the Master's second-in-command gripped hard on the polished wood.  "I have it."

Hunter checked the ammunition in the rifle, prepared for his shot, fired, and struck true.  He fired across the water as the ships sailed next to each other trading cannon fire.  The battle-damaged ropes holding the boom in place frayed from the shot.  Pressure did the rest; the weight of the boom exceeded the strength of the now-damaged rope, fraying until it released. 

Lost Maiden floundered, falling out of the meager breeze, the boom swinging across to cause havoc, bumping into several unsuspecting crewmembers. 

"A just revenge," Ezra observed.  "Let them suffer the headaches."  His own skull still vibrated from the shot from the boom, his body not neglecting the fire in his leg, or the plethora of splinters making him a human pincushion. 

"Hunter!" Chris Larabee/Captain Vengeance yelled.

"Aye, Cap'n," Hunter bellowed back.  He took advantage of the Lost Maiden's fall from wind to close the distance and align the two vessels. 

"Grappling hooks!"  Buck Wilmington/Rakehell ordered.

"Fire!"  Josiah Sanchez/Barrel shouted to his top men, snipers positioned in the upper masts used to shoot their weapons onto the other ship's deck to create a cover while boarding, and to help diminish the enemy ranks.

Hazy weapon smoke continued to cloud the air, both from the earlier cannon shots, and from the muskets, rifles, and blunderbusses belching lead and grapeshot.

Vengeance and Lost Maiden nearly crashed together when the Maiden's Master tried ramming them together to strain the rope lines connecting the vessels.  The schooner's top men continued cover fire, while Ezra checked and reloaded Vin's rifle.  Men scrambled across the lines, leaping into combat using various styles of swords.  Those Marines with single shot weapons used them only when necessary, saving the shot for when it was imperative to save a life.

Captain Vengeance jumped into the fray, joined by Barrel.  Rakehell and Raphael Cordova de Martinez tossed a coin, Rakehell the loser.  He stayed on the schooner instead of boarding the Maiden.  Giving a Spanish cry for battle, Caballero ran across the ropes to dive into the melee spreading across the deck. 

"Morgan," Rakehell came over to the wheel, crowding the already cramped area.  "Can you stand?"  He kept his rifle trained on the other ship, watching for an opening.

"Aye, if I wish t'fall," Morgan replied.  "Mayhap a minute longer."

Rakehell leaned down.  "Mayhap you might fire the weapon cradled in your arms while on your arse and help the top men?"

Without breaking eye contact with Rakehell, Morgan lifted the rifled, adjusted it, and fired it at the other ship.  A top man on the Lost Maiden howled in pain long and loud during his fall, landing on one of his own men.

"Did that please ye, Rakehell?  Or did ye notice he fell on the man aimin' t'hit the Cap'n from behind?"

A smile burst forth, along with a chuckle from beneath the mask.  "Injuries can't keep you from your wit, can they?"

"Nay, but look yon at the fool tryin' t'board us on our lines."

"Hell's bells!"  Rakehell took off toward the intruder.

It ended quickly; the skill of the Vengeance crew overwhelmed the Maiden's crew.  Many surrendered; those who fought died.  The captain of the Lost Maiden, however, remained alive for questioning.  Time slowed when the fast pace of battle gave way to organizing the chaos. 

Morgan sighed when Nathan Jackson/Raven finished removing the last splinter.  "Much longer?"

"Nay."  Rave wiped the wounds with hot towels and clean cloths before applying an herbal salve, pungent in order.

"This foul concoction?"

"Keeps your leg from rotting off," Raven finished for him.  He bandaged his friend's leg, wrapping smaller bandages around the bigger holes from splinters.  "You took your time coming to see me.  I expected better."

"There were others in need," Morgan replied.  He winced when he tested putting weight on it.  Raven held out two containers, and he accepted the one holding rum, not the sleeping draught.  After a healthy swig, the fire in his stomach started to burn away the pain in his leg. 

"Let me splint your leg to keep it straight, give it support.  You'll fall otherwise."

"Nay," the Scot Quartermaster waved a hand.  "I must search their ship."

"You're in no shape to walk the plank, much less across a rope and down ladders into a hold."

