Fights, Flights and Hard Choices (cont)
He couldn't tell.
Orin Travis had gathered his courage, walked into the morgue, and stared at the burned corpse lying on the table. He searched for some sign, some indication, but there was no evidence to be found. The face had been destroyed, most of the teeth damaged, and the fire had eliminated all identifying marks on the skin. Height and weight were about right; the clothes - what were left of them - were Chris's; he recognized the tattered, burned remains of the shirt as one of Chris's favorites. So were the boots. But the rest of it - he couldn't tell.
"I'm not sure," he said softly. "I'm really not sure."
The forensic examiner
nodded. "We're going to run DNA tests, along with
dental records - what we can use. It would help
if we could get any x-rays that were taken of
Travis nearly broke down at that point - when weren't one of his boys in the hospital? There was plenty of film of Chris Larabee's various injuries, almost all in the line of duty. He nodded, giving the examiner the name of the hospital where the boys were usually treated.
When he stepped outside, he breathed deeply of the crisp, clean air and closed his eyes. It hurt so much, but hope was refusing to leave. It wasn't Chris - it couldn't be. But he knew what needed to be done next. He had to call the boys. They deserved to know something was wrong before it was on the news.
Flipping open his cellphone, he made the hardest call he'd ever had to make. He started with Vin, knowing that Vin could badger and bully copies of other medical records from the hospital as next of kin if the hospital wouldn't release them.
"Vin? It's Orin."
Travis heard the voice change, become more alert. "There's been an accident involving Chris's truck. I think you and the boys should come up here."
"Where's here, and how's Chris?"
He swallowed hard. "There was a fatality involved. The physical descriptors are close to Chris, and the…the…body was so damaged I couldn't make positive identification."
There was a few seconds before the Director heard the shaky voice respond. "Aw, hell."
The amount of emotion in those two words caused the Assistant Director to bite his bottom lip, turning his back on the building. He blinked twice, followed by clearing his throat to get the words out. "Son, I don't know. I don't think so, but I can't say for sure."
Travis told him.
"We'll be up."
"I need you to bring me his x-rays and records from the hospital."
There was a long pause, Travis not knowing what more to say.
"He's okay," Vin told him
with conviction. "Alive, at least."
"How do you know?"
"I know," the Texan calmly stated. "We're on our way."
Travis hung up and headed to the storage lot to check out the truck, hanging on to the positive conviction of Larabee’s teammate and friend.
Vin put the phone down slowly, taking two attempts before he got it right. "No," he said aloud. Deep in his heart, he knew the news wasn't true. It couldn't be. He tried hard to believe in the words he’s spoken to Travis. Swallowing hard, he took a moment to think about Chris.
A picture of his drunk, laughing face appeared in his mind's eye, the two of them holding each other up while watching Buck trying to fold himself into Casey's Mini Cooper. Or the last time they went horseback riding together, just enjoying each other's company.
"It's not true!" Vin picked up a baseball and threw it across the room. It embedded in the drywall, but he didn't notice. "Aw, hell, Chris."
Forcing his emotions in check, he called the hospital first to request the records. After ten minutes of arguing, he said he would be there shortly to collect the films. He then packed a bag, called a pilot friend to charter a flight out, and then sat down to make the next series of calls. All five of his friends took the news as badly as he did, but each one of them said it wasn't true.
On his way to the hospital, Ezra's words came back to him. "Chris is too cantankerous and stubborn to die."
That was the right spirit to have. By the time he arrived at the airport via a stop at the hospital, the others were there. He told them what little he knew, repeating it several times, and the rest of the flight was spent in silence.
All Vin could think about was his friend. It couldn't have been Chris. It wasn't Chris. He just had to keep telling himself that.
Two long days later, even Vin was losing hope. The tests on the body could not determine one way or another whether it was Chris. Given the damage to the body, and that the remote lab was not equipped for the more detailed testing, the samples were shipped to the larger lab in Denver. With their usual backlog, the final results were not expected for a few days.
The bad news was they did find evidence of Chris's blood on the back of the seat. The blood workups determined it was his; but what was on the windshield where the person went through didn't match. It made no sense, just added to the mystery, but gave the others hope.
They found Chris's campsite intact, just like he'd left for an errand. The police had already been here and roped it off. No one entered yet because it was a scene turned over to the ATF. Vin checked the tracks around it, and the only bootprints there belonged to Chris. There were no other clues there.