"We do what we must," Morgan replied, letting a note of steel enter his tone.  "I must search the hold to insure a fair accounting.  Nothing less will do."

"Not alone; you could fall over, and what good will you be on your arse?"

"I'll go with him," Barrel offered, "After you tend this scrape."

Raven gaped.  "'Tis not a scrape; half your hair is missing.  What did you do?"

"I ducked.  Divine intervention, brother, for if I had not, I would not have a head." 

"Thankful I am you still have it attached, but letting it go so long does not help keep it there."  The curses Raven muttered beneath his breath while working reflected poorly on his friend's judgment and the ex-monk's intelligence for letting the injury go for so long.

Even though they wore masks, Josiah and Ezra communicated without words, the ex-monk tolerantly amused, the merchant lowering his head to cover his smile. 

"There," Raven said when he finished.  "Try not to fall over and bump your head.  I told y'all earlier I can't reattach them.  Can't even beat some sense into the hard woods masquerading as skulls."

Barrel laughed heartily, holding his head when he finished. 

"And don't laugh," Raven lectured.  "Give yourself more of a headache.  Gentle movements."

"Aye," Barrel answered.  "Come, Morgan.  Work to be done."  He stayed behind the limping Morgan while they went above decks.  He offered support without being obvious, noticing the limp disappeared the moment Morgan encountered the first crewmember.  When they climbed down into the hold, Morgan took it slow, immediately going forward and placing both hands on one of the crates.

"Light," he requested.

A Marine held a lantern near the crates.

"Do my eyes fail me, or are these goods from the recently pirated Sunrise Glory?"  Morgan stared at the markings on the crate, leaning heavily on it without being obvious. 

"They are, sir," Rafe Mosely/Peacock replied, coming up beside the Quartermaster.  "Sailed from New Berne near three weeks ago, bound for New York.  Limped to harbor not long after leaving without goods, dead crew, and the injured speaking of pirates."

"The owners?"  Barrel asked.  "How did this hurt them?"

"Facing foreclosure," Morgan replied in place of Peacock.  "Six families pooled their resources, from what I have heard."

"Know you their contracts?"  Captain Vengeance climbed down into the hold, forcing a Marine up and out of the cramped quarters. 

"I can guess the contract terms," Morgan carefully replied.  "Some other contacts would know for sure."

"Hunter found us a cove on the charts.  We could anchor and repair while you find out.  There's a town not too far from the cove."

Morgan's brain planned what they needed to fulfill the contracts for the New Berne families.  He knew it was not the idea of doing good; the reasoning behind it suited his purposes.  If the six families suffered foreclosure, either Royal or Stewart would buy the land for a ridiculously low price.  The families would lose everything, probably having to indenture themselves as servants to provide for their spouses and children, or find somewhere else to live to start over without the ability to take a mortgage.  Royal and Stewart with more land equaled more power.  They were insufferable enough; they needed no more to make them more despicable and influential. 

Completing the contracts gave the Vengeance crew more praise with the general populace, the ones they counted on for silence when the schooner sailed past their waterfront property.  Morgan's trick would be making the deadline, the delivery, and not be captured by either the British or an overzealous tax collector.  He'd need cunning, and a partner because of his leg wound to watch his back.

Captain Vengeance could not be his partner; they would not be able to wear masks on shore.  Chris Larabee's horses grew in prominence and popularity each day, bringing many to sail or journey to his horse farm to obtain quality horseflesh.  There was too much of a chance of him being recognized.  Caballero/Raphael was Spanish, easily remembered while Raven/Nathan was black, discriminated against because of skin color, not because of who he was as a person.  Peacock/Rafe knew too many people up and down the Colonies from traveling with his missionary father.  Barrel/Josiah's features were too distinctive to forget, eliminating him.  Rakehell/Buck stood too tall compared to the average male, making him more than memorable.  He was left with Rascal/JD or Hunter/Vin.  Why not take both?

"Morgan, your thoughts.  What say you?"  Captain Vengeance asked.

"I'll need Hunter and Rascal.  Rascal as my assistant, and Hunter for the hidden reserve." 

"We must talk further, plan in detail.  First, though, this hold's contents are hereby claimed.  Complete a full inventory prior to transfer."  Captain Vengeance ordered as he left the hold.