None of the statements of the people working in the dry goods store helped much; they described what Chris was wearing and identified a picture of him. They also verified he had been in the store before the accident and that he was alone.
As each part of the puzzle didn't fit, Vin couldn't help but feel that something was dreadfully wrong. The body in the morgue wasn't Chris. It couldn't be; the blood type was correct, but the markers were different. Too many of the bones had broken, so the forensic specialists were having a hard time comparing Chris's films to the body. But they needed the official results to give an absolute determination that the body was not that of Chris Larabee. So far, officials other than Travis were hesitant to believe the gut feeling of his men, and the discrepancies in the blood test, that Larabee was indeed alive and they should broaden their investigation.
Each day wore on Vin, worry and uncertainty eating at him. From the scattered property down the embankment, Chris's gun, identification wallet, personal wallet, cellphone, and his pocket knife, the sharpshooter wondered why all of these things were loose instead of on the body. The physics weren't adding up. If the body went through the windshield and stayed pinned halfway while the truck rolled down the mountain, everything should have remained on the body. Others were trying to tell him that maybe the items were on the seat, but Tanner never knew Chris to carry either his wallet or weapon that way.
Vin refused to think of the person that had died as Chris, or as a person. If he only thought of it as a body, not the remains of a living person, he could objectify everything. Objectivity was the only thing keeping him on the fringes of the investigation; the others had already been kicked off for arguing and interfering. Buck wavered. Vin was worried about him. Buck usually held his emotions in check, being one of calmer ones in times of crisis. However, his emotions had never been so taxed before. Concern over the possible loss of one of his oldest and closest friends was keeping him on a tightrope. The rogue would rein himself in by his sheer stubbornness and his conviction that Chris needed their help. It was at night, when they were forced to rest, that they were sure he was finally going to fall apart. Especially when Buck was starting to drink himself unconscious.
They needed answers.
His head hurt. That was the first thing that struck him - pain. Trying to lift his hands resulted in even more agony, and he let himself fall back into nothingness.
He didn't know how long he'd been out; all he knew was that it was dark when he woke, and he couldn't see anything. Literally - everything was black. Taking a deep breath, his chest exploded in pain. Short, quick pants kept the oxygen flowing, but he felt dizzy and weak. That was followed by passing out again.
This time when he woke, he didn't move. He didn't breathe deep, twitch, blink, open his eyes, move, or anything. Just laid there like a lump and took a mental inventory.
Breathing - okay as long as it's not deep. Check.
Sight - Nope, still dark there. Maybe something over his eyes - blindfold?
Smell - he stank, and thinking about his smell made him nauseous. Moving on…
Legs - yup, can feel 'em. That's always a good sign.
Arms - two of them. Even better.
Fingers - they wiggled. Check.
Head - still attached. And announcing itself quite loudly.
Pain locations - Hello, pain.
By concentrating on the amount of pain he was in, all the little - and not so little - hurts he was experiencing rushed to the forefront and overwhelmed him. Darkness claimed him again.
Forget slow. He woke and sat straight up, intending to get the agony assault over with immediately and go from there.
He succeeded in banging his head hard against something, and excruciating torture filled him. His body didn't feel him fall back to the ground.
Now he was pissed and had to go to the bathroom. He stretched his feet out and the bare toes encountered solid rock. Moving ever so slowly, he used those appendages to check the areas within reach. So far, he was surrounded on three sides with rock. This was not good.
Giving a tentative sniff, a part of him identified fresh air - fresh being relative considering his own overpowering stench. He slowly moved one arm up his chest toward his head, discovering his ribs were rather sore. Using care to move, Chris methodically checked what felt like rock walls along his side. His hand encountered open air. Figuring he needed to see where he was, he worked his hand over to his face.
Fingers encountered material, and he pushed it up away from his eyes. It stuck briefly and tugged hard on the back of his head, bringing tears to his eyes from a pain localized there. When the tears cleared, he saw more rough rock above him.
How did he get here?
Stretching his memory, he remembered the dry goods store, and getting directions to the liquor store. So far, so good. When he got to his truck, he opened the door, and then -
Oh yeah. He got hit from behind so hard he lost consciousness. At least he thought that’s what happened; had to have been for the fuzzy memories of what occurred afterwards. When he woke, he caught the would-be assailant and thief trying to take his clothes. He'd swung, busted the guy's lip, and was in the process of throwing his hard left when the bat caught him in the ribs. That managed to piss him off more, and the fight was on.