With a complete list of contents, Morgan realized they could still turn a profit.  Just the resale of the Lost Maiden, damaged as she was, could bring a hefty price.  They also accomplished the removal of one of Stewart's pirate crews.  Adding their full food rations to the Vengeance stores created a significant margin of comfort.  The Maiden captain's personal effects, ship's log, and maps went to Captain Vengeance's cabin.  

His leg reminded him forcefully it was in pain, nearly dropping him to the deck of his schooner, supervising the transfer of goods.  He gripped the rail with white knuckles to prevent a fall, either to the deck or over the side.  It took a few moments before the dizziness passed, moments he spent appearing deep in thought.  Reasonably, he knew he needed to take the weight off his leg, and soon.  Green eyes behind his mask, slightly damp from the effort of biting back pain, watched the last of the goods come across the lines. 

"Sail to the south.  'Tis the British," came the lookout's call from high above in a crow's nest. 

Captain Vengeance cursed once before snapping orders.  "Keep the flying jib hidden, and the tarps over our name."  The jib came down earlier when they finished the battle, to give the appearance of two friendly ships beside each other.  "Marines, return all Maiden crew except the captain to their vessel.  When done, recover the hooks, cut the lines."  He looked up to the lookout who called the warning.  "White, the British?"

"Man o' war, Cap'n.  Turning our way."

The curse was pungent and short before the next question erupted from the schooner captain's mouth.  "Rascal, sails?"

"Damage to the mast, sir.  We'll have to run a lot of the lines by hand to take the pressure off the mast, prevent further damage."

"The good news continues.  Caballero?" 

"Si, Capitan."  He disappeared below shouting for all able-bodied crew to help work the maze of lines and ropes operating the sails. 


"Guns primed and ready, Captain."  The burly man crossed his arms.  "Ye can use some of our powder monkeys on the lines, if ye think we'll need speed over cannons."

Rakehell yelled from the rail, "Our crew's aboard.  Theirs transferred."

"Good," Captain Vengeance muttered.  "Hunter?"

"We're clear.  North?"

"Aye.  Force the man o' war to check the Lost Maiden first.  Men, we will earn a black mark on our pristine name."

Chuckles and groans greeted his pronouncement, for their reputation already colored toward the black instead of the good and proper.

Morgan spoke up, "Captain, may I suggest we give the man o' war incentive not to chase us?  Perhaps some smoke to cover our escape?"

The captain turned to Barrel. 

Barrel held up a hand.  "Marines!"  Four men ran to the side of the Vengeance armed with long bows.  A powder monkey lit the cloth ends on the arrow tips aflame, the Marines sent the burning missiles right into the sails of the Lost Maiden.  The canvas began a slow burn, spreading toward the rigging and catching the ropes on fire.  Yells sounded across the water while the crew prepared to abandon ship.

"Shame to burn it," Rakehell said to Caballero. 

"We do what we must."  Caballero shrugged.  "Fire damage does not come out easily, nor will it stop quickly."

"Best speed away, lest the fire singe our tails!"  Captain Vengeance ordered.  "White?"

"Man o' war headin' right for the Maiden, Cap'n," the lookout replied.  "They're lookin' at us, but they're not comin'." 

The work continued on the schooner, sailing away at the best speed possible with their damage.  With no sign of pursuit, Captain Vengeance ordered the continuance of speed, needing to reach the cove before someone else found them.  They were not ready for another battle.

Darkness fell in the cove, yet they did not rest.  All rigging repairs proceeded, while Marines scouted the land surrounding their water hideaway.  Quite became the watchword; anything requiring hammering or a loud noise, waited until morning because sound traveled so well across the water, more so in the still of the night. 

Morning broke with Morgan, Rascal, and Hunter ashore.  Once they were out of sight of their ship, they melded into the trees and changed into attire more appropriate than masks.  Their names became Ely, James, and Henry for their meeting with Ezra's contact.  When they approached the town only Ezra and JD went in to rent three horses, the third supposedly a packhorse.  They rode for thirty minutes at a leisurely pace, stopping in a meadow off the road through a copse of trees. 

Vin disappeared into the foliage, his weapon at the ready.

Two riders approached nearly two hours later.  The heavier man waited well out of weapons range while the more muscular one checked the area and signaled the all clear.

"Ely," the heavier man greeted, wiping his face with a handkerchief.  "Well met." 

"Matthew," Ezra/Ely replied, "my thanks for your timely response."  No trace of the Scottish accent, or the normal drawl of Ezra Standish remained; each word delivered in a clipped English accent.  His hair hid beneath a powdered wig, similar to the one worn by JD/James. 

"How could I not, with your message to Luke?"

"I hoped to capture your interest since I am in the area, and have the opportunity to have a mutually beneficial arrangement.  This is my associate, James."  Ezra indicated JD. 

"A pleasure.  Shall we?"

"Yes.  I need to arrange the fulfillment of a pre-existing contract, and offer you a selection of unrelated goods."

"What of your usual contacts?"

"Did I mention I am pressed for time, and our mutual friends are involved?"  Ezra smiled, performing an elegant one-shoulder shrug.

"Ah.  Why do I suspect you have two sets of unrelated goods?"  Matthew quirked an eyebrow beneath his tall powdered wig.

"Because you are very astute, my friend.  With one set headed north, and the other south, all benefit."

"How far north are we discussing?"

"The contracts need fulfillment in New York.  It would not be difficult to arrange transportation for all the goods."


Ezra named them, starting the haggling.  It took nearly fifteen minutes before they reached agreement to arrange a meeting late that day.  Matthew and Luke left, and Vin stepped out of the shade.

"Interestin' partner."

"Not my first choice, but we are pressed for time."  Ezra shrugged.  "Shall we fetch what we need, and return with a good assortment of Barrel's marines?  Matthew has proven trustworthy with a boot heel applied to his neck, and significant profit for himself."

The three men returned to Vengenance, waited for nightfall, then returned to the meadow for the exchange.

Logistically, it was a nightmare.  In order to move the goods to the meadow, the masked marines and seamen carried them.  They could not rent a wagon; it would bring too much attention to them, and they had no horses aboard.  It was not simple hiding so many men, but Barrel's well-trained marines blended well into the woods, watching the meadow with their rifles.  Among them, Vin kept his position high in a tree, his weapon poised and ready. 

Ezra's leg throbbed fiercely.  He wanted to be off it, meaning he kept on his rented horse instead of standing on it.  Something felt off about the transaction; it seemed too easy.  Nothing about this trip so far went well, and he reserved hope for this deal.  They needed to complete it quickly before the gossips inadvertently let slip about the strangers arriving on foot, and leaving on horseback.  Between his throbbing leg clouding his thoughts and demanding his attention, and his nervousness, he felt out of sorts. 

The appointed time arrived, an equally disguised Matthew coming into the clearing with his empty wagons driven masked men. 

"Ely," Matthew called.

"Matthew," Ely/Ezra answered.  "Shall we begin?"

The groups exchanged goods and funding, completing the transaction quickly.  His uneasy feeling did not abate.  Deciding to move only small groups of men at a time on the return trip, he further hoped not to raise suspicions.  He decided Vin could stay with him, and Josiah volunteered to be in the last group to the Vengeance.  It took most of the night for the groups to leave in a staggered pattern.

Ezra only wanted to go to sleep.  He needed rest, he wanted to sleep, and preferably drink himself to unconsciousness to stop the agony.  Yet, he waited until an hour before dawn to head back.  Each movement of the horse jostled his injury, and as he rode beside Josiah, the older man winced with each rut in the road.  Vin kept his eyes open, ready for anything.

What they could not anticipate was the shot fired from the woods.  It struck Ezra in the shoulder, and instinctively his leg muscles tightened to keep from falling off the horse.  The excruciating pain radiating from two places was too much though, and more than enough to send him into darkness. 

Vin heard the shot, cursed, and checked for injuries.  He was not, but he saw Ezra fall from the horse in a heap.  The mount continued at a gallop, most likely frightened by the gunfire.  He noticed Josiah stayed aboard, and his horse trainer skills served to keep him seated. 

Josiah made a hand motion, and Vin raised the rifle, firing a shot in the direction where the initial smoke appeared.  It was enough for the marine to swing down off his horse, pick up Ezra, and remount quickly.  With silent communication, the shipmates rode hard, catching up to the frightened horse.  Vin grabbed the reins and dragged the protesting beast beside him, using his horse to calm the spooked animal. 