Chris hated himself for losing, and a part of him realized that the other man took advantage of his earlier head wound by continuing to attack that spot and his ribs. No wonder his head felt like it needed to roll off his shoulders. Thinking back on it, he tried to remember his attacker. A body, tall and blond hair, slender build . . . almost like him he realized. It rankled him he lost to someone that he should have more than been able to hold his own with, much less subdue. He was a trained professional. Fat lot of good that did him.
But that was the past, and he needed to work on getting himself out of wherever he was to a phone. Then he could worry about taking care of whoever tried to do him in. Gritting his teeth, he tipped his head back, feeling the pressure on the wound sending immediate spikes of pain into his brain. Once the worst of it passed - he was not going to go unconscious again - he opened his eyes and looked.
He was apparently tucked inside a cave in the side of the mountain. Carefully pulling himself toward the entrance, not trusting himself to stand, he peered out and down, finding himself at least fifteen feet from ground level. Muddy tire tracks led away and around the rock face out of sight, and he could see some strange scrape marks along the rock wall just under the ledge he was on. Having done a little rock climbing himself, he noted the face was not a difficult climb. His head hurt enough though, that he wasn't going to ponder on how or why the suspect chose this spot to hide him instead of leaving him on the side of the road. There were plenty of handholds for him to climb down, but that wasn't going to happen right now. He was in too much pain to even attempt something that physical. Besides, the slope wavered several times while he stared at it - telling him he probably had a concussion. With the chill in the air, he'd need to feel a little stronger before trying to walk through the woods wearing only his t-shirt and shorts so graciously left for him by his attacker.
After emptying his bladder through some creative twisting and massive cursing, Chris tucked himself back into the hidey-hole he'd been shoved. If he'd been safe for however long, then he might be okay for a bit longer.
At least he hoped so.
It was his last thought before he passed out again.
Time had no meaning. He'd passed out, slept, and endured short periods of pain-filled consciousness for he didn't know how long. Chris finally figured either he was going to get weaker and die here, or he'd make a go of it in the wild outdoors, wherever the hell he was.
Brutal self-examination told him that he was probably going to die either way; his wounds being untreated for so long were probably infected; he was weak; and he didn't know his location. The odds of someone finding him in this hole were extremely slim; if he went for it on foot, he had a chance. A very small chance, but a chance nonetheless. With a kind thought to Ezra while calculating his odds of success, he went with crawling out and walking.
Chris managed to twist himself out of the crevice he'd been secreted in, and then worked to find the handholds with his eyes first. Looking down only made him dizzier, so he opted to feel his way down. The first couple of feet went easily even though the rock was damp. He smelled the soggy scent of stale rain in the air, so he lowered himself slowly.
After that, he grew dizzy. The more he tried climbing down, the more his sore ribs brushed against the rough stone, and pain became his constantly growing companion. Finally, it grew to be too much. He was dizzy and sore, and his foot slid in an unseen pool of moisture. Down he went, landing in a heap at the bottom.
That hurt, he thought to himself. Once the spots disappeared from his vision, the screaming agony that was his chest settled to a dull roar, and the unending torture in his head deadened sufficiently, he did another mental checklist of injuries.
Somehow, he'd twisted his ankle. Big surprise, idiot, he thought – that would be called falling. His tailbone hurt from landing on it, jarring his entire spine.
He was tough, he told himself. He could do this. Repressing as much pain as possible, Chris used the cliff face to pull himself upright, and then looked in all directions. What he found beyond the barely readable tracks was unending wilderness. Taking a few weaving steps, he noticed that the tracks faded and disappeared because it must have rained at one point during his periods of unconsciousness. Chris tried but he didn’t recognize any of his surroundings. Even being in the mountainous area the last few days and hiking over the terrain was not helping. He was well and truly lost, something that did not make his chances for survival better.
Far in the distance, he could make out a ranger watchtower, and that gave him a point of focus. As long as he could see the tower, he knew which way to go. Those towers usually had a way to contact others for help. With that goal in mind, he started limping that way.
It was hard going, and every part of his body screamed at him, but he was going to make it. Failure was not an option.