They cut off into the trees, getting off the road, dismounting when they reached a defensible position near some massive uprooted trunks.  They hid beneath the bulk, emptying out their bags for the medical supplies.

"How bad?" Vin asked Josiah. 

"Bad," Josiah said.  The ex-monk bandaged the wound on Ezra's shoulder tightly, but did not attempt to dig out the pellets.  "We need Nathan."

"I heard orders when I fired, meanin' either bandits or British.  Or Matthew's people lookin' ta take some money off of Ez."

"Bandits," Josiah surmised. "Did you notice the lack of wealth here?  Anyone would turn on anybody for anything."

"We must get Ezra back ta Vengeance.  Will he survive it?"

"A hard ride will kill him," Josiah replied.  "Slow, steady, and careful." 

Vin ran a hand down his face.  "We might be safe here.  I'll hide the trail if you can remove the balls."

"I…I can try."  Josiah started to pray while he unwrapped the wound.  It bled, yet the green eyes remained closed.  "Stay asleep, Ezra, just stay asleep."

He worked, removing the balls near the surface first, wiping down the area often.  His clean handkerchiefs kept turning red, and he lost all track of time.

"How fares Ezra?" Vin asked. 

Josiah jumped, his knife jerking away from Ezra's still unconscious form.  "Slow," he replied.  "My knife's too large for the wounds."

"Let me."  Vin passed off the rifle, washed his hands with water from his canteen, and rinsed off his knife blade, a very thin, long blade with a sharp, rounded tip.  "Used ta do ornate work with the Indians," he explained.  :"Beads, feathers, dressin' a kill.  Ya take everythin' off a kill ya can use; nothin' gets wasted.  Lots of detail work."

"I can do calligraphy with a steady hand, yet my hands shake now when they are most needed."

"Takes practice," Vin replied.  "Too much fer me," he continued in a soft voice.  "We need to find shelter.  There will be others looking through the day fer a wounded man.  If I didn't kill the shooter, they saw Ez fall."

"Where do we go?"

"Gotta work our way back ta the cove.  Chris'll send out search parties."

"The more people searching, the more likely ours and the crews' discovery by either side," Sanchez countered. 

"Still got the bandits or British out there lookin'," Vin commented while pulling a fresh bandage tight. 

Josiah wadded up all the cast off materials, stuffing them in his saddlebag.  "No need to leave traces."

"Sun's up.  Hidin' horses in daylight ain't easy, but we ain't movin'."

"We'll stay a couple hours, let him rest."  Josiah leaned back against a tree trunk.  "If you keep watch, I can find herbs."


To Vin, Josiah's search did not seem that long, but when he checked the sun's position, he realized two hours had passed.  Ezra never woke, never moved, yet the blood did not seep through the bandages.

Josiah returned.  "There's patrols out searching," he said without preamble.  "I used care not to lead them here, but they will reach this area by mid-afternoon."

"Then we will not be here," Vin said.  "If we use care, Ezra might be able to be taken by horseback closer to the cove.  We will stay within the trees."

"I'll hold him to lessen the jostling," Josiah agreed.

"We'll take turns," Vin countered.  "Keep the horses somewhat fresh.  I'll take the first, since you know the land a little better."

Set on a course, the two men readied Ezra in Vin's arms, starting their way out of the protection of the trunks.  They moved slowly through the trees, stopping often to lay false trails in case someone stumbled upon their tracks.  They did not have the time to obliterate their passing, but used care to leave few clues.

Pain woke him up.  Ezra felt his leg bumped, sending waves of agony through his system.  The peaceful place he retreated to disappeared under the onslaught of excruciating throbbing.  He jerked awake, and his shoulder announced its displeasure.  His stomach emptied itself.

"It's okay, Ez," Vin's voice said in his ear. 

He cared less about talking and more about stopping the bouncing.  "Stop," he croaked.

"Josiah," Vin whispered. 

"Aye," Sanchez replied. 

Ezra felt himself passed from his perch atop the horse to a strong pair of arms.  He vomited again, his body shaking with heaves.  Naught mattered to him except the ending of the pain.

"Here," Vin coaxed.  "Drink this." 