At the end of the day, his survival training came into full play. He found a hollowed out log to sleep in, bugs to eat, and a brackish stream. Chris chose not to look at himself, or think about his survival tactics, because it all came down to one concept – living.
The next day found him with a walking stick, but he continued his slow trek toward the tower. It seemed the same distance away as it was yesterday, telling him he had miles to go.
With resolution, Chris marched that way.
Marva Brighton loved her job. She was the primary watcher for the bald eagles in these mountains, and had names for all of those under her care. Having spent countless hours just admiring them, she'd learn their behavior patterns and habits. Not much ruffled her babies, but the monotony was one of the things she loved best.
Today, however, something was bothering them. They kept circling around one section of the forest, calling out to each other. Training her binoculars on the flapping wings above the thick copse, she saw a couple of carrion birds circling, with the eagles circling higher.
Something died, and it was big. The carrions never came out in those numbers unless it was a buck or buffalo. Shifting the glasses down into the copse, she couldn't see much. It was the policy not to interfere with the normal behavior of the birds, and one that Marva agreed with whole-heartedly.
It was then she noticed the copse dwellers were missing. That was a bad sign – usually they only disappeared when something foreign came into their woods. Perhaps a hunter had poached; it wasn't the first time. Deciding to get a closer look, Marva moved to one of the blinds built in the trees, careful not to leave a trace of her passing if she could help it. Some of the animals would already know she was there, but that couldn't be helped.
Setting up her video camera, she swept the area with the lens. Yup, something had died. It was the center of activity – and non-activity – in the copse. The carrions were trying to get to something, and in their typical fashion, fighting each other more than achieving their objective.
Marva sighed, focusing her camera on the object of so much attention. What she saw surprised her – it was a man. Grabbing her radio, she called in to the base station.
"I'm at the Grove. I have an injured man down. I haven't approached, but he's not moving. Start me the police and an ambulance."
Without waiting for a response, she slowly worked her way over to the fallen form. At her approach, most of the birds scattered, but one wasn't about to let his meal go. Shaking her head, she screamed at the top of her lungs, which was sufficient for the bird to leave. In fact, she heard a lot of wings flapping away from her.
"Ow," the form groaned.
"Oh My God! You're alive."
Marva saw all the dried blood on him, combined with the deep bruising on his sides. One of his ankles was obscenely swollen. Squatting down beside him, she touched his forehead once. "You've got a fever."
He didn't reply.
She brought her canteen around, dribbling some water into his mouth. "I radioed for an ambulance and the police."
"What's your name?" Marva knew the importance of getting as much information while she could; he didn't look good, and she needed to know who he was just in case the worst happened.
"Larabee." He swallowed and winced. "Chris Larabee."
"Chris, I'm Marva. I'll just keep you company until they get here."
"No more. It could cause problems for the doctors."
The man sighed. "Hell."
"I think you're on your way out."
Vin's cellphone rang.
"Yes?" He didn't recognize the voice, and not that many people had his number. Well, he'd given it to the main Agents here, but beyond that, it was a private number.
"This is Marva Brighton. Do you know a Chris Larabee?"
"Yes," he said cautiously. "Why?"
"I'm with him, and he wanted me to call you and have you meet him at the hospital."
"Which one?" Vin felt his heart start beating again; at least it was going fast enough to make itself known.
She told him, and he promised he'd be there shortly. Putting the phone away, he leaned back and let out a whoop. Grinning, he charged into the lobby of the hotel. "He's alive! C'mon boys, we gotta go!"
Six stunned faces stared back at him.
"What?" Buck asked confused. As the statement hit his tired brain, he rushed to his feet. "Let's go." He tossed JD out of his chair and headed for their rental van. "Explain on the way."
During the drive, Vin gave them what he knew, "A woman called me, said she was with Chris, and he was being flown to the trauma center. Chris wanted me called and gave her the number."
"What's his injuries?"
"Nate, I didn't stay on the phone long enough ta ask. Reckoned we wanted to get there and find out ourselves."
Six men stood and faced the doctor.
"I take it you're here for Mr. Larabee?"
"Go ahead, Doctor. I give authorization." As Chris's next of kin, patient information could only be given to him, and those he chose to inform. He wasn't going to keep any secrets from the others.
"Dehydration, five badly fractured ribs, a severe concussion that we're going to monitor closely, a broken tailbone, multiple infections, a sprained right ankle, along with a few minor injuries. He will be closely monitored, but he is in stable condition."