He swallowed the contents of the bottle without thought.  Laudanum, his taste buds told him; something for the pain, and though usually he protested the vile elixir, now he welcomed it.  He let the liquid do its job, not even feeling when he was lifted back onto a horse.

Vin felt the heat in Ezra's body, knowing the fever needed to be lowered quickly.  Instead of heading toward the cove, he turned off toward a stream he smelled in the air.  Reaching the stream, Josiah helped again, this time walking directly into the stream's water to cool the overheated body.  Without speaking, the two men took turns cooling Ezra off in the cool water, both thankful he was not conscious for this procedure. 

"We need ta hurry," Vin said to Josiah.

Sanchez nodded.  "He'll die if we dawdle, but the bandits might catch us and kill us, too."

"We go.  Chris will be lookin' fer us.  We're close enough.  I can smell the salt."

Josiah grinned.  "So do I, brother, so do I." 

It took nearly thirty minutes to make it to the cove, where a search party came out of the trees to meet them, the mid-afternoon shadows hiding their approach. 

"What happened?"  Captain Vengeance/Chris asked.  The small search party consisted of the schooner's officers, half in normal clothes, but still wearing their masks.

"We think bandits," Josiah replied, carefully turning Ezra over to Nathan.  He accepted his mask from JD, and they headed back toward the schooner's hiding place.

"Bandits or British, but the search fer us was more haphazard," Vin added, slipping on his mask.  He walked the horses to the road, pointed them in the right direction, and sent them on their way.  With all the searchers out, someone would find them, or they would eventually find their way to their stable.  If they were found on the road to the south, the search would not detour into the cove, nor would the thought be to check for a ship.  To be extra careful, he obliterated the tracks of man and horse in the area before joining the others. 

After rowing back to the ship, the schooner set sail away from the cove.  They did not need anyone coming across the Vengeance by accident, and they were better off with Ezra at sea than on land.  They could tend their own while heading home.

Vin continued to help Nathan treat Ezra.  Between Josiah's bags of herbs, and the remedies Nathan knew, they were able to keep the infection to a minimum.  They could not stop the fever, forcing them to drape layers and layers of sails throughout the room to muffle the screams. 

Tanner could not believe some of what Ezra acted out in his dreams.  He didn't understand Gaelic, but whomever Ezra argued with during his unconscious ramblings, it caused shivers.  The anger Vin comprehended, yet the blood curdling screams of fear near ripped his heart out.

Chris appeared in the doorway during a particularly bad nightmare.  "What can I do?"

"Hold him down," Nathan instructed.  "He's about to tear the stitches I had to put in."

Chris and Vin stood on either side of the bunk, pushing their weight against the struggling man to keep him down while Nathan forced a dose of laudanum down Ezra's throat. 

"How much longer?" asked Chris when the struggling finally ended. 

"It's coming down, but not fast enough.  I'll see how long he can sleep this time."

"I'll stay with him for awhile," Vin said.  "Get some rest, Nathan.  Ya need it."

"I just might try," Nathan replied, "only if the captain joins me." 

The captain narrowed his eyes.  

"You've slept less than I have pacing the passageways," Nathan chided.  "Get some rest.  Then we come back and spell Hunter."

The captain nodded, escorting Raven from the room. 

Vin sighed and leaned back in his chair, his eyes never leaving his troubled friend.  He did not know the demons which possessed his friend in sleep, but he could be here in case they became too much for his friend to handle.

Ezra let out a whimper. 

He reached a hand out to his friend.  "I'm here with ya, Ez.  No matter what, I'm here with ya."

Ezra felt disoriented, reaching out for something to hold.  A hand clasped around his.  It felt wrong; no calluses, and too soft.  They felt wrong.  His eyes opened to look into the comforting face of a woman holding his hand.

"You're okay, Mr. Standish.  You're in the hospital."

He couldn't say anything, but his mind told him the world on the schooner was only a dream. 

"Mr. Standish?  Look at me if you understand me.  You've been speaking a different language, and I need to know you understand English."

He swallowed past the sore throat and croaked, "What language?"

"I didn't recognize it, but Nurse MacTavish said it was Gaelic."

It was only a dream.  He didn't know Gaelic…did he? 

TBC                                                                                                                                                                            Index