"A full recovery?" Nathan asked.
"Very possible with the right amount of post-care."
"Strict adherence to instructions and compliance with the medications I will prescribe."
"He'll do it, Doctor," Vin promised.
"Ya have ta eat," Vin told Chris. It was the sharpshooter's turn to watch over Larabee, and the team leader was proving stubborn, as usual.
Not that the stubbornness was unexpected, but it was starting to get harder and harder to keep Chris on bed rest while he recuperated.
"Fine. Get me something solid."
"Yer pills make ya barf anythin' solid."
"Tastes good going down." Chris smiled.
"So does the broth."
"Nah, that's Nathan's teas. The broth's bad beer."
"Even worse." Chris glared. "Ezra's fault I couldn't drink the stuff at the dry goods store. Gimme food."
"That glare won't work, cowboy, 'specially when I can toss ya around like feed."
"Go ahead and try it, cowboy." Chris growled a challenge, preparing himself for the attempt.
Lightning fast, Vin pinned Chris to the bed, though he didn’t try very hard and only used a mere fraction of his strength. "Don't mess with me, Larabee. I'll take ya down. Now, ya gonna eat yer broth, or am I gonna have ta pour it down yer throat?"
"Get off me." Larabee would not be accused of not trying to wrestle the slim form holding him down off him, but his strength barely made an impression.
"Gimme an answer."
"Texan pain in the ass." Chris growled giving a barely effective jab to the sharpshooter’s ribs.
"Yes or no?” Vin huffed.
"Fine, I'll eat it. Get off of me."
Vin rolled off. "I hate doin' that. Why do I have ta pin ya every time ya gotta eat?"
"Give it to me." Chris held a hand out for the broth.
Tanner handed it off. "I'm serious, Chris. We both know ya don't have ta act like a two year old when it's chowtime."
His friend sipped the broth,
and then lowered the cup. "Because I hate being
"We all do, pard."
Chris waved that off. "I know, I know. But if I fight each time, then I know I'm getting better."
"What kind of logic is that?" Vin stared incredulously at him. The room grew quiet while Vin waited, seeing Chris trying to find the words.
"You don't laugh at me when I try."
"Getting this hurt ain't funny."
"No," Chris said. "You don't understand."
Vin waited silently.
Taking a deep breath, then wincing, Chris said, "I had the choice up to either give up or take a chance on prolonging my death by leaving the protection of the crevice. I knew leaving would be harder, and probably more dangerous, but staying there wasn't true to who I am." He paused. "Who we are – fighters."
"Reckon we don't give up easy."
"I'm not giving up now. You know I don't fight Nathan and JD when they bring me food; that's because they're still treating me like I'm made of glass."
"Ya ain't. Yer tougher than that."
"I want to see how much I'm improving, and the only way to do that is to exercise."
"Makin' me pin ya ain't
"It is for me. I know right now I'm weaker than Buck surrounded by women, but each day that we tussle shows me how much strength I'm getting back."
"The others won't play, huh?"
"Nope." Chris grinned.
"Reckon I can push ya around fer a bit longer."
"Figure I'll fight back."
"Remember one thing."
Chris lifted a brow.
"Ya never beat me healthy." At that, Vin tried to duck out of the room before he wore the broth. Closing the door and letting it catch the half-full mug, he waited a few seconds, and then stuck his head back in. "Ya done makin' messes, cowboy?"
"Forgot ta tell ya one thing, cowboy."
Vin walked over to the bed and extended a hand. "Glad yer alive. Don't like pondering on believin' ya were dead." He closed his eyes and swallowed hard. "Just quit givin’ us such scares."
"You do the same." Chris clasped his forearm and squeezed.
They stayed like that, forearms clasped; staring at each other, easily reading the emotion in the other's face, but not a word was spoken.
For that short period of time, everything was right with the world.
One week later
"'Ey, Cowboy. Your look-a-like's been identified." Vin tossed a manila folder onto the bed.
"Who?" Chris flipped through the pages.
"Some jackass named Fredric Freudein. Wanted through Interpol. That's what took so long ta identify – he snuck in."
"Huh." Larabee stared at the photograph of the man.
"Looks a lot like you," Vin commented.
"He did, but now I'm an original again."
Vin snorted. "World can only handle one of you